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NSI Report: Common Characteristics of "Successful" De-radicalization Programs

This research report published by the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI) details the findings of a study that reviews several cases studies of past de-radicialization programs. The goal of the research was finding common characteristics of successful programs. Read the full report here:

"There is no “one size fits all” approach to disengagement and deradicalization—disengagement and deradicalization programs should be tailored to the specific environments and individuals/groups of interest. However, analysis of historical cases of disengagement and deradicalization programs reveals what appear to be several common characteristics of programs that have demonstrated some levels of success: creating a sense of hope and purpose, building a sense of community, providing individual attention and regimented daily schedules, and ensuring sustainable, long-term commitment following completion of the program (i.e., after- care). While designing disengagement and deradicalization programs to include these characteristics could serve as a useful starting point, they should not be considered universal, or guarantees of successful deradicalization. Rigorous research and analysis is still needed in order to solidify our understanding of, and ability to measure, “success” with respect to deradicalization programs.

Introduction This report considers whether there are examples of successful deradicalization programs in history from which lessons can be drawn. The wide variety of context- and environment-specific circumstances in which historical disengagement and deradicalization programs originated and developed make comparing specific programs challenging (Horgan & Braddock, 2009; RAN, 2019). Therefore, to assess this question, a case study research approach was employed, using 30 historical cases, to generate a robust understanding of both past and present disengagement and deradicalization programs. The analysis focuses on potentially common characteristics or components across those disengagement and deradicalization programs that have demonstrated some level of success, and thus may be of particular relevance for formulating new initiatives. Before discussing the results of the analysis, it is important to define some of the key terminology. For the purpose of this analysis, the following definitions were used:

  • Radicalization: A process whereby individuals (and even groups) develop, over time, a mindset that can—under the right circumstances and opportunities—increase the risk that he or she will engage in violent extremism or terrorism (Clutterbuck, 2015).

  • Disengagement: The process involving a change in role or function that is usually associated with a reduction of violent participation... as a process whereby an individual’s role within a violent organization may change from active violence to a less active, non-violent role (Horgan, 2009).

  • Deradicalization: An attitudinal shift away from supporting violence as a means for achieving political or ideological goals.

Disengagement vs. Deradicalization As part of this analysis, we distinguish between disengagement (changing behavior) and deradicalization (changing ideas). Disengagement stresses behavioral change where acts of violence and extremism are left behind; deradicalization stresses attitudinal and psychological change, where attempts are made to change the mindset, sympathies, and attitudes of an individual. This distinction is important, as our knowledge and understanding of disengagement processes may be more realistic and practical than that of deradicalization processes (Horgan & Braddock, 2009; El Said, 2015). Prior research has shown that changing behavior is more realistic than changing attitudes. It is also the more immediate task for reducing conflict and violence. For these reasons, this report assesses both disengagement and deradicalization. Doing so also provides the additional benefit of increasing the scope of case studies available for consideration.

The Case Studies The 30 disengagement and deradicalization case studies span geographic locations across the globe, with target groups that range from millions in the case of de-Nazification to hundreds in the case of Northern Ireland’s early release program (see below for a full list of the case studies explored). Some programs target groups or segments of a population, while others focus on the individual level. The radicalization targets of the case studies were a mix of political and religious groups and individuals. Significant components of each program, be they social, economic, political, legal, or religious in nature, were extracted and cataloged. Motivational factors, leadership influences, local community interactions, and the role of family were also captured.

The mix of case studies explored includes five programs that focus on disengagement, nine programs that focus on deradicalization, and sixteen programs that focus on both. However, nearly all of the programs are de facto disengagement programs, regardless of how they were explicitly defined. Often the goal of a program may be to stimulate deradicalization, but the metrics of success are behavioral in nature (e.g., recidivism rates, membership declines, decreased violence).

Defining “Successful” Deradicalization Evaluating the success of disengagement and deradicalization programs can be challenging. Measuring deradicalization poses further challenges, representing, as it does, attitudinal and psychological changes— assessing an individual’s thoughts and values is extremely difficult, if not impossible (Horgan & Braddock, 2009). Additionally, programs aimed at disengagement and deradicalization rarely have established criteria for evaluating success of various initiatives. Even when they do, such criteria are often difficult to verify, largely due to insufficient data, and secrecy surrounding the programs (Horgan & Braddock, 2009; Weber et al., 2018; Johnston, 2009). Low recidivism rates are sometimes cited as a measure of perceived success; however, similar issues with data availability and sufficiency make accurately measuring recidivism difficult. Perhaps more importantly, there is little consensus as to whether recidivism rates are even the most appropriate measure for evaluating the success of disengagement and deradicalization programs (Horgan & Braddock, 2009; Porges & Stern, 2010; Weber et al., 2018; Johnston, 2009). Ultimately, there appears to be little consensus as to what exactly constitutes a successful disengagement or deradicalization program, and claims of success in relation to such programs are often difficult to verify.

Despite these challenges, this analysis provides a preliminary evaluation of the relative levels of success of the disengagement and deradicalization programs examined. This evaluation relied largely on qualitative assessments and other publicly available information and evaluations of the programs. Those assessments typically highlighted recidivism and rehabilitation rates among participants, interview and survey data of participants, general decreases in violence across society, and impact on the group and/or ideology within society as the basis for evaluation. This data was used to code our cases as either “generally successful” or “generally unsuccessful.” Cases evaluated as having demonstrated mixed success (both elements of success and failure) were coded as such. Additionally, in some cases, there was simply not enough publicly available information to accurately evaluate a program. These cases were coded as not having enough information to evaluate."

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