Is supporting disengagement from extremism an important part of a long-term response to terrorism and how should this be done?
It's hard to talk about deradicalisation in the face of appalling attacks, such as those in Barcelona, London and Manchester: calls for retribution are often louder than those raising the possibility of redemption. But supporting disengagement from extremism is an important part of a long-term response to terrorism.
Prominent voices such as Maajid Nawaz and Hanif Qadir who condemned the attacks, were themselves once involved in militant Islamist networks. Not only does this show it's possible to walk away from extremism, it illustrates that former militants can be important in the fight against terrorism.
There is also a pragmatic argument for deradicalisation. Compared with surveillance, incarceration or internment, it is a more cost-effective and long-term solution. Importantly, supporting disengagement also reasserts those liberal democratic values terrorism seeks to undermine, in ways that detention without trial does not.
How much do we know?
Historically, research has focused on understanding why people become involved in militancy. This means we know less about disengagement than we do about mobilisation processes. Nevertheless, knowledge is growing about why and how people leave extremist groups.
A distinction is often made between deradicalisation and disengagement. Deradicalisation is generally used to mean a change in attitudes or ideas that supports the move away from extremism, while disengagement refers to behavioural change.
A common assumption is that disengagement leads to deradicalisation. But this is not always the case, in part because the link between attitudes and behaviour is not straightforward. Many more people hold "radical" views than actually engage in violence, and some of those involved in violence don't hold strong ideological beliefs.
Why do people walk away from extremism?
The reasons people leave militant groups are varied and each story is different. Some are forced to quit because of arrest, others are supported by formal intervention programmes, but the majority walk away of their own accord, as one former extremist put it: "I deradicalised myself, really."
It's common to talk about push and pull factors that support disengagement. Push factors can include disillusion with the group, its leaders or ideology, burnout, or a feeling that violence is going too far. Pull factors might involve the desire for a normal life, or positive interactions with those outside the group. Even financial incentives can be influential.
However, there is much to learn about the ways these different factors interact and how they shape long-term outcomes. We also have a relatively limited understanding of when and why interventions bring about positive change.
What supports disengagement?
I've spent the last decade researching efforts to support disengagement from extremism, and the reality is often more complex than ideas of "push and pull factors" and "deradicalisation and disengagement" imply. Years of talking to those who work with extremists, and those who have been involved in militancy, suggest a different way of thinking about disengagement.
To support the move away from extremism, it's useful to begin by asking: what did they seek to achieve by being involved? Not just in terms of pursuing political change, but taking into account the full range of complex, interacting reasons why people become involved in extremism. From individual factors related to identity and a search for belonging, to a desire to address community experiences of discrimination, or sociopolitical issues like foreign policy and social injustice.
Once there is a better understanding of why someone became involved, it becomes possible to identify ways for them to achieve those same goals in pro-social ways. Instead of starting by trying to "deradicalise" someone by deconstructing their ideological commitments, this involves redirecting their initial motivation to become involved in the first place.
As one intervention provider who works with people convicted of terrorism offences and those considered "at risk of radicalisation" explained:
There's a war going on in our own streets, in our own community that we're addressing; so we're giving them that negative cause [that led them to extremism], and replacing it with a positive cause, and a justifiable one.
As well as working to redirect someone's motivation, it is important to try and develop resilience to people or events that might undermine any growing commitment to disengage from extremism. Finding ways for someone to reintegrate into wider society is also central to supporting positive outcomes. Militant networks often seek to isolate people from friends and family, so finding mechanisms to enable them to develop new networks and a broader social identity is crucial.
This work is not easy. There is often a gulf of trust between those involved in extremism and those seeking to support their reintegration. Sometimes, this proves impossible to bridge. It's also extremely difficult to assess whether and why interventions might be effective. Partly because few independent evaluations are publicly available, but also because it's not clear what "success" looks like. One probation officer I spoke to summed up this problem:
[Is] stepping somebody back from violent extremism to extremism, is that enough? Do you want them just not offending, is that enough? Do you want them to convert to become a Catholic? How far do you want to go, how far is enough?
What is clear is that there is an urgent need to develop a better understanding of how to support disengagement from extremism. Without underestimating the difficulty of engaging with those committed to political violence, as those who have turned away from extremism can testify, people can and do change. Given the absolutely devastating consequences of terrorism, refining our knowledge about how to influence and assess this process is as important as ever.