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Can Prisoners Be Deradicalized?

Prison is often cited as one of the places where terrorist recruitment takes place. It can also be a place where terrorists are rehabilitated through a process sometimes referred to as deradicalization or disengagement. At least that’s the theory. Several countries have programs that purport to do this. The question is whether they are truly effective.

Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, looked at the Saudi Arabian prison reeducation and rehabilitation program. He found that out of 2,000 program participants, about 700 prisoners had been considered rehabilitated or deradicalized and released.

Boucek found that one of the strengths of the program was that it paid attention to prisoners’ religious and social needs. “I think one of the keys to these programs is that [they] can’t just be about taking away a negative. [They have] to be also about providing people a positive. So, in the case of Islamist terrorism, or Islamist violence, it’s important to also provide a way for people to exercise their faith. You’re not criminalizing, and you’re not trying to say that Islam is the bad part of this,” he says.

“I think the other thing is focus on family, focus on the social connections that people have, providing alternatives, education or jobs, any kind of post-release support,” Boucek adds. “If you don’t provide alternatives for somebody to get out of a custodial situation, you almost guarantee that they’re going back to their previous behavior.” And it doesn’t matter whether that behavior was drug abuse or terrorism.

Experts also found that the more specific a program is, the greater its effectiveness. The Saudi Arabian prison reeducation program was essentially tailored to each inmate.

In a separate report, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) in the United Kingdom compared collective disengagement and deradicalization with disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs by the United Nations in conflict zones, because both aim, among other things, to reintegrate insurgents and terrorists into society.

It found that a program has to be tailored to the needs of the target population. “What works in one case can be counter-productive in another,” it notes. For programs to be effective, “their scope, structure, and instruments must reflect local contexts and conditions.”

However, there are some aspects of a program that can be applied more broadly. For example, most of the programs use a religious figure to deliver the information. Every program should also assess how the prisoners became involved in terrorism and extremism and take that into consideration, says John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University.

Another issue is how to judge a program’s success rate. “I’ve heard some program officials talk about the fact that their programs are special and unique and shouldn’t really be susceptible to evaluation, but I just don’t buy that, and it’s not good enough if we’re going to seriously explore deradicalization initiatives as a realistic tool in the counterterrorism toolbox,” says Horgan.

It is not easy to evaluate these programs, however, because to see if the individuals were truly rehabilitated, one would have to monitor them for some period of time after the program was finished to ensure that they didn’t fall back into their old behavior.

Not only is it difficult to assess long-term results, it’s not that clear what constitutes success in the immediate term. In other words, how can you tell when someone is really changing their beliefs? Boucek stresses the need for risk assessment tools that can assess whether to let someone out of prison. “But there aren’t the tools to measure someone’s propensity to engage in political violence or religiously motivated violence. And so, until we have the science to help figure that out, this is going to be very subjective. And that means there are people who will be let out of custody who probably should not be let out of custody."