There can be no one-size-fits-all for deradicalisation

We need diverse counter narratives to deal with diverse personalities


A report published today by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) looks at the phenomenon of Western females travelling to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, and assesses the effectiveness of various counter-extremism programmes in rehabilitating them.

Last year, David Cameron announced that British jihadists returning from ISIS territory would be forced to attend deradicalisation programmes. This proposal demonstrates the problem with the government’s approach to extremism; it wants one size to fit all. The ISD report proves emphatically that it simply cannot.

When working with human beings we cannot repeatedly perform the same process and hope to get the same result. Nor can we use one method to address all types of radical behaviour (which is why there was such alarm when the government gave itself new powers to silence ‘extremism’.)

Erin Marie Saltman and Melanie Smith, who wrote the report, describe how:

“The broadest contention within, and between, de-radicalisation strategies is the question of whether or not the extremist ideology leading to violent extremism needs to be challenged, or if the focus should remain on social and emotional issues that serve to make an individual ‘at risk’.”

The prominent examples of radicalisation that they analyse in the report show that we need to combine these approaches. The factors leading to radicalisation are incredibly diverse and so must be met with equally diverse counter-narratives.

In the case of Zahra and Salma Halane, for example, there was the influence of an older brother who had gone to fight in Syria, combined with online pressure, but the girls were by all accounts well adapted and successful in British society. This is different to the experience of someone like Khaled Sharrouf, the Australian jihadi who had a history of drug abuse, petty theft and mental illness.

What analysts call ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors are present in each radicalisation process to varying degrees. A previous ISD report into the issue identified three primary reasons given by women for travelling to Syria and Iraq; grievances, solutions and personal motivations. Then there are the women who travel with a male partner, or with the intention of meeting a husband on arrival, where there may be direct coercion or important relationships that pre-date radicalisation.

Indeed, the fact that women are involved in this question at all has proved confounding for counter-extremism programmes. Until the last year, talk of jihadism has focused almost exclusively on men, with the ‘social and emotional’ approach looking at the lure of violence and the pressures of masculinity – a similar conversation to an older one about gang violence.

The sensational reaction in the press to the teenage girls who have joined ISIS belies a real sense of being wrong-footed. It is much more difficult to understand why women would want to join ISIS, given the group’s brutal treatment of women, and the phenomenon also suggests that the government needs to design much more nuanced prevention and rehabilitation programmes. Women and men play very different roles within ISIS, so their motives for joining are very different.

The government often lumps together Islamism and the far-right when speaking of ‘deradicalisation’ and ‘extremism’; the framework for the ailing Prevent strategy did so too. But the reality is that the recruitment of Westerners by ISIS is a unique phenomenon, partly because of the technologically sophisticated way in which it is conducted, and mainly because the ‘extremism’ goes beyond purely political ideology and requires a belief in martyrdom and an afterlife.

ISD describes how a Swedish deradicalisation programme employs staff trained in dealing with far right extremism and neo-Nazism, and how it works on the premise that individuals are attracted to extremist groups more ‘as a product of social and emotional conditions rather than being lured directly by the ideology’. This may be true in many cases – but not all.

This is why the most successful deradicalisation model examined in the report is one built on the idea of tailoring the approach to the individual. The Danish ‘Aarhus model’ uses an intensive mentoring system to engage with people in a meaningful and personal way. Saltman and Smith describe how:

“A mentor is selected for a case on the basis of the suitability of their experience with extremism. This mentor is expected to cater for the needs of their client and particularly in the early stages of the de-radicalisation process, provide support and guidance whenever needed.

“A Danish mentor who has been working with the programme since 2010, says that this guidance often comes in the form of ‘serious, philosophical, intellectual conversations, twice a week for two, three hours’.

“The Danish government requires in-depth knowledge of these violent extremist ideologies from its mentor, in order for them to effectively engage with their clients. Mentors place emphasis on making this religious and political conviction more nuanced. In theory, this encouragement of a more balanced viewpoint allows the individual to feel that their beliefs are compatible with existing as a Dane, within Danish society”.

Statistically, the Aarhus model has been a success, with the rate of men aged 18 to 25 leaving Aarhus for Syria decreasing from 31 in 2013 to just one in 2014. Its strength lies in the fact that it addresses both the underlying ‘social’ problems – feelings of alienation, frustration, exclusion – whilst also providing intensive exposure to a counter-narrative to the extremism narrative.

And unlike Prevent, which has been accused of making the Muslim community feel spied on, it is designed to improve trust between the authorities and the social circles in which extremists move.

Rather than devising blanket laws and mandatory programmes, the UK government must show that it understands the diversity of extremism by producing a diverse set of preventative measures.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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9 Responses to “There can be no one-size-fits-all for deradicalisation”

  1. damon

    But the UK has a different culture than Denmark, and that’s a problem. We’re not as liberal.
    Having a terribly soft and nuanced deradicalisation programmes is something we probably won’t do that well. It’s not easy. I’d like to see us pretty harsh on those that come back though and quite a degree of punishment handed out. Compared to the US, we don’t do that very well either though.
    I’ve seen some film of what goes on in Denmark, and as a Brit I thought like it looked like a very soft option for the people who had come back to Denmark. It smacked a bit of those mentoring programmes for getting people out of gangs, where former gang members go on to become mentors and have their status enhanced because of the street credibility they have because they are looked up to as having been gangsters.

  2. Patrick Nelson

    “Rather than devising blanket laws and mandatory programmes, the UK
    government must show that it understands the diversity of extremism by
    producing a diverse set of preventative measures.” Very true, but the radicalization needs also to be seen in its wider context if it is to be seen for what it is. Again and again we hear about personal factors and religious factors, whilst political factors across the larger part of the Muslim world are so often the elephant in the room.

    As a good number of these political factors were caused by our own past and present meddling though it is not such a surprise, but the truth is that the factors leading youths to go and join ISIS-Daesh are not all that much different from the factors leading them to go and join Kurdish forces, the IDF or in the past the Tamil Tigers or the Spanish Republicans. Youths identify with a particular group due to ethnicity, religion or ideology, they receive information that it in some way the group is struggling and needs help so off they go in their reckless enthusiasm. It’s not rocket science and its been going on for a long time.

    De-radicalizing Muslim youths from ISIS-Daesh should not be all that hard, however, as it is basically impossible to find any Islamic scholar not associated to that group, of any school of thought, who isn’t extremely critical of it. Furthermore from the returnees who have spoken out, disillusionment seems to be a pretty standard response with the actual Nazi like reality of the ISIS-Daesh experience.

  3. Tommo

    The religion is the problem.

  4. damon

    You seem to be very laid back about it. What about the ones who come back only when ISIS are beaten, or they just lose the will to stay out there? They can come back unrepentant and just carry on.
    Like the London taxi driver did or tried to do. I think its far better that he got 35 years in prison actually.

  5. Patrick Nelson

    I think the issue is what have they done? what have they been involved in? what are their intentions now etc? To find this out they obviously need intensively questioning etc ad whatever happens they all need watching, but every case is obviously unique. Put them in jail if they are convictable war criminals, but they still need to be de-radicalized as otherwise they will come out as dangerous as they went in.

  6. damon

    While I wouldn’t disagree with that, we can be terribly wishy washy in this country and have been very lax in the past. We allowed dangerous foreign islamists to live here amongst us, and as long as they weren’t thinking of attacking the UK, we left them alone. That turned out to be a bit stupid. We do have all kinds of dangerous and divicive people living here in the UK now. Just look at some of the people around Anjem Choudery. That one that was interviewed on Channel 4 news saying that he wanted to go and live in ISIS controlled Syria – and then did just that and sent photos back of himself posing with his baby and an assault rifle.
    People in Britain shouldn’t have to put up with people like that being their next door neighbours.

  7. Patrick Nelson

    I saw one of these Anjem Choudhary- Saviour Sect – Al Muhajiroun people in Baker street the other day – surrounded by his compulsory entourage of TV journalists. The media has something to answer for in irresponsibly giving their tiny little cult constant airtime to spout their views and thus irresponsibly introducing them to a whole generation of impressionable British Muslim youths.

  8. damon

    I’m in two minds about that. You can see people like those ones you speak of all over the place. They will set up their stalls in the middle of Croydon high street on a Saturday afternoon for example. Jihadi John used to do that in west London a couple of years ago. They aren’t all blood thirsty islamists of course, but some of them are pretty far gone and mental. Should we talk about this on the TV or ignore it? Islamism is quite mainstream in Britain now, but most of it doesn’t endorse violence. Does that matter? (I think it does).

    Even where Islamists are against violence – like at the Luton Islamic centre, we are still headed to a rather bleak future as this presence in England grows stronger.
    See Guardian story and video about the Luton Salafists here:

    Being secular myself, I’d always hoped that our society would become more liberal and secular, not religious fundamentalist.

  9. Patrick Nelson

    I wouldn’t worry too much. Muslims of any sort are only a tiny minority in Britain and the Islamists are a small minority amongst the Muslims. Personally I don’t
    think there is much chance of Britain being dominated by religious
    fundamentalism of any kind in the near future, indeed some sort of
    anti-religious fundamentalism often seems more likely if the youthful fans of
    Richard Dawkins are representative of the future.

    “Anglo-Saxon” secularity and liberalism have always meant giving people
    the freedom to choose how they want to live, dress, eat etc and of
    course whether they want to walk round in a T-shirt and jeans or a beard
    and turban. I don’t think that British liberalism is under threat half as much from
    religious and illiberal minorities as it is from a wider illiberal
    and anti-religious reaction to them. All that said I am a firm believer that ISIS and Al-Qaeda cheerleaders must be dealt with and the media should be discouraged from giving them a platform.

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