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Can you really “deradicalize” a terrorist?

After years of effort to prevent and reverse radicalization, the jury’s still out on whether it works.

October 24, 2019
an upsidedown AK47
an upsidedown AK47Illustration source: Wikimedia Commons

Malam Aminu is a slight, bespectacled man with a neat goatee and a disconcerting droopy eyelid that by turns makes him look sinister and then not quite all there.

When I first met him, in 2015, he was an inmate in Nigeria’s Kuje Prison, and one of the most senior members of Boko Haram being held in custody. He was also one of 41 subjects in a new experiment being conducted by the government.

Faced with a difficult war against insurgents in the remote northeast, Nigeria had decided on a new strategy to tackle extremism: a mixture of amnesty, demobilization, and reprogramming to whittle away jihadist recruits. The idea was to undermine Boko Haram through bloodless attrition, not just by slugging it out on the battlefield.

The program was designed and run by Fatima Akilu, a soft-spoken psychologist who had trained in the UK and the US. She drew on prison-based schemes under way in Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Australia, adapting them to Nigeria. The new approach involved changes across a range of policy areas: shifting the school curriculum to promote “critical thinking,” overhauling a sclerotic justice system, tinkering with the health services so that psycho-social care could be expanded.

“The solutions are as complex as the reasons for radicalism,” Akilu told me.

The most visible part of her strategy, though, was in Kuje. Directed at prisoners who were convicted or suspected terrorists, it aimed at more than just getting detainees to renounce violence. Its goal was thorough deradicalization: totally expunging extremist beliefs, values, and behavior.

This represented an immense cultural shift for Nigeria. Its jails are notorious for their neglect and abuse of inmates, but in Kuje’s “de-rad” wing—built with funds given to Nigeria by the European Union—the focus was different. The idea was to build a human connection between the alleged extremists—known as “clients” rather than inmates—and the wardens, who were retrained and renamed the “treatment team.” Their job was to assess the needs of the militants under their care, and to identify the most effective ways to deprogram them.

When I first met Aminu, he was dressed in a crisp white dashiki and seated in an air-conditioned classroom in a new wing segregated from the rest of the overcrowded and unsanitary jail. Here on the de-rad side, clients were treated differently. They could wear their own clothes and had access to a new mosque, a sports area, and properly equipped vocational training programs. Not surprisingly, they were roundly hated by the hundreds of long-suffering regular inmates.

“We try as much as possible to help them,” says Wahaab Akorede, the manager of the Kuje program. “We tell them we are not police or security—we’re doctors. That’s why it’s called treatment.”

Protect and prevent

“We try as much as possible to help them. We tell them we are not police or security—we’re doctors. That’s why it’s called treatment.”

Over the past 20 years, as detentions of terrorists have mounted around the world, a dizzying range of de-rad programs like the one in Kuje have sprung up in almost every major country. Authorities in Nigeria and elsewhere worried they were simply creating a revolving door if they released terrorists back into the community once their sentences had been served. Yet indefinite detentions, such those at Guantánamo Bay, weren’t a popular or legal way to deal with the problem either. So began the explosion of post-crime deradicalization schemes.

Prison-based initiatives vary, from monitored informal chats with a local imam (a technique favored in Victoria, Australia) to structured models like that run by the government in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi approach includes a prison-based counseling phase, rehabilitation therapy, and then post-release “after-care”—all touted as something of a gold standard.

Riyadh claims recidivism is extremely low, but independent researchers are skeptical of the official numbers: there have been at least 11 high-profile cases of participants who have returned to terrorism. Saudi methods have also been questioned. For a start, participants are usually low-level supporters of dangerous organizations rather than hard-core militants. The program is also focused on preventing domestic terror attacks. It may therefore turn a blind eye to the export of jihad abroad, which means deradicalization “is not truthfully being achieved,” wrote Tom Pettinger, a researcher at the University of Warwick, in a 2017 paper.

Other models, many of them in Europe, seek to prevent people from becoming radicalized in the first place. Britain’s Prevent program, for example, seeks both to educate communities on the risks of radicalization and to stage interventions. Public workers in schools, universities, and local councils are required to report on anyone who shows radical tendencies, a system that the government says has diverted more than 1,200 people from extremism.

A prison cell with an open door

Increasingly, though, prevention efforts have focused on the internet. The web is seen as a dangerous shortcut to radicalization, providing “a cheap and effective way to communicate, bond, and network with like-minded movement members,” says Daniel Koehler, founding director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies.

Looking at former right-wing German extremists, Koehler found that the perceived anonymity of the internet encouraged people to take more extreme positions. Being part of a radical echo chamber online “creates a kind of ticking time bomb: a rapidly decreasing amount of alternatives and options in combination with an increasing amount of ideological calls for action,” he says.

The argument is that the speed and saturation of online communication can easily accelerate radicalization. Stuck inside an information bubble, impressionable people are exposed to more and more extreme viewpoints until—finally—their activities shift to the next, horrifying level.

Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have been visible parts of this machine, driven in large part by ISIS, which has placed great value in its social-media operations. At the height of the “caliphate” in 2014, it had teams devoted to creating and uploading ISIS-branded propaganda from Afghanistan to West Africa in a round-the-clock news cycle. In 2014, there were estimated to be between 46,000 and 90,000 active ISIS support accounts worldwide, both official and unofficial, in a variety of languages.

Most attempts to stamp out radicalism online have focused on shutting down the accounts of those who preach violence: Twitter claimed to have suspended more than 1.8 million accounts from 2015 to 2018. This has been effective when done rapidly and consistently. The ISIS presence on Twitter has diminished in quantity and visibility.

But taking down social-media accounts goes only so far, and there are many platforms for extremists to inhabit. Twitter is merely “one node in a wider jihadist online ecology,” pointed out a study last year by British and Irish researchers on platforms’ takedowns of terrorist material. Pro-ISIS users also favor services like Google Drive, Sendvid, and especially Telegram, where group “owners” have much greater control over membership and access.

Online obsession

Attempts to control or ban extremists online are repressive rather than preventative, but critics also say they end up displaying the biases of platform owners and the media rather than focusing on where the greatest threat is. ISIS has received disproportionate attention compared with other jihadist groups, for example. And only recently, in the wake of atrocities like the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, has the far right attracted attention, despite years of increasing white supremacist activity online.

There’s also been a lot of attention and funding  for fighting online activity compared with other avenues for radicalization. One reason is the “relative ease of creating and quantifying social media datasets compared to other forms of field work,” wrote J. M. Berger, an author and analyst on extremism, in a paper last summer. Yet there are still no established causal links between online extremism and offline violence. A Unesco report in 2017 concluded that “social media constitutes a facilitating environment rather than a driving force for violent radicalization or the actual commission of violence.” And a review of 227 convicted UK terrorists concluded that the vast majority of online extremists don’t become terrorists. However, those who commit terrorist acts “regularly engage in activities in both [online and offline] domains,” noted Elizabeth Pearson of Kings College, London, in a 2017 paper.

“No one has a magic formula for deradicalization, like you might deinstall dangerous software.”

Finally, of course, there’s little consensus on where to draw the line between extremism and what’s merely offensive to some people or threatening to a certain group in power. That makes it easy for governments to suppress political speech in the name of clamping down on extremism—it’s how China justifies the detention of more than one million Muslim Uighurs, for example.

Learning from the past

Whether they focus on technology or ideology, many de-rad and disruption programs have encountered trouble in the long term. Nigeria’s fell out of favor when the government changed; it is now under the control of the military, with a far less strategic role.

In France, one early project was shut down amid protests from locals, and two other proposals have similarly struggled. Last year Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a fresh attempt at de-rad but admitted that the technocratic approach had been optimistic. “No one has a magic formula for deradicalization, like you might de-install dangerous software,” he said.

This has led some governments to lean on older, more trusted tactics. Radio and TV programming are long-established ways of encouraging behavioral change. From Bosnia to Mali, research-driven story­lines have been shown to slowly alter the values and behaviors of the audience. In northeast Nigeria, Radio Dandal Kura (“meeting place”) broadcasts phone-ins, education programs, and peace messages across the region. It has been successful, not least at getting under the skin of Boko Haram: the movement’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, released a video threatening its female presenters and calling them “prostitutes.”

The last time I saw Malam Aminu was in 2018. He was living quietly in a village in central Nigeria, having been released from Kuje—along with 14 other former jihadists—not long after we first met.

In the old days, he said, he believed that “if you were ready to use violence, you could achieve your aims.” He wasn’t radicalized by the internet, but by experience and outrage. He’d once been a senior commander in Boko Haram and a member of its shura, or consultative council. Now, though, he’d learned tolerance and knew how to listen to others’ points of view. Much of this he attributed to Akilu, the psychologist at Kuje. He also said the imams on the treatment team eventually got him to reconsider his views.

But he remained firm in his core beliefs. The poverty of northern Nigeria and the indifference of the wealthy had stirred him to action, he explained, and he still thought the solution was strict sharia, Islamic law. What he disagreed with was Boko Haram’s extreme violence. He had fallen out with Shekau, questioning his religious knowledge, strategy, and tactics.

But living outside the prison again, he felt abandoned by the Nigerian government. Akilu had privately paid for him to go back to school, but there had been no reintegration package from the government, not even a parole officer to report to. One day he was in jail; the next he had to fend for himself.

Six of the men who were freed from Kuje with him were “his boys,” and he stayed in touch. Three have since rejoined Boko Haram. He said it wasn’t necessarily ideological: one of them—a man I’d been introduced to in Kuje as “the Commander”—had been rejected by his family and was sleeping on the streets. His former comrades found him and persuaded him to rejoin.

Aminu said he would not return to violence. But his beliefs would still be considered radical by most. “It’s only because I’ve repented,” he told me. “[It’s] the reason why I don’t backslide.”

I couldn’t help wondering whether it wasn’t in fact Boko Haram that had left him.

Obi Anyadike is a journalist and researcher based in Kenya, and editor at large for The New Humanitarian.

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