The 3-step guide to de-radicalizing jihadists
It might seem hard to believe but, according to psychological science, even the most hardened jihadists can be de-radicalized.
To understand how it is done involves appreciating how radicalization happens in the first place. The term is defined as holding and acting on radical attitudes that deviate from accepted norms. Attitudes, however, are malleable and susceptible to change. Individuals can be radicalized, de-radicalized and even re-radicalized.
It is one thing to observe that de-radicalization can occur, and quite another to understand how it came about. Simply put, de-radicalization depends on three Ns: need, narrative and network.
The first step toward de-radicalization involves recognizing the needs of jihadists, which shape their motives, beliefs and reality. Often we only see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe. Valid arguments, however strong, are can be utterly unpersuasive if they run counter to our needs.
The second step is to devise a narrative that acknowledges a person’s need for relevance and respect and provides a nonviolent means to address that need. That is why current de-radicalization programs in Muslim countries, or countries with significant Muslim populations, employ much more than theological arguments against violence. Programs in Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Iraq address detainees’ need for significance by providing them with vocational education, finding them jobs and, in some cases, even wives.
The third step is to recognize that the social network in which militants are embedded is crucial to their radicalization — and de-radicalization. People’s attitudes and beliefs are firmly anchored in the shared reality of their group. Radicalization occurs in a social context that is shaped by family, friends and charismatic leaders. De-radicalization cannot take place in a social vacuum, either.
Sophisticated de-radicalization programs such as those in Saudi Arabia or Singapore break the dynamics of militants’ groups by separating detained leaders and core members from their followers. They also make wise use of militants’ families, who are called upon to exert a moderating influence on graduating detainees, helping to prevent their slide back into extremism.
So what are the obstacles to de-radicalization?
One factor is the drop in militants’ self-perceived significance after leaving the battlefield. In our work with de-radicalized Tamil Tigers, for instance, the former militants often voiced the complaint that their new jobs weren’t as exciting—or “significance bestowing” — as what they did in their fighting days.
Another factor is a militant’s seniority in an organization. Leaders can gain a higher level of personal significance from the organization than foot soldiers. This can mean they are more resistant to change than their followers.
Resistance to de-radicalization may also depend on how much attitude change is necessary. Disavowal of all violence on moral or religious grounds requires a more profound attitudinal change than personal disengagement from violence, which can be done while still condoning it for others. Similarly, complete rejection of violence is more difficult to embrace than a limited rejection, such as that committed against other Muslims.
Abandoning fundamentalist beliefs that have been ingrained in one’s worldview from childhood requires the most far-reaching change, and hence evokes the greatest resistance. In short, it is crucial to determine what kind of de-radicalization is sought and what is realistically possible.
With thousands of militants detained in facilities around the globe and thousands more about to return home once the fighting is over, the issue of de-radicalization is more pressing than ever. Though the psychological principles of de-radicalization aren’t mysterious, their application requires skill, creativity and resources.
There is no better way to respond to this threat, however. Governments cannot “kill our way out of this mess,” as former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney aptly quipped, nor should they.
De-radicalization of militants is a global imperative that merits our utmost diligence and commitment. It is the quintessential challenge for our time.