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Counter Terrorism Strategy

Selling de-radicalisation to the public

In 2008, Time Magazine listed de-radicalisation as one of ten future revolutions and since then de-radicalisation programmes have proliferated across the world as a measure to counter and prevent terrorism. In short, these programmes have aimed to facilitate the abandonment of radical ideology and to reduce the risk of reoffending of participants upon their release from programmes. De-radicalisation had been referred to as a fad following the development of the first wave of programmes, yet despite early scepticism of whether the programmes were necessary or desirable, de-radicalisation programmes have continued to diffuse across the globe as a solution to deal with terrorism and violent extremism.

The rise of Islamic State in the Middle East and the upsurge in foreign fighters across the world triggered a push to developing de-radicalisation programmes – de-radicalisation has become global. And yet, the global diffusion of de-radicalisation has faced one challenge which has been neglected, namely what the public thinks about these de-radicalisation programmes.

In November 2019, Usman Khan murdered Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones at an offender rehabilitation conference in London. Khan had been released from prison in 2018 on license after serving a sentence for a terrorism offence and having took part in de-radicalisation programmes. The attack led to the effectiveness of de-radicalisation programmes being questioned publicly with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, following another similar incident in February 2020, questioning the extent de-radicalisation can work.

The two cases demonstrated how vulnerable the programmes were to public backlash, which has been a problem in other countries such as Nigeria. It also posed a potential conundrum for de-radicalisation insofar as its PR battle may be lost from the outset because it indicated that no level of success in its own terms, such as recidivism rates or evaluations, may not be enough to be successful in the eyes of the public. The public’s opinion of de-radicalisation programmes is important: community support is necessary to facilitate the important stage of re-integration; the extensive amount of resources given to de-radicalisation programme globally is due to political will and public support or acquiesce. Public opinion of de-radicalisation programmes matters to ensure the programmes are effective, yet these programmes have understandably not been concerned with what the broader public thinks. Yet the backlash that follows cases of recidivism raises the significance of considering how de-radicalisation is perceived and understood.

Attitudes towards de-radicalisation
To provide insight into this issue, we conducted an experimental survey to ascertain whether attitudes toward the rehabilitation and re-integration of terrorist offenders change if the programme includes or excludes de-radicalisation. The research provides indications of the public’s attitudes to de-radicalisation in comparison to a programme with a similar objective but without de-radicalisation, which allows us to isolate the effect of de-radicalisation on the respondents’ attitudes. The research found that a de-radicalisation programme increased support for the rehabilitation and reintegration of terrorist offenders by a low amount (although statistically significant). In other words, a de-radicalisation programme for re-integrating terrorist offenders may be supported more by the public than a programme which refers to disengagement and does not seek to change the offenders’ ideology.

However, we also find that while de-radicalisation increases support, it also decreases perceived effectiveness, leading respondents to feel it makes the country less safe and less likely to reduce the re-offending rate than if the programme excludes de-radicalisation. This paradox indicates that support for de-radicalisation is shaped by factors other than effectiveness and it presents practitioners with a dilemma insofar as the framing of a programme in terms of de-radicalisation may make the goals of the programme seem unrealisable.   

From a practitioner perspective, this trade-off between (slightly) increased support and decreased perceived effectiveness might be an opportunity or a constraint. Front-line practitioners may benefit from generating support for a programme among the wider public and at first glance it may appear that our study indicates that de-radicalisation would make people more willing to support the re-integration of foreign fighters. While we need to exercise caution on the generalisability of the findings, we can see this as potentially important where there is resistance to re-integration such as in Nigeria – arguably extensive framing of re-integration in terms of de-radicalisation can increase support at least relative to other measures.

However, it is worth mentioning that while de-radicalisation framing (in the label and content of a programme) may increase support for a re-integration programme among a potential ‘general population’, the impact of this treatment was relatively small and it cannot be assumed that a small increase in support would occur among sections of society most useful in delivering the programme and the most requiring support in order to facilitate reintegration. If de-radicalisation does not increase support among members of society who are integral to the success of re-integration, for example if it decreases support among communities whose co-operation is important, then framing a programme as de-radicalisation could be counter-productive.

Thus, in terms of generating public support, there appears to be a potential advantage in not using a de-radicalisation framing. Instead, framing a policy in terms of disengagement and desistance, while to some extent generating relatively less support, was more consistently supported and raised less opposition. De-radicalisation, on the other hand, polarised opinion. Once again the trade-off is dependent on which audience the practitioner is targeting – increasing general support among the population may be more desirable than the public thinking the programme works, although dropping the language of de-radicalisation when in engaging with target communities may be preferable.

Promoting de-radicalisation
Based on this research and an upcoming book on the media framing of de-radicalisation, several points may be useful in guiding how practitioners approach the PR of de-radicalisation programmes. Firstly, it is reasonable to expect a large amount of support from the public in general, there is no indication it is unpopular (although recently conservative UK newspapers have turned against de-radicalisation).

Secondly, governments tend to be shy about promoting de-radicalisation, leaving the media to pick up more critical voices, whereas newspapers where reporting is overwhelmingly supportive of de-radicalisation are in contexts where there is a clear effort by government, police and military officials to advocate de-radicalisation. Communications resources of de-radicalisation programmes rightfully prioritise reaching target communities however we would recommend that practitioners and governments be more open publically with their activities and to not fear a public backlash – in effect, its the fear of the public backlash and not selling de-radicalisation which makes the generation of public support more challenging.

Thirdly, the story of de-radicalisation needs to be logically consistent and more favourable narratives are better at making the targets of a programme ‘de-radicalisationable‘, emphasising their vulnerability and reformability. Fourthly, de-radicalisation is a hybridised concept – it pulls together rehabilitation and security and if promoted correctly it can mobilise support and resources toward the objectives of rehabilitation and recidivisim reduction.   

This article was written by Gordon Clubb, lecturer in International Security at the University of Leeds.

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