Institute for the Study of Asymmetric Conflict

Aspects of Deradicalization

Arie W. Kruglanski

Michele J. Gelfand

University of Maryland, College Park

Rohan Gunaratna

Institute for Counterterroristm and Political Violence Research

Nanyang Technological University



Without getting enmeshed in the “mission impossible” of defining terrorism, most observers may at least agree that it represents a special variety of radical behavior. One sense of “radicalism” is “extremism,” and indeed terrorist activities, the killing of innocent civilians, flying planes into buildings, and blowing up trains, clearly qualify as extreme or deviant from the norms of most civilized societies. An important strategic objective in the struggle against terrorism is, therefore, the deradicalization of committed terrorists, and the prevention of the radicalization of potential recruits to terrorism. How can this objective be accomplished? A good place to start is by analyzing why terrorists do what they do, in other words, what motivates terrorists to engage in their radical behavior.


We assume that terrorist acts constitute intelligible behavior that has meaning to their perpetrators. The terrorists have a purpose for their activities. Their explicit goal is derived from a set of beliefs that comprises the terrorists’ “ideology.” The term “ideology” might imply a complex and profound philosophical world view. This need not be the case. A terrorism justifying ideology may constitute a relatively simple belief system, including a few bare bone ingredients: A grievance of some sort, that is, a sense that an injustice or a wrong was perpetrated against one’s group, a culprit, i.e., an actor assumed responsible for the grievance and a method, in this case terrorism, assumed to constitute both an effective and a morally warranted means of redressing the injustice, and removing the grievance. In case of terrorist leaders or ideologues, these notions may be embedded in a more complex system of cognitions, including various theological interpretations and philosophical arguments from which the skeletal ingredients are derived. The terrorist foot soldiers may not have the erudition or the intellectual ability to comprehend highly involved interpretations and arguments, yet they are likely to subscribe to the essential ideological beliefs as to the grievance, culprit and method mentioned above.

How then can one deradicalize terrorists? A simple, almost reflexive or instinctive response is to severely punish them by all means necessary. That logic underlies the “war on terror” waged by the US and its allies around the world and intensified considerably by the fateful terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11/2001. The problem is that such conception of total war, wherein victory is complete and unambiguous, does not readily apply to asymmetric conflicts involved in insurgencies and terrorism. Particularly difficult to defeat are terrorist movements that enjoy widespread support. Kenya, Algeria and Israel, for instance, are often cited as nations that achieved their independence partially through violence and terrorism.


This harks back to the issue of ideology: It is difficult to defeat ideas by force alone. Consider the currently salient threat of Islamist terrorism. Although only small percentages of Muslims in their various countries support violence, the actual numbers are considerable. In our national center for the study of terrorism and the response to terrorism at the University of Maryland (START) we have recently conducted public opinion surveys with representative samples in Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan, and found that the percentages of respondents who condoned violence against the American Military and American Civilians were rather small. However, these translated into very substantial numbers of people. Extrapolating from our samples, in Morocco 2.6 million people were supportive of killing American civilians, in Egypt 12 million, in Pakistan 8 million and in Indonesia 10 million. It is not implausible to assume that under the right circumstances these individuals could be eventual recruits to terrorism. Because they subscribe to the same ideology as the terrorists, under the appropriate circumstances they may be convinced to personalize the activities that the ideology prescribes. Indeed, terrorism researchers agree that active terrorists represent a tip of an iceberg, an apex of a pyramide the base of which are the supporters, or co-subscribers to the ideology.

Deradicalization or disengagement ? All of which underscores the importance of disabusing the committed terrorists as well as their supporters of the terrorism justifying ideology, that is, effecting deradicalization. By deradicalization we mean a change in people’s attitudes and beliefs entailed in the terrorism justifying ideology. Such change need not comprise a complete ideological make over. Though it would be desirable to get the terrorists and their supporters to abandon their ideology in its entirety, this might be difficult to accomplish, so one might need to prioritize. Clearly, the most burning issue is the threat of violence and mayhem that engagement in terrorism represents. In this sense disengagement from violence, or recognition that violence is illegitimate or ineffective is, in our view, a crucial element of deradicalization. Indeed, most extant deradicalization programs, described subsequently, stress disengagement from violence and alternative methods of redressing the alleged grievance, rather than denying the validity of the grievance, or denying that the identified culprit is in fact responsible for the injustice represented in the grievance. Thus, while some authors (Bjorgo & Horgan, 2009) draw the conceptual distinction between deradicalization and disengagement, we adopt the perspective that disengagement could be seen as (an important) part and parcel of deradicalization.


Deradicalization Programs


By deradicalization programs one typically means programs carried out in detention centers of various Muslim countries. [1]Several such programs have existed including the well known ones in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Singapore, Egypt, Indonesia and Iraq. The concept of a prison based deradicalization program is rooted in the crime metaphor of terrorism (Kruglanski, Crenshaw, Post &Victoroff, 2008). In the same way that the penal systems in numerous states are attempting to rehabilitate prison inmates, and turn them into law abiding citizens, governments and nongovernmental organizations are attempting to deradicalize terrorists. In fact, the deradicalization programs are often referred to as rehabilitation programs (for instance in Singapore, the deradicalization process is carried out by an organization referred to as the Religious Rehabilitation Group). This terminology can be offensive to inmates at detention centers[2] because it equates the altruistic struggle that members of terrorist organizations believe to take part in with the fundamentally egoistic (greed based) activities perpetrated by mere criminals.


Ideological elements in deradicalization programs. Indeed, the overlap between deradicalization programs and criminals rehabilitation programs, while present, is only partial. A major difference is that unlike rehabilitation programs, the deradicalization programs contain a major ideological component. Because a large majority of those programs is aimed at Islamic detainees, whose motivation derives at leas in part from their religious beliefs, the deradicalization programs engage the detainees in a dialogue with moderate Islamic clerics (ulama) who attempt to dissuade them from the extremist interpretation of the Q’uran and the Hadith.

For instance, Yemen’s de-radicalization program was based on the “Committee for Dialogue” in which Muslim scholars engaged suspected members of al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda sympathizers in regular religious dialogue to discuss basic concepts and ways in which the prisoners may have strayed from the spirit and letter of the Quran (Stracke, 2007, Al Hitar, this volulme), in particular reference to the concept of armed jihad.

Simiarly, the Saudi program was carried by Committees of Muslim scholars recruited by the Saudi government (Al Hadlaq, this volume, Boucek, this volume). The ensuing religious dialogue emphasized three main points: (1) that Islam is against violence, (2) that the detainees’ interpretation of Islam is erroneous, (3) that only state-approved Muslim leaders have the necessary knowledge and qualifications to interpret the Q’uran (Stracke 2007). Of course, the state-approved clerics’ interpretation of Islam highlights the values of tolerance and peace that are central in Islam (Boucek, 2007, this volume). Iraq with the help of US forces created a de-radicalization program similar to the de-radicalization program in Saudi Arabia, specifically including the religious dialogue component focused on the correct interpretation of Islam.

Indonesia’s de-radicalization program contains an ideological part consisting of three main points: (1) acts of violence are unacceptable because they compromise the image of Islam, (2) the Q’uran views the killing civilians as unacceptable and unjustifiable, (3) the Indonesian authorities are not anti-Islam (i.e. the presumed culprit assumed responsible for the grievance isn’t really culpable).

In Singapore, the community based Religious Rehabilitation Group RRG aims to rehabilitate the Jemmah Islamiyah detainees (Gunaratna & Bin Mohamed Hassan, this volume). To accomplish that goal members of RRG carried out an extensive analysis of the JI interpretation of Islam and offered credible scholarly answers to the extremists’ arguments. The religious rehabilitation and counseling sessions were initially reserved for the detainees only but were expanded to include immediate family members.

            The motivational substrate of deradicalization: The role of negative and positive emotions. Accepted psychological knowledge suggests that intellectual arguments, however skillfully argued and articulated, are likely to be resisted and to fall on the proverbial deaf ears if not accompanied by a motivational and emotional readiness to be open to such arguments. The minds, in other words, can only be changed if the hearts are ready to accept the change. What might be the motivational and emotional elements that prepare the detainees to change? Two categories of such elements can be identified based on negative and positive emotions. By negative emotions we mean the suffering and emotional costs of life as a detainee. It is not an easy life to be sure. The severe limitations on one’s personal freedom, the separation from one’s family and friends, the lack of future prospects, the spatial confinement all exact their toll. Interviews with former terrorists of different ilks, whether they be members of the Brigade Rosse, or the Provisional IRA, or Germany’s Red Army Faction reveal that the costs and sacrifices involved in the life of a terrorist are hard to bear and gradually may prepare one to listen to arguments against one’s former ideology. The same is likely to be true of detainees suspected of terrorist activities.

            Apart from the negative emotions stemming from one’s suffering in detention, positive emotions too may ready one’s mind for the acceptance of arguments against one’s extremist ideology. By positive emotions we mean among others the feelings of appreciation and gratitude to the prison authorities and the deradicalization agents for humane empathetic treatment and for taking care of the detainees families (wives and children) that often find themselves in difficult situations while the major breadwinner is imprisoned. In apparent recognition of this fact, several of the deradicalization programs have incorporated elements of care for the detainees’ families and children.

Thus, the Saudi program, in addition to reeducation and psychological counseling of the prisoners, makes a concerted effort to prevent hardship for their families (Al Hadlaq, this volume). For example, if income is lost due to imprisonment, the program may provide the family with a supplemental income. Health care for the family and schooling for the children may also be provided. The Saudi effort also enlists social forces to prevent relapse by holding family members accountable for the released prisoners’ behavior (Boucek, 2007; this volume). The Singapore program too, provides support for the families of JI detainees including financial assistance whenever necessary. Muslim organizations provide financial assistance to families who have lost income due to imprisonment of the breadwinner. Trained counselors also make regular house calls to the families to offer counseling and assistance. The Indonesian program provides financial assistance to families of detained terrorists to cover housing and costs associated with the education of the children (Sheridan, 2008). So did the deradicalization program in Iraq carried out under the command of General Douglas Stone (Stone, this volume). The Yemeni, the Saudi, the Singaporean and the Iraqi deradicalization programs included assistance to released detainees aimed at reintegrating them into society. If properly implemented, all the above elements should fuel the positive emotions of the detainees toward their captors and increase their readiness to listen and be convinced by the intellectual arguments contained in the ideological discussions that deradicalization agents carry out with the detainees.

In this context, it is also important to stress that the forceful approach, and in particular the military option if excessively applied spirit often fuels rage of terrorists and their supporters. Research by Kaplan et al. (2005) finds, for example, that targeted assassinations of leaders of Palestinian terror organizations boosted the recruitment to terrorism, In our own work, Kruglanski & Sharvit (2010) we found that targeted assassinations of major Hamas figures resulted in a short lived spike in the frequency of terrorist attacks. Thus, the use of force that causes the deaths of innocents may create an emotional state that fuels the resistance to deradicalization arguments.


Motivational obstacles to deradicalization. There are also motivational forces that induce a resistance to deradicalization efforts. The specter of being rejected and despised by one’s comrades, and perhaps facing the possibility of retribution from members of one’s erstwhile organization may constitute a potential negative motivational factor reducing the likelihood of accepting the de-radicalization arguments. Furthermore, the status and respect one received from one’s peers within the radicalized organization might be lost if one abandoned the organization’s ideology. For that reason, the motivational barrier to convincing high status figures in the organization might be greater than the motivational barrier to convincing low status figures in the organization that stand less to loose by deradicalizing than the high status figures.


Psychological differences between the deradicalization programs. The various deradicalization programs launched thus far have differed in their approach to the deradicalization process in terms of their policies and the circumstances of their application. One potentially important difference is whether deradicalization efforts have aimed at the detainees’ leaders, or their followers, i.e. the suspected foot soldiers of the terrorist organizations. For instance, in Egypt major instances of deradicalization occurred in a top down fashion (Ashour, 2008). Thus, leaders of the Egyptian Al Jemmaah Al Islamiyah (Islamic group, or IG) renounced violence in 1997 and carried out extensive tours of Egyptian prisons to exhort their followers to pursue their objectives in a peaceful manner. This process appears to have been quite successful: The leaders followed up their efforts with no less than 25 volumes (titled, Tashih al-Mafahim or Corrections of Concepts), arguing on religious grounds that terrorism and the use of violence against civilians and foreigners is prohibited by the Q’uran. Success of this effort is also attested by the fact that since 1999 there have been no recorded instances of terrorist act on part of members of this organization. Similarly, in 2007, former Emir (commander) of the Al Jihad group (AJ) of Egypt (1987-1993), Sayid Immam Al Sherif (Dr. Fadl) deradicalized an authored a volume titled Document for Guiding Jihad in Egypt and the World. Along with other Al Jihad leaders, Al Sherif then conducted a tour of prisons to convince the organizations members to denounce violence.

A successful deradicalization based on a top-down approach also occurred in Algeria where the Islamic Salvation Army (Arme Islamique du Salut) (ASI) successfully deradicalized in the period between 1997-2000, whereas the Armed Islamic Group, (Groupe Islamique Arme) GIA did not deradicalize as successfully (Ashour, this volume). According to Omar Ashour (2008) “The AIS had a consolidated, charismatic leadership that was willing to deradicalize. That leadership was influential enough to disarm the 7,000 militants that made up the organization, without causing any splits, as well as influencing several hundreds militants from other smaller militias and factions. The GIA did not have this type of leadership …Additionally, the AIS was able to interact with other armed organizations, FIS factions, moderate Islamist figures and political parties to support de-radicalization and reconciliation. The GIA had very limited interactions with the “other.” (Ashour, 2009, pp. 3-4). [3] [4]

Thus, there is a sense in which deradicalization from the top down appears effective in that the leaders of the terrorist organization or movement, once they deradicalize, may influence their followers to deradicalize as well, this effect depending on the leaders degree of social power or the degree to which they represent “epistemic authorities” for their followers. It also is plausible, however, that the leaders are more entrenched in their ideological positions, and more emotionally and motivationally invested in them than the followers. In that sense, it may be more difficult to get the leaders deradicalize than it is to deradicalize the followers. Indeed, it may be partially for that reason (though also because the terrorist leaders may be accused of more serious crimes hence to constitute unlikely candidates for a release from the legal standpoint) that major deradicalization programs, such as the Saudi one, or the Iraqi one, focused their efforts on detainees who committed minor terrorism related offenses leaving major terrorist figures out of the programs’ purview. This analysis suggests a trade off: It may be more difficult to effect a deradicalization of major figures in the organizations than to effect the deradicalization of minor members, but if the major ones do deradicalize the effect may spread or “trickle down” to the followers. Also, if the leaders deradicalize—the effect is likely to last because there would be no one to re-radicalize them. In contrast, if the followers de radicalize, they are likely to fall again under the influence of the leaders and re-adopt their extremist views. Thus, if one aims the deradicalization efforts at the minor figures it is important to remove them, following their release, from the sphere of influence of their leaders and insert them into social networks governed by ideologies and norms of moderation.


Detainee deradicalization in perspective. As noted earlier, the term deradicalization programs denotes interventions carried out in prisons and detention fcilities, and is modeled in part on the penal model of inmate rehabilitation. However, unlike typical rehabilitation programs, a key aspect of deradicalization program consists of an effort to bring about an ideological change, and get the detainees to abandon their terrorism justifying beliefs. Because the extremist ideology that the terrorists subscribe to is a communal ideology often widely shared in the community, the deradicalization programs aimed at detained terrorism suspects should form only part of a larger effort aimed at counteracting extremism in the community at large. Such effort should attempt to inoculate community members against the potential appeal of extremist ideas and to familiarize them with counterarguments to extremist propaganda. Efforts in this direction are ongoing in a number of states with significant Muslim populations.

Thus, to educate the Muslim community, the Singapore government called for Muslim community leaders and scholars to speak out against the JI plot and ideological extremism. The JI plots and ideological extremism were quickly condemned by Muslim organizations. As a symbol of solidarity, 122 Muslim organizations came together to issue a public statement condemning terrorism and rejecting ideological extremism (Hassan, 2007). In September 2003, Muslim scholars organized a gathering to discuss ways to combat terrorism. The gathering resulted in a book entitled, “Moderation in Islam in the Context of the Muslim Community in Singapore.” The book argues against ideological extremism and the violence it condones and provides a guide for the Singapore Muslim community to follow to promote a moderate Islam.

The Philippines Human Security Act (HAS) 2007 recognizes that in addition to the use of military and police forces terrorism has to be addressed by implementing “soft” means that address root problems fueling individuals’ readiness to embrace terrorist ideologies. Specifically, the HAS states:


The State recognizes that the fight against terrorism requires a comprehensive approach, comprising political, economic, diplomatic, military, and legal means duly taking into account the root causes of terrorism without acknowledging these as justifying for terrorist and/or criminal activities. Such measures shall include conflict management and post-conflict peace-building, addressing the roots of conflict by building state capacity and promoting equitable economic development.


In the Philippines, the soft approach has focused on creating opportunities for Christian and Muslim communities to engage in a constructive dialogue with each other (Kruglanski, Gelfand, Floriano, Avilla & Gunaratna, 2010). The latter approach has comprised inter-faith dialogues such as organising bishop-ulama conferences, apart from medical aids and construction of infrastructures such as schools and roads. Since 1996, the bishop-ulama conference has held dialogues on a quarterly basis. Today, inter-faith dialogue is quite popular and perceived as a means to promote peace. In addition, the Philippine government has attempted to incorporate the Muslim madrassas into the overall educational system, and to promote a series of programs for Muslim youths intended to familiarize them with moderate ideas and to lead them away from extremism. Similar initiatives have been undertaken in Saudi Arabia, and the UK.

Nonetheless, the deradicalization of detainees should probably constitute an important ingredient of the overall deradicalization efforts. Deradicalized members of terrorist organizations, especially ones who held leadership positions in the organization, may constitute particularly influential “epistemic authorities” whose opinions and experiences may carry particular weight in deradicalizing their comrades, and in carrying the anti-radicalization message to the community at large.

            Evaluating deradicalization. Because of the considerable potential significance of de-radicalization processes, and because they have been ongoing over the last decade, this topic has received appreciable amount of discussion and commentary from terrorism experts and scholars interested in the topic. Though often insightful and sophisticated these commentaries have rarely rested on a systematic empirical analysis of the factors that may contribute to or impede the success of de-radicalization attempts. We have recently commenced such empirical research informed by those prior analyses and commentaries, and is building upon their insights. Its main purpose, however, is to address a gap in current knowledge by providing the missing empirical data concerning a variety of issues related to de-radicalization.

            Specifically, our investigative efforts will be twofold: (1) we will conduct a quasi experiment involving a before after control group design and based on surveys administered at several points in time over the course of the de-radicalization effort with detainees suspected of terrorism who are exposed to de-radicalization process in the Philippines and in Sri Lanka, (2) we will administer implicit measures of attitude change to assess the possibility that the explicit questionnaires are subject to social desirability response biases. Specifically, we will administer the explicit and the implicit measures to detainees who will receive the deradicalization treatment group and to a control group of similar detained terrorism suspects imprisoned in a different facility and not presently subjected to the de-radicalization process. We have piloted the study in the Philippines and are refining the measures to administer it in a full scale evaluation program in this location. The ultimate aim of our project is twofold: (1) identify the correlates and predictors of successful and unsuccessful deradicalization, (2) develop a reliable deradicalization metric with acceptable psychometric properties allowing investigators and practitioners to assess the attitude change in the ideological content domains targeted by the deradicalization efforts.


Concluding Comments


            In the present analysis of the deradicalization process, we have assumed that the ideological struggle against extremism constitutes an important long term project in civilized nations’ attempt to eradicate terrorism. Deradicalization programs in prisons and detention centers may play a potentially important part of that overall anti-radicalization effort that should embrace the community at large. Psychological theory and empirical evidence suggest that deradicalization can occur. In the same way that individuals radicalize they may deradicalize. Successful instances of deradicalization in Egypt and Algeria attest to that. Of particular importance at this point is the task of evaluating deradicalization. Without careful empirical assessment we might not know what factors facilitate the process and which impede it. Carrying out of the needed research may afford the design of optimal deradicalization programs and the identification of best deradicalization practices to be shared within the international community. Both the deradicalization programs as such, and the program assessment efforts require considerable investments of funds and organizational resources for their full fledged implementation. Whereas some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, possess the necessary resources for that purpose, other states (e.g. Afghanistan or Pakistan) that are at a significant risk of radicalization may not. Because of the likely importance of the de/anti radicalization efforts in the strategic struggle against terrorism it would be desirable if the international community and its institutions became involved in the deradicalization project and provided the resources needed for its proper administration and assessment.

            The various chapters in this volume contain useful descriptions of several deradicalization programs past present and future. These programs differ on various dimension reflecting the specific cultural and ideological contexts where in they were implemented, as well as the logistical and financial constraints which such implementation must confront. Because the central aim of all deradicalization programs is to effect psychological change in the individuals involved, understanding the principles of such change is of essential importance as is the understanding of how these may be best expressed in specific cultural circumstances. Psychological knowledge should inform the design of the deradicalization program and their continual assessment. The battle of hearts and minds is real, it is global, and it is key to ultimately defeating terrorism. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Psychology could help.











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[1] Recently a deradicalization program was launched also in Sri Lanka among members of imprisoned members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam organization (LTTE).

[2] This point was explicitly conveyed to the authors by detained members of the Abu Sayyaf organization at the Bicutan prison in Manila.

[3] The comparison between the AIS and the GIA includes two confounded components. The AIS had a more powerful and influential leadership than the GIA, and second the AIS was more prepared to deradicalize likely because of its initially more moderate, less extreme position.

[4] Admittedly, the deradicalization in Egypt and Algeria didn’t occur in a framework of an organized program, and it isn’t clear what it would take to accomplish the top down process in the context of a detention center.