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Deradicalization Programs: Lessons Learned from Europe

Homegrown militants have become a major threat for European countries. Europe’s police organization Europol estimates that up to 5,000 radicalized Europeans have left to fight in Syria and Iraq. These numbers demonstrate that it is imperative for European countries to take significant steps in stopping citizens who want to travel abroad and fight alongside ISIS. Countries are taking differing approaches in attempting to ensure their national security. The Italian government has issued an emergency law demanding tougher penalties on those recruiting fighters for ISIS. Spain is proposing anti-terrorism legislation containing broad and ambiguous terms criminalizing the acts of glorifying or justifying terrorism.

However, there is another equally pressing issue that is demanding the attention of Europe: what measures to implement when dealing with their citizens returning after fighting abroad? Many European countries have already employed de-radicalization programs that focus on preventing individuals from adopting radical and pro-violent ideologies in the first place, as well as de-radicalizing and disengaging existing radicals. Many countries credit their de-radicalization programs for reducing the domestic terrorism usually perpetrated by homegrown jihadists.

The United Kingdom set up one such program in 2006 in response to the 2005 London bombings carried out by British citizens. The Channel program is designed to pinpoint and mentor individuals at risk of being drawn into extremism before they engage in terrorist activity. It is also working to deprogram British citizens returning from fighting abroad. It is mandatory to participate in the de-radicalization program for all returning militants which also provides mentorship and counseling.

Denmark offers returning militants rehabilitation programs instead of bringing criminal charges against them. Instead of prosecution, intelligence agencies work with the government to reintegrate jihadists into society. After Belgium, Denmark has the second highest number of citizens leaving to fight in Syria. Danish Parliament has allocated $9 million for de-radicalization programs to rehabilitate radicals as well as prevent Danes from joining the extremist movement. In 2007, the city of Aarhus was the first city to establish a de-radicalization program. For returning citizens, a risk assessment if first conducted by intelligence agencies. Then the individual is offered counseling, mentorship, and assistance in getting a job or continuing their education.

According to National Intelligence Director James Clapper, 180 Americans have tried to go fight in Syria. However, it is unclear how many were attempting to fight for ISIS. While the United States is not facing the high number of citizens returning from fighting with ISIS, it is still imperative to develop and implement an effective de-radicalization program. The White House has outlined its deradicalization initiative to prevent violent extremism domestically and recently hosted a summit to build upon its strategies. The three main prongs include building awareness about radicalization and recruitment, countering extremist narratives by encouraging civil society-led counter narratives, and emphasizing community led intervention to disrupt the radicalization process. In September, the Department of Justice unveiled its program to counter extremist recruitment through community involvement of social and mental health workers, religious leaders, and law enforcement.

Missing from this strategy is rehabilitation for domestic and returning radicals. This part of de-radicalization should not be overlooked and has the potential to allow disillusioned ISIS fighter to return and even assist in de-radicalizing Americans. By taking the one-dimensional approach of merely prosecuting those individuals for their criminal acts of providing or conspiring to provide material support for terrorism, the U.S. is losing a potential tool being utilized by many European countries to fight extremism.

European counter-radicalization programs differ greatly from one another in terms of aims, structure, budget, and underlying philosophy. Each one is also deeply shaped by political, cultural, and legal elements unique to that country. The success of these programs in reducing radicalization is also extremely difficult to assess. Government’s are seeing them as an important supportive tool that assists police and intelligence services in preventing a terrorist attack.

While it’s true the U.S. is probably not going to stop prosecuting returning ISIS fighters, it should seriously consider finding a balance integrating rehabilitation into its counterterrorism policy. The decision to rehabilitate verse prosecute is strictly policy. The United States can look to a wide range of deradicalization programs and stands to learn considerably from Europe’s experience. Furthermore, this is one program that avoids the national security versus civil rights conundrum that has plagued the United States since September 11. Developing these programs is not only imperative for protecting the security of the U.S. but also protects our domestic and international human rights obligations.


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