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General News    H3'ed 3/13/12

Deradicalizing Islamist Extremists

A project of eliminating terrorism as a language of death on this planet, whether at the behavioral or behavioral and ideological level(s), seems quixotic at best.   We have all lived in fear of terrorism, especially since 9/11, and various precautions have invaded and seem to have permanently altered our lifestyles.

Today's subject at the Rumi Forum for Interfaith Dialogue and Intercultural Understanding, in Washington, DC, encompassed Islamist terrorists, as much a source of chagrin and dread among their moderate coreligionists as the rest of us.   Dr. Angel M. Rabasa, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, a prolific author and expert who has studied terrorism for years, addressed a packed room, including many who had never been to the forum before (myself in this category).

Distilling a 250-page publication into a 27-screen Powerpoint presentation printed onto handouts, Rabasa's main focus was disabusing those already incarcerated for terrorist acts, of the ideology that underlies such atrocities. Studies were conducted in South and Southeast Asia as well as Saudi Arabia. The real pioneer of such deprogramming turned out to be Yemen, but that country lacked the resources to accomplish much, and the torch passed to the wealthy lands of Saudi Arabia and Singapore--Saudi Arabia having been indifferent until it was attacked by terrorists in 2003. To this day they have the most elaborate programs.

In that the kingdom is dominated by Wahabi Islam, a most extreme version of the faith, Saudi proactivism is remarkable but real, said Rabasa, though statistics were not available; He said that the country claims an 85 percent success rate, and that Indonesia, another locus of various versions of Wahabi, which spread there from Saudi Arabia, has reported approximately sixty success stories. The total number of terrorists in the preceding decade was estimated at 300 million, the approximate population of the United States.

There are two forms of eliminating terrorist violence: disengagement, which eliminates the behavior but not the ideology, and deradicalization, which eliminates   both. Clearly the first is easier to accomplish than the second, but is also more easily abandoned--for example, Rabasa, cited those prisoners released from Guantanamo who resumed terrorist activities once they returned home.

Deradicalization can occur at the individual or collective level. An individual might experience trauma from a particular incident of violence and break away from his peers. To sustain this productive alienation, s/he (but mostly men between the ages of fifteen and thirty) must find a new peer group and be equipped to acquire other amenities enjoyed by mainstream society, including a job, a home, and a family, Rabasa insisted, all of which should protect him from recidivism.

An entire group or organization can also be deradicalized, he continued, citing the Egyptian groups al-Islamiya and Islamic Jihad, as well as others in Libya.

The bottom line of deradicalization is, however, content in the Qur'an and hadith (words spoken by the prophet Muhammad), sacred texts that prove that violence is not the answer according to this religion of submission and peace.

In Indonesia prisoners are disabused of the assumption that terrorism is a solution by ex-terrorists rather than imams, who play this role elsewhere.

Collective deradicalization is more effective than at the individual level, said Rabasa. Respected leaders initiate the transition. The process must vary according to the culture of the individual or group, and local legal systems also impact what can and cannot be accomplished.

Rehabilitation, that is, abandonment of terrorist ideology, is most successful in areas where the movement is losing ground.

The capsulized presentation ended with some optimism. Terrorism is receding in some areas, including critical locations in the Middle East, and increasing in others. Al Qaeda is losing ideological ground.   With such diminution, disillusioned members desert the group.

In Europe, due to aggressive campaigns against terrorism and radicalization, there have been no successful attacks since 2005.  

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Marta Steele is an author/editor/blogger who has been writing for since 2006. She is also author of the 2012 book "Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols: The Election Integrity Movement's Nonstop Battle to Win Back the People's Vote, (more...)

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