Terrorism is always one bad day away from being the most important issue in America. With election-eve cargo plane bombing plots disrupted by information from a repentant al Qaeda member who was also an ex-Guantanamo detainee, a timely new counter-terrorism report analyzes the most effective means for achieving the “reverse radicalization” of terrorists in prison. Among the countries whose efforts it examined was Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where President Obama landed Tuesday morning on his Asian tour.
The report, “ Risk Reduction for Countering Violent Extremism,” was unveiled at the Qatar International Academy of Security Studies on Monday—making it one of the first major counter-terrorism studies sponsored by an Arab nation. The president and secretary general of Interpol attended the briefings on site as well as senior representatives from the U.S. State Department, Department of Defense, FBI, NCIS and the U.S. Marshals Service. It was staffed by an international team of national security experts including Ali Soufan, the former FBI special agent in charge of the USS Cole bombing investigation who came to prominence thru a post-9/11 New Yorker profile and his subsequent criticism of the effectiveness of interrogation techniques such as water-boarding by the Bush administration.
“Governments are beginning to understand that this area is shaping up to be one of the greatest challenges that we need to overcome if violent extremism is ever to be defeated,” said Soufan. “And what is needed to win this battle is a comprehensive strategy that includes everything from family involvement to developing a strong counter-narrative.”
The high rate of recidivism from imprisoned enemy combatants is one of the primary reasons that Guantanamo has not been closed despite President Obama’s campaign promises to the contrary—reality sometimes gets in the way of rhetoric if you’re trying to be responsible. But reverse radicalization efforts are also often derided by more hawkish voices in the counter-terror community who believe that attempts to reason with imprisoned terrorists amounts to coddling them. Supporters see the efforts as key to stopping the cycle of indoctrination and extremism that can lead to violence.
The report looked at related best practices in five countries—Indonesia, Singapore, Great Britain, Northern Ireland and France (the focus on both Western and Eastern countries’ experience in combating terrorism is part of what is expected to make the report more palatable to Arab and Muslim leaders).
In Indonesia, de-radicalization initiatives emerged in the wake of 2002’s Bali nightclub bombings and stretch between the national police force counter-terrorism branch, Detachment 88, and local private non-profits groups like the one established by the journalist/author Noor Huda Ismali, who had been recruited by the Islamist revolutionary group Darul Islam in his youth but renounced that path and now practices a one-on-one de-radicalization effort.
"The idea that we can arrest ourselves out of trouble is long gone."
Currently there are some 600 ex-prisoners who had been convicted on terrorism-related charges in Indonesia. The report details the way Indonesian prisoners “were given books on martyrdom, given materials to plan future attacks and even given control of prayer groups and, therefore, the opportunity to influence other prisoners.”
In a small masterpiece of understatement, the report found that “most terrorists had very simple cognitive structures” (ie, deadly but stupid) which makes it easier for them to begin “confusing extremist indoctrination with ‘education’ about religious and political realities.” The good news is that sustained individual outreach caused many former terrorists renounce their past radicalization and become powerful figures of persuasion to former colleagues. In some cases, these individuals become valuable counter-terror intelligence assets that can further disrupt networks and stop violent plots before they occur.
“Prison can present a unique opportunity in the de-radicalization effort. From the terrorists I've spoken to, harsh treatment or neglect only seemed to fan their extremist passions,” said Steve Kleinman, a veteran national security strategist with a background in special operations. “Conversely, we saw numerous examples where an integrated approach that included social, theological, and even psychological services that left the detainee with better reasoning skills, the prospect of a more stable home and family life, and a vision for a more engaging future ultimately led combatants to become former combatants.”
“One of our primary objectives is to participate in activities that make the world safer,” said Mohammed Hanzab,the president of the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. “This project is a great advantage for countries in the Middle East, because for the first time, we can see in our study how different programs in different parts of the world work.”
While the report cautions that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for reverse radicalization but it highlights the techniques that have worked in each locality and common themes emerge—namely the importance of individual engagement and incentivization, not just incarceration. This approach can have concrete national security and intelligence benefits. And while de-radicalization programs aren’t cheap, they are far less expensive than cleaning up the aftermath of an attack. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Stephen White, a former chief constable in Northern Ireland turned EU diplomat in Brussels and Iraq praised the report. “It’s a unique piece of research—in terms of the make-up of the team and the access we had—providing training in the dimension of preventing terrorism on a global basis. It’s important on the political level, the community level and even the individual level.” White, whose responsibilities have included training Iraqi judges, prosecutors, police officers and prison managers, reflected, “people who’ve been involved with terrorism—whether it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan or the IRA in Ireland—those who’ve reached a certain age and reflected on their decisions are now voluntarily involving themselves in trying to prevent young men from getting involved with violent extremism or terrorism. They are learning lessons and sharing lessons with future generations.”
The president of Interpol, Commissioner Khoo Boon Hui, strongly endorsed the report and encouraged broader adaptation, highlighting its geo-political importance in part because it stemmed from a Middle Eastern nation. "This report is really excellent and much needed,” Khoo told The Daily Beast. “I commend the team. My hope is that governments prioritize this important area and embrace the lessons. It's important that our focus on this crucial area doesn't end here—but that we establish a center and regular international meetings to continue moving forward."
Added Stephen White: “It’s nice to know this isn’t a report that is going to sit on a shelf and gather dust. It’s going to have practical results. The idea that we can arrest ourselves out of trouble is long gone. The smart money now is on partnerships.”
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.