‘Terrorism Abandonment’ As Key To Future Counter-Terrorism Strategy


By Bilveer Singh

Much is known today about the circumstances that induce an individual to resort to terrorism. An individual’s psychology and the various extenuating domestic and international circumstances that lead to the rise of terrorism, including suicide terrorism, have been well-documented. Yet, when it comes to counter-terrorism, most efforts focus on the development of professional counter-terrorist combat units, enhancement of electronic and human intelligence capacities as well as attempts to create various political, economic and social conditions that would prevent an individual from crossing the terrorist Rubicon. The question is: what is the State’s response once it has apprehended a terrorist? What can a State do to pre-empt an individual from becoming a terrorist? Should a State institute measures to encourage terrorism abandonment and reintegrate the ‘exs’ into mainstream society?

In this regard, watershed research and endeavours are being undertaken on reversing and unmaking terrorism. The premise being, since no one is born a terrorist but an individual becomes one over time, then there is the possibility of reversing terrorism. Here, the important questions include: Do we understand what motivates an individual to become a terrorist? Can the process of terrorism be reversed? Are terrorists prepared to disengage themselves from terrorism? Is de-radicalization possible? Is de-radicalization sufficient to get a terrorist to disengage from terrorism? What about the risks of recidivism?

Understanding these questions has become increasingly important as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ counter-terrorism measures are necessary if the scourge is to be totally eradicated, especially first if individuals are to be deterred from becoming terrorists and second, those who have become one, are to be encouraged to exit from it. While killing and imprisoning terrorists have become a ‘mainstream’ approach, attempting to disengage, de-radicalize and rehabilitate them is presently only undertaken by a small number of countries, even though this should also be promoted as part of the overall comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy if the threat is to be ended.

Conceptual Clarifications

First, what are some of the key concepts that should be understood in the wider approach to counter-terrorism? Islamist radicalism and terrorism refers to a process whereby an individual adopts an extremist ideological view and is prepared to utilize non-democratic means, mainly violence, to achieve his/her goals. In contrast, de-radicalization is the process by which radicalized individuals abandon violent and extremist belief systems in favour of peaceful ones. For our purpose, de-radicalisation is the attempt to encourage Islamist extremists and terrorists who have embraced a hard line interpretation of Islam, to adopt peaceful and tolerant Islamic teachings. As far as disengagement is concerned, it involves two main dimensions. Cognitive disengagement is an attempt to alter an individual’s belief system away from radicalism and violence, and to accept peaceful interpretation of the Holy Scriptures and live them out. Physical disengagement is the renunciation of violence to settle issues, requiring a fundamental behavioural shift in the form of abandoning violence for peaceful means. Studies have, however, shown that a physically disengaged terrorist may continue to hold radical views even though for a whole array of reasons he would have ceased to be a ‘God’s Warrior’. Rehabilitation is the attempt to re-integrate terrorists who have been physically disengaged into society so that their exit from terrorism is complete. Finally, pre-emption refers to measures aimed at ensuring that individuals do not become radicalized and return to the terrorist cause.

Supplementing ‘Soft’ Measures to Traditional ‘Hard’ Counter-Terrorism Strategies

In most societies afflicted by the threat of terrorism, a wide range of measures have been adopted to tackle the menace. This includes killing terrorist combatants, imprisonment of captured terrorists, provision of financial and other inducements to terrorists to give up the struggle, amnesties, establishment of political dialogue as well as the award of political concessions to meet half-way the demands to solve grievances that have made individuals adopt terrorism against the authorities. While these are important measures, by themselves, they are necessary but not sufficient to end terrorism.

A number of factors have led to a new thinking that ‘soft’ and new measures are necessary as part of a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. First, there is the realization that Islamist terrorism and radicalism is going to be a long-term struggle and is not about to end in the short term. Concomitantly, this calls for long-term measures to manage the challenge. Second, related to the first, following the 9/11 attacks, the euphoria that all it required was for individual States and the world community to launch a ‘war on terrorism’ and the problem would be terminated due to the finite number of terrorists, have been proven wrong. Instead, the ‘war’, if it is one, needs to be comprehensively calibrated as new recruits, for a host of reasons, are swelling the ranks of terrorists, and additional measures are needed to stem the tide.

Third, while traditional counter-terrorism measures have been somewhat successful, there is a quantum leap of people who are being imprisoned and they cannot be imprisoned forever, all the more as radicalization in prisons is becoming a dangerous phenomenon. Finally, States would need to solve various grievances and this includes abandoning time-honoured policies of ‘no negotiations with terrorists’ as this can be self-defeating because eventually most governments would be forced to deal with the terrorists, especially if there are genuine grievances and abuses caused by the State. All these factors have led to the importance of ‘soft’ counter-terrorism measures, supplementing, not supplanting, the traditional ones.

Disengagement, De-Radicalization and Rehabilitation (DDR)

Even before the 9/11 attacks, there were already ample examples of States trying to reach a new modus vivendi with terrorist groups, especially in Europe and South America. There are revealing case studies of individuals and groups exiting from terrorism, renouncing violence for peaceful dialogues and integrating into society, as is evident in Italy, Germany and the peace agreement that ended the IRA’s violent campaign. Studies have shown that there are many reasons why terrorists are prepared to reverse their involvement. John Horgan’s ‘push’ and ‘pull’ list includes the following: disillusionment with group’s goals, violence and leader’s behaviour; loss of position within the group; inability to take the pressure of being hunted as a fugitive; as well as tensions between loyalty to the group and family obligations. At the same time, the opportunity to exit from a covert life; the attraction of amnesty or reduced sentence for crimes; availability of education, job training and economic support; development of new social networks; longing for an ordinary and peaceful life; and starting a family, can lead an individual to abandon terrorism.

In this endeavour, there are ample strategies that have been adopted to promote DDR of terrorists. Some of the best works on the subject have been undertaken by scholars such as John Horgan, Tore Bjorgo, Audrey Cronin, Laila Bokhari and Christopher Boucek. The more important ‘soft’ approaches to counter-terrorism through DDR involve the following:

1. Using go-betweens to influence terrorists to abandon their cause, especially in prison and other counselling formats. This can involve family members, religious leaders, scholars, journalists, peers or even repentant terrorists.

2. Religious re-education where the terrorist is made conscious of what is in the Koran and Hadith, and how false theo-political interpretations had led him to deviate. Important here is the role of Imams, Muftis and religious scholars in the ‘war of ideas’, including acquainting terrorists with fatwas banning terrorism to alter their ideological outlook.

3. Mobilising repentant terrorists, especially those in leadership positions in the past, can be a critical ‘magic bullet’ in leading many terrorists, especially those in the lower to middle level ranks, to abandon terrorism.

4. Mobilising the family and peers to provide support, and a sense of belonging, has proved to be critically important, and something that has been used extensively to wean away an individual from terrorism as well as encouraging the individual to set up a family.

In studies published by John Horgan and Tore Bjorgo, many examples abound on how some governments have implemented various ‘soft’ measures to encourage individuals to exit from terrorism. The Afghan programme known as ‘Strengthening the Peace’ fuses rehabilitation with national reconciliation in order to integrate former Taliban fighters into society. In Yemen, the Committee for Dialogue facilitates discussion between extremists and clerics. In Tajikistan, there is a Secular-Islamic Dialogue that brings together both groups to promote reconciliation. In Saudi Arabia, a successful religious rehabilitation and disengagement programme, dubbed the Counselling Programme, has been implemented since 2003.

Equally important, a DDR strategy has been adopted by a number of ASEAN states that are facing the threat from Jemaah Islamiyyah. Singapore has a successful religious rehabilitation programme, run by the Religious Rehabilitation Group, aimed at correcting the deviationist ideological outlook of its arrested terrorists. Indonesia, facing the most serious threat from Jemaah Islamiyyah, has supplemented its hard line approach with a nascent DDR programme, including using repentant terrorists to win over dedicated members of Jemaah Islamiyyah. The national parliament has also endorsed a poverty-reduction programme as part of a pre-emptive strategy to deny recruits to terrorism. Malaysia, with a long experience of fighting communist insurgency, has also put in place a strong DDR programme to reverse religious extremism in the country. While Thailand and Philippines also face serious Islamist insurgency and terrorism challenges in the south of their respective countries, only the latter has partially adopted some ‘soft’ measures, namely giving political autonomy to one insurgency group, the MNLF, while continuing to battle both the Abu Sayyaf and MILF with American assistance.

The benefits of DDR are obvious. It can help to increase government’s credibility and legitimacy, promote humane ways to manage terrorism, reduce the number of terrorists and extremists in the field and prisons, reduce violence, de-radicalise society, integrate repentant terrorists into society, learn more about why individuals adopt terrorism, as well as use terrorists who have abandoned violence to acquire intelligence and act as go-betweens to win over other terrorists in the hope of terminating the menace.

Can DDR Permanently Solve the Threat of Terrorism?

DDR is only an additional ‘weapon’ in the armoury of States to fight terrorism. Unlike ‘hard’ measures, ‘soft’ ones can succeed in softening the hearts and minds of even hard-core terrorists, especially when they are disillusioned, longing for a normal life, and want to exit from terrorism. If adopted, DDR should be comprehensive, involving prevention programmes to pre-empt people from adopting terrorism, disengagement programmes to encourage individuals to renounce extremism and violence, rehabilitation programmes to integrate former terrorists into society, and finally, after-care programmes to prevent recidivism. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy and no guarantees that DDR would terminate terrorism due to the danger of recidivism. Still, if terrorism is to be tackled from the long-term perspective, a new modus vivendi is needed, including addressing the root causes of why an individual takes up arm against the authorities. While terrorism and counter-terrorism require in-depth understanding of a complex phenomenon, still, DDR is an additional tool that should be embraced and has proved successful in helping terrorists exit from terrorism in a number of countries.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/TerrorismAbandonmentasaKeytoCounterTerrorismStrategyinFuture_bsingh_280510{

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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