Lessons in Deradicalization

CEP Senior Research Analyst


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In July 2016, British authorities sentenced radical Islamic cleric and propagandist Anjem Choudary to more than five years in prison for a series of pro-ISIS speeches he posted to YouTube. Now halfway through his sentence, Choudary is one of more than 80 extremist prisoners expected to go free in the coming months.

Under British parole rules, prisoners serving fixed prison sentences are “normally released automatically halfway through their sentence” and placed on probation.  According to the Guardian, more than 40 percent of the 193 prisoners sentenced for terrorism offenses between 2007 and 2016 will go free by the end of 2018.

U.K. Security Minister Ben Wallace has called on police to increase supervision of freed radicals and actively work toward getting them to “disengage” from extremism. The government has also made changes to the prison system to prevent the radicalization of non-extremist prisoners, including moving extremists into their own wing. Nonetheless, British authorities have warned that freed terrorist prisoners present an additional worry for an already overstretched probation system.

To ease this added stress, the U.K. should increase resources dedicated for deradicalization programs during the incarceration period and beyond. In June, the U.K. government unveiled its revised counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST). Within CONTEST is the United Kingdom’s Prevent strategy, a program designed to respond to extremist ideology, build relations with civil society groups, and provide support to prevent radicalization. Through Prevent, the government has funded sports activities, leadership development forums, discussions on current affairs, and other programs to boost communal engagement in combating extremism. The U.K. has also incorporated a mentoring program for those reported as at-risk of radicalization. But the strategy is largely focused on preventing radicalization. The issue of rehabilitation receives some attention but deserves much more.

Other countries have found mixed results in deradicalization programs, giving the U.K. an opportunity to review what has and hasn’t worked.

  • U.S. authorities convicted Minnesota resident Abdullahi Yusuf of attempting to join ISIS. After cooperating with authorities and participating in a first-of-its-kind deradicalization program in the U.S., Yusuf was sentenced in 2016 to time served and 20 years of supervised release, while continuing with the deradicalization program at a halfway house. While Yusuf returned to court in May 2017 for violating his parole by watching a documentary about western ISIS fighters, he has since returned to the deradicalization program.
  • In 2015, France initiated a deradicalization pilot program to enable convicts who have completed their sentences to meet with psychologists and other educators. Approximately 30 convicts have since completed the program, which can last between six months and two years. France opened its first deradicalization center, officially dubbed the Center for Prevention, Integration and Citizenship, in 2016. The center shut down less than a year later due to under enrollment, leading members of the government to label the program a “complete fiasco.” This past February, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe unveiled a new 60-point plan to combat radicalization that included new deradicalization centers, more quickly removing online propaganda, and separating extremist inmates from the general prison population to prevent them from radicalizing others. The plan has, however, received criticism from the Muslim community for not including lessons about a peaceful Islam.
  • Saudi Arabia has reported success in deradicalizing extremist prisoners with its Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Centre, which has claimed an 86 percent success rate among the 3,300 former jihadists who completed the program. Still, 12 percent of those who completed the program returned to terrorism. Former Guantanamo detainee Said al-Shihri graduated from the program and then went on to become a co-founder of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Indonesia’s National Agency for Combating Terrorism (BNPT) has designed multiple methods to address deradicalization, including mentoring programs with ex-radicals. Reformed Indonesian radical Ali Fauzi Manzi is a former chief bomb maker for Jemaah Islamiyah and the brother of one of the Bali suicide bombers. In 2016, he created the Circle of Peace Foundation, which runs an extremist mentoring program that focuses on deradicalization. Manzi has told media that only a former terrorist can properly address somebody else’s radicalization. He believes that the shared ideology and training in extremist networks create bonds between radicals, and that leaving their networks leads to fears of being socially ostracized or physically harmed. Manzi also promotes a continuing communal response after a prisoner’s release and explains that recidivism can occur because former radicals find themselves without a social or economic support network. The Circle of Peace Foundation has reportedly successfully deradicalized 37 jihadists since 2016.  

The pending release of some 80 radicals is not the U.K.’s only cause for concern. The country has reportedly thwarted one terror plot per month since March 2017. In April 2018, the number of people imprisoned on terrorist offenses in the United Kingdom rose to an all-time high of 441, representing a 17 percent rise over the same period a year earlier. The British government has also noted a 75 percent increase in the number of terrorism-related convictions over the past three years. With an increasing number of extremists entering the British penal system, active deradicalization must be part of the government’s strategy from the beginning, not just when a prisoner is approaching probation.