Countering radicalisation—pulling people back from the brink
10 Sep 2014|

Having written about the difficulties in understanding exactly why people become radicalised and involved in terrorist activities, it’s equally important to examine what can be done to reduce the likelihood of people becoming radicalised, and how to ‘de-radicalise’. During the mid to late-2000s, an increasing number of de-radicalisation programs emerged: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia, Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore and many European states all boasted programs to try and provide terrorists a pathway for disengaging. Such programs were seen as an essential element of a successful counterterrorism strategy.

Those programs can be crudely divided into two groups (although some are used for both purposes): those targeting individuals or groups already involved with terrorist groups, which look to rehabilitate individuals and reintegrate them into society; and those targeting individuals who are on the cusp of becoming involved in terrorist activity.

Essentially the programs contain a range of social, legal, educational, economic, and political measures specifically designed to deter disaffected or already radicalised individuals from crossing the line and becoming terrorists. Perhaps the most well-known amongst these was the Saudi Arabian Prevention, Rehabilitation, and After Care (PRAC) program which was aimed at former members of terrorist groups during their time in prison and after their release. It’s a multilayered approach that starts while they’re in jail participation in a program of structured learning. The program attempts to challenge their religious interpretations, increase their socialisation, and rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society. A range of personnel are involved including social workers, psychologists, and imams as well as the family of the ex-terrorist. However, the results were mixed and reoffending rates were frequently far higher than comparable data for normal criminal offenders. There were also questions raised about the data used to assess success, which was often based on anecdotal evidence of individual cases. To this day, governments struggle with methodologies for measuring the success or otherwise of such programs.

In the UK, the ‘Prevent’ strand of the Government’s counterterrorism strategy (CONTEST) seeks to counter militant Islamist ideology. One component of the strategy is the Channel process, which aims to provide support to individuals at risk of being drawn into violent extremism. It draws on existing collaboration between local authorities, the police, statutory partners (such as the education sector, social services, children’s and youth’s services and offender management services) and the local community. It has three objectives: to identify individuals at risk of being drawn into violent extremism; to assess the nature and extent of that risk; and to develop the most appropriate support for the individuals concerned. Referrals to the process aren’t based on an individual’s holding particular political opinions or having a commitment to a specific faith. Rather the indicators include ‘expressed support for violence and terrorism; possession of violent extremist literature; attempts to access or contribute to violent extremist websites; possession of material regarding weapons and/or explosives’.

The Channel program is based on the model of Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements which are already in place in the UK to manage the risk of sexual and violent offenders in the community. Since 2007, out of around 2,500 people referred, around 500 had been given support up until 2013. As part of a range of counterterrorism measures that David Cameron recently outlined, Channel has been placed on a statutory footing, meaning that anyone who is subject to UK terrorism prevention and investigation measures is required to engage with the program, which demonstrates just how important the UK Government believes Channel to be in combatting terrorism.

Despite the relative success of the program, with the changing nature of terrorism recruitment and Syria and Iraq proving such powerful magnets for its nationals, the UK is looking for new ideas in de-radicalisation efforts. It has now adopted a German scheme called ‘Hyat’, which engages the families of those who become radicalised to try and keep lines of communication in place, in order to bring them back from the brink.

Australia has just announced funding of some $13.4 million towards boosting community engagement programs which emphasise preventing Australians from becoming involved with extremist groups. That’s to be applauded. But before the money’s invested it would be wise to have a strategy of what the Government wants to achieve, and to ensure that it’s being spent in areas that have most impact. As yet, there’s no comprehensive strategy for this new four-year program of work—that should be a priority.

As I explained in my last blog post, more effort should be made in countering the recruitment narratives being used to great effect by IS and other violent extremists online and via social media. The government’s current focus in this area is on placing restrictions on access to those messages, images and videos. While that’s a valid approach, the difficulty lies in the problem simply resurfacing elsewhere online. It’s to effective counter-narrative activity that governments will have to turn their attention, in order to lower the impact of online radicalisation. Everything from strategic communications by government, to targeted campaigns to discredit ideologies and violence are important tools. Governments need to devise strategic communications policies relating to the countering of extremist messages on the Internet and social media, which includes politicians as well as the various arms of government talking with a common message which weakens the impact of the messages being retailed by violent extremists.

Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at ASPI and director of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user Andreas Eldh.