Can We Reintegrate Extremists into Society?on 15 January 2015
By Sarah Marsden
A striking feature of recent jihadist attacks is that most of the perpetrators were well known, both to the security services and to the criminal justice system. Sydney hostage taker, Man Haron Monis was previously on a security watch list and had been charged with numerous offences, both political and non-political. Michael Adebolajo, one of Lee Rigby’s killers, was arrested in Kenya suspected of trying to reach Al Shabaab in Somalia, and was allegedly repeatedly approached by MI5 on his return to the UK. Cherif Kouachi had been in prison for helping to send people to fight with al-Qaeda in Iraq, and he and his brother, Said, were under surveillance until relatively recently.
Inevitably, questions have been asked over whether this knowledge, if handled differently, would have been able to prevent the attacks. Typically, such questions have been directed at the security services. However, as well as asking whether there have been security failures, it is important to ask whether these attacks represent a different missed opportunity: one of resettlement.
Commonly referred to as ‘deradicalisation’, the rehabilitation of those involved with terrorism has fallen in and out of favour. From being described as one of the ‘10 ideas that are changing the world’ by Time magazine in 2008, more recently it’s been characterised as ‘a bit of a fad’ by experts. What is clear, however, is the ongoing need for mechanisms to engage effectively with politically motivated offenders. With significant concern over returnees from Syria and Iraq and the increasing number of people being released from prison after convictions for terrorism, the need for effective ways of addressing this issue is acute and growing.
The question is: how should Western states deal with those suspected, and convicted of involvement in terrorism?
For those proven to have been involved in terrorism at home, or overseas, the immediate answer is straightforward: they are prosecuted, sentenced, and imprisoned. The UK’s approach to reducing the risk of attacks from those who have travelled overseas but whose actual involvement in terrorism is unproven is less straightforward. Proposals recently floated include forcing people to attend ‘deradicalisation programmes’; strengthening the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIM) regime; and banning British citizens from leaving or returning to the UK if they are suspected of involvement in terrorism. For those found guilty of terrorist training, the imposition of life sentences has reportedly been mooted.
Significant concerns have been raised about some of the proposed measures, not least the legality of potentially making British citizens stateless, and according to Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, at risk of “torture or further radicalisation” overseas. These are legitimate concerns, however, there is a broader issue about how we approach the question of both returnees and ex-prisoners, that is, the position of the individual in relation to wider society and the opportunities this provides for successful reintegration and the potential for ‘deradicalisation’.
Wrapped up in the ‘deradicalisation’ construct are a number of assumptions that warrant unpicking. First, is that it locates the problem ‘in the head’ of the individual, generally in the ideology and beliefs assumed to underpin their offending. An effect of this is a tendency to look for specific indicators of risk, such as attachment to ideology justifying violence, or consumption of extremist material. Whilst these are not irrelevant, atomising measures of risk in this way fails to approach the individual holistically, something recognised as important in supporting desistance from ‘ordinary’ crime. Neglecting the interconnected features of an individual’s internal life, their interpersonal relations, and their interaction with civil society, overlooks the complex interplay of internal and external influences on behaviour.
Second, by focusing so heavily on the individual, ‘deradicalisation’ – in common with dominant approaches to resettling non-politically motivated ex-offenders – fails to take account of the context into which the individual is being reintegrated. As well as willingness on the part of the ex-prisoner, there has to be an acceptance on society’s part to allow them to re-join society. Without this, ex-prisoners find themselves on the periphery, required to (re)integrate but stripped of many of the mechanisms that might make this possible. Finding employment, for example, is difficult for many ex-prisoners, it is much harder for ‘former terrorists’, with the far greater stigma the offence carries. Increasingly vitriolic rhetoric about a ‘cancerous’, ‘fifth column’ of Islamists wishing to undermine ‘our civilisation’ not only puts barriers in the way of positive relations between identity groups, it also reduces the space those convicted of terrorism might be able to reintegrate back in to.
Ultimately, the state’s responsibility to protect the public from further attacks will be supported by working hard to successfully reintegrate the very small number of people who believe violence is necessary to bring about political change. There are no easy answers to this; we know comparatively little about what promotes successful disengagement from terrorism. Nevertheless, as recent events have shown, there are opportunities to intervene when individuals involved in extremism come to the attention of the criminal justice system. Efforts have been made in this direction. Agencies across Europe have instigated ‘deradicalisation’ initiatives. Denmark has developed a particularly innovative approach, delivering social support to returnees from Syria aiming to facilitate their reintegration back into society. Only time will tell whether this is effective, however, it represents a promising alternative to the more punitive model at work in the UK.
It’s hard to talk about reintegration in the wake of the horrendous violence we saw in Paris, but it is necessary. Although those guilty of the worst crimes will be imprisoned for many years, a small but significant number convicted of less serious offences – of training or facilitating terrorism – will be released much sooner. Alongside this bald fact, is the responsibility the criminal justice system has to punish and deter, but also to rehabilitate. Together this means the question of how to successfully reintegrate those convicted of terrorism offences has to be faced. If the aims of long-term desistance from politically motivated offending and protecting the public are to be achieved, the sooner the process of reintegrating people back into society begins the better. Imposing life sentences for less serious offences, ignoring the significant barriers faced by those convicted of terrorism offences, and banning people from returning to the UK is not only resource intensive and short-termist, it is also potentially counterproductive. Instead, an individualised, holistic approach to reintegration, sensitive to the impact of the wider social and political context offers an alternative way of trying to secure successful long-term desistance and reduce the risk of further attacks.
Sarah Marsden is a Lecturer at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews. Sarah’s research revolves around conceptualising and explaining the process and in particular, the decline of terrorism and collective violence. She has carried out extensive research on individual processes of disengagement and desistance from militancy in the UK, as well as looking at the long-term outcomes of violence in the Middle East. Her most recent paper: Conceptualising ‘success’ with those convicted of terrorism offences: Aims, methods and barriers to reintegration is forthcoming in Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Violence.
Image: reway2007 CC BY-NC-ND