Toward a Radical Solution

A recent surge of homegrown terrorist plots has renewed interest in designing a U.S. counter-radicalization program. Here are 10 lessons that the United States should keep in mind.


The case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day by detonating explosives hidden in his underwear, highlights the dangers posed by Islamist extremism — and the difficulties of countering radicalization. Abdulmutallab, the son of a prominent Nigerian banker and a former student at University College London, proves that there is no single path that would-be terrorists travel and no single reason they resort to violence. As countries worldwide look to design counter-radicalization programs to mitigate the threat of homegrown terrorist attacks, they should draw on the experiences of the countries that first implemented these programs.

It is not just the Abdulmutallab incident that has spurred interest within the United States in counter-radicalization programs. A wave of recent terrorism-related arrests has severely undermined the long-held assumption that American Muslims are immune to radicalization. Events such as the arrest of five northern Virginia Muslims allegedly seeking terrorist training in Pakistan, the thwarting of three separate plots in New York, Texas, and Illinois this past September, the Fort Hood massacre, and federal charges against eight Somali-American men in Minnesota for crimes including fighting alongside the terrorist group al-Shabab have made this issue a top priority for U.S. law enforcement. Having accepted that radicalization affects some small segments of the American Muslim population exactly like it affects some fringe pockets of the Muslim population of each European country, authorities have been looking for long-term solutions to the problem.

Potential U.S. counter-radicalization efforts are most likely to resemble the programs implemented in various European countries. Over the last few years, Britain and the Netherlands have led the pack, investing significant human, financial, and political capital in their programs. Initiatives include interfaith meetings, the creation of Muslim magazines and TV programs, government-sponsored lectures from moderate Muslim clerics, field trips to Auschwitz, professional development seminars, and soccer matches with police officers. Most of these initiatives fall within the realm of radicalization prevention, but European authorities have also developed small deradicalization programs for individuals who have already been radicalized and, in some cases, have been involved in terrorist activities.

Everybody acknowledges that these programs are very much work in progress — novelties in need of constant assessment and improvement. Nobody knows for sure the impact they have had so far. There are nevertheless some lessons that U.S. authorities should keep in mind should they decide to launch their own full-fledged counter-radicalization program.

1) Know your client. It is obvious, but it cannot be overstated: No counter-radicalization program can be effective without a deep knowledge of the "targeted" community and the process that leads some in it to radicalize. The American Muslim community, like that of most European countries, is extremely diverse. Knowing the ethnic, sectarian, linguistic, social, and political lines that characterize this fragmentation is crucially important. Moreover, as the case of Abdulmutallab proves, radicalization is a complex and highly individualized process. The reasons that drive a suburban college student, a new convert, and an immigrant from an underprivileged neighborhood to embrace al Qaeda’s ideology might be completely different. Knowledge of radicalization patterns, no matter how unpredictable, is of paramount importance.

2) Be flexible. No single approach will work in all cases and everywhere — and, in many cases, no solution at all will work. What sways one individual might leave another unfazed. Methods used in radicalization prevention might not be appropriate in deradicalization. In some cases, intervening on socioeconomic factors might be enough; some individuals who are only marginally involved in militancy might be deterred from further radicalization by getting help with school or a job. In many other cases, however, it will be necessary to address ideological and theological aspects of the radicalization process, resorting to knowledgeable and charismatic figures who can engage the individual and challenge his (or her) worldview.

3) Set clear metrics. It is imperative for a program to establish from day one what it seeks to achieve. In particular, the program must determine whether it seeks to target simply violent individuals or, more broadly, the intellectual framework of radicalism that might (or might not) give rise to violent behavior. On the one hand, it is evident that extremist ideas undermine social cohesion and can lead to violence. On the other, most Western democracies lack the legal tools and the political will to engage in an all-out war of ideas, finding it easier to focus simply on violent extremism.

All European governments have been struggling to strike the right balance. The British, who have traditionally identified "violent extremism" as the target of their efforts, are reassessing their goals, and the Home Office has recently stated that its aim is "not simply about tackling violent extremism" but "is also about tackling those who espouse extremist views that are inconsistent with our shared values." The Dutch, on the other hand, have traditionally identified radicalization more broadly as any rejection of democratic values, even if not accompanied by violence. However, faced with myriad practical difficulties in developing programs to challenge nonviolent Islamism, Dutch authorities are increasingly focusing just on violent radicalization.

4) Choose many partners. Working with the Muslim community is critical. Yet, given its fragmentation and lack of unified leadership, finding partners is no easy endeavor. Government cooperation with nonviolent Islamists, such as offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood and political Salafi groups, is particularly controversial.

Robert Lambert, former head of the Muslim Contact Unit, Scotland Yard’s pioneering division in charge of establishing ties with some of London’s most radical subcommunities, advocates "police negotiation leading to partnership with Muslim groups conventionally deemed to be subversive to democracy." Lambert and others argue that nonviolent Islamists might have views that are intolerable, but possess the legitimacy and street credibility to convince radicals not to carry out acts of violence and are therefore necessary counterterrorism assets. Critics of this approach argue that such partnerships’ long-term repercussions on social cohesion and integration would be much greater than the yet-to-be-proven short-term gains that can be achieved in preventing acts of terrorism. Both sides are correct, to some degree, making the choice of partners arguably the biggest challenge.

5) Work at the local level. Europeans have learned that, though the central government can provide general guidelines and funds, actual counter-radicalization work is done at the local level. Once instructed about the program’s goals, municipalities, local police forces, and community organizations are the institutions that are in the best position to spot and address radicalization. Of course, coordination of actors will be a particular challenge in the United States, given the overlap of jurisdiction between competing federal, state, and local authorities.

6) Trained personnel are key. A network of competent law enforcement officials, social workers, teachers, and community leaders is considered the best front-line defense against radicalization. Dutch authorities, for example, have conducted extensive training seminars for all professionals who could potentially be in contact with youths undergoing radicalization, explaining to them how to spot tell-tale signs and why it is important to refer cases to authorities. Convincing them that monitoring radicalization is not a case of Big Brother but, rather, an effort in the youth’s best interest, has been a key part of the endeavor.

7) Play down counterterrorism. Throughout Europe, the pattern has been that linking these initiatives — be it a field trip or the construction of a youth center — to counterterrorism efforts prompts them to lose their appeal within the Muslim community, which feels stigmatized. In Britain, rumors that the country’s counter-radicalization initiatives are used to gather intelligence have led many Muslims to boycott the program. In a nutshell, the security services have to be involved — but their visibility must be minimal.

8) Be open. Consult with academics, civil liberties organizations — anybody with expertise. Inform the public. Get feedback from the Muslim community (and not just its most vocal self-appointed leaders). Look at other countries’ experiences: Britain and the Netherlands have been the most active, but the Danes are following suit. Germany, Norway, and Sweden have long-established and quite successful disengagement programs for neo-Nazis and are trying to apply the same tactics to jihadists. The many anti-gang programs implemented in U.S. cities also might hold some useful tips.

9) Find ways to evaluate success and failure. If a program successfully deradicalizes 99 committed jihadists, but then one reverts to terrorism, is the initiative a success or a failure? The success of radicalization prevention is even more challenging to assess because it requires planners to prove a negative: the number of individuals who did not become terrorists because of the programs. Most results might take up to a generation to be seen, but that’s not the time frame adopted by Western policymakers. Finding ways to empirically measure results might be the only way to manage external expectations and maintain the program.

10) Have a thick skin. Given the difficulty of measuring its success and the controversial actions that must be taken to implement it, a counter-radicalization program is likely to be the subject of widespread criticism. The most immediate critics will include Islamists, conservatives, and civil libertarians. Pretty much everybody else is likely to follow suit if an attack takes place. Listen with an open mind to all constructive criticism but do not be paralyzed. Policymakers must keep in mind that, despite all the mistakes they are bound to make and the setbacks they will experience, a counter-radicalization program is a necessary component of a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.

Lorenzo Vidino is the director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West.


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