Teenage Terrorists Aren’t Lost Forever
Even ISIS recruits can be reintegrated into society, if the approach is right.
When 17-year-old Ibrahim returned to Denmark from Syria in 2013, his stepfather sent him straight to the police. Ibrahim had disappeared six months earlier—just before his exams. He claims he spent the time as an aid worker in northern Syria. But his story is patchy: Ibrahim says that he cannot even remember the name of the charity he worked for.
The police were not entirely convinced that Ibrahim was telling the truth. They couldn’t prosecute him: There was no evidence of involvement in a terrorist group. But they didn’t want to leave him to his own devices. Instead, they assigned Ibrahim to a counter-extremism program—like thousands of other young Europeans. Most are believed by the authorities to be at risk of radicalization. But some did more than just boast online or browse dubious websites; as Ibrahim probably did, they fought—or attempted to fight—for the Islamic State.
As the final remnants of the Islamic State crumble, just what happens to these young men and women has become a painful issue in Europe. The ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Syria has made the question particularly pressing. U.S. President Donald Trump upped the ante when he threatened earlier this month to release more than 800 captured European Islamic State fighters if their nations were unwilling to bring them home to stand trial. If able to regroup in Syria, these fighters could pose a serious security threat in the future.
But it isn’t just a question of seasoned fighters. There is a big difference between a bomb maker and someone who provides passive support. Many of those who left Europe to join the Islamic State were women who did not directly engage in violence. Others were just teenagers when they left. Shamima Begum’s case illustrates the complexities of the issue. Begum—who left London to join the Islamic State as a 15-year-old schoolgirl—recently pleaded to be allowed back into the U.K. just days after giving birth. Her youth invited sympathy, but her lack of remorse drew ire. Begum was soon stripped of her citizenship by the British home secretary, Sajid Javid—leaving her stateless, a move illegal under international law but excused by Javid on the grounds that she was technically eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship. Members of Parliament objected to the decision, arguing that Begum should face justice in the U.K.—the country where she was radicalized.
Javid’s solution has drawn sharp legal criticism, while proving popular with the public. But most European Islamic State recruits, some of whom were white converts, cannot be so easily made into someone else’s problem. About 30 percent of those who left for Syria had already returned home by May of last year, according to a European Parliament report. Some have been prosecuted, but other cases, like Ibrahim’s, are more ambiguous. And many who are imprisoned will not remain behind bars forever. Is it possible to rehabilitate these young recruits so that they no longer pose a threat? Can they be reintegrated into society?
The answer in many cases is yes. This is not Europe’s first time dealing with angry or fanatical young men and women. From the anarchists of the late 19th century, vividly depicted in Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima, to the violent nationalism of the 20th century, Europe is no stranger to terrorism. The Irish Republican Army’s bombings in the U.K. were matched by the violence of ETA—a leftist Basque separatist group in Spain that has observed a cease-fire since 2010—and the fascistic Ordine Nuovo group in Italy. But terrorists have previously left violence behind and returned to European society, although this process has rarely been quick or easy. The reintegration of ex-combatants in Ireland has taken decades. Adriana Faranda was released in 1994 after spending 15 years in prison for her role in Italy’s violent Communist Red Brigades. She later described her dissociation from the group as “a process which matured very gradually … a matter of a thousand little stages.”
Some teenage Islamic State recruits say they have already changed. Hoda Muthana, who joined the group in late 2014 at the age of 19, said last week that she “deeply regrets” her decision, describing herself as having been “ignorant and arrogant.” She wants to return to the United States to face prosecution.
It helps when a young recruit is, like Muthana, willing to take responsibility for their choices. Young Islamic State recruits are often described as having been “groomed.” But those I have interviewed spoke instead of making a conscious—albeit naive—political decision to join up. Daniel Koehler, an extremism expert, describes radicalization as a process of “de-pluralization.” You begin to see the world through the lens of a single story. A jihadist might perceive a coordinated war against Muslims; a white supremacist might feel white extinction is looming. The urgency of the problem demands an urgent response: Violence seems justified in pursuit of a noble cause.
Reintegration can involve trying to deradicalize violent extremists. Some programs attempt to do this by “re-pluralizing” an extremist’s worldview. Koehler has developed a family counseling approach that works on this premise. A counselor builds trust with the individual extremist’s family, coaching them to quietly introduce their relative to different perspectives. Building trust with a violent extremist’s family also provides a failsafe. Those planning terrorist attacks often drop hints to friends or family members, who are well placed to tip off the authorities.
The Aarhus model in Denmark takes a similar approach but works directly with extremists. Ibrahim was enrolled in this program. He was introduced to a volunteer mentor—a calm young lawyer named Hassan. Ibrahim worried at first that he was a spy, but Hassan spent months gaining his trust. When Ibrahim eventually shared his frustrations about Danish society, Hassan listened and sympathized. But he also gently put forward other points of view. “He told me stuff from other perspectives I never thought about before,” Ibrahim said. “Like, you can still be a successful Muslim … take an education, help people.” Ibrahim is now training to be an occupational therapist.
But while mild-mannered attempts at deradicalization sometimes seem to make a difference, the confrontational theological methods adopted by some governments can do more harm than good. Deradicalization programs of this sort have been used in Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia—and the U.K. It is unsurprising that countries with government-approved versions of Islam might try to theologically “correct” their heterodox jihadis—but the U.K.’s commitment to offering extremists theological advice is bizarre.
In one British program operating in London in 2015, a mentor explained to young extremists that they had simply misunderstood Islam and prescribed an alternative moderate interpretation. I spoke to a participant whose extremist sympathies had instead become even more entrenched. Almost all of the deradicalization practitioners I interviewed told me that, in their experience, extremists often respond defensively to confrontational ideological tactics.
But in fact, former terrorists need not necessarily leave all their radical beliefs behind in order to reintegrate into society. The terrorism expert John Horgan has interviewed former members of white nationalist and Northern Irish terrorist groups, as well as al Qaeda. He explains that he went into his research assuming that those who left behind terrorism and settled into peaceful lives were changed people who looked back with remorse, “But many of those that I spoke to retained their radical views.” Horgan distinguishes between disengagement from terrorism and deradicalization. A change in behavior need not involve a complete change in belief.
After all, people join terrorist groups for all sorts of reasons besides ideology, including financial, social, and psychological incentives. The counterterrorism expert Marc Sageman suggests that family and friendship networks often play a significant role in fostering terrorist involvement. When Shamima Begum and her two friends traveled to Syria, they were following a school friend who had recently left to join the Islamic State.
The same financial, social, and psychological incentives can prompt someone to disengage from terrorism without necessarily shedding all their radical beliefs. For example, social ties with family, friends, and peers play an important part in pulling young people out of violent gangs and helping them build another life. The same is true of terrorists. In one published case study, a new social role as a voluntary teaching assistant supported a young woman’s disengagement from a white nationalist terrorist group.
Those who work to reintegrate former terrorists agree that there is no single, silver-bullet solution to the problem. Each individual comes with their own particular motivations and circumstances, and one-size-fits-all approaches to reintegration are unlikely to work. More study is required to better understand precisely what works well in different cases. Governments must make their rehabilitation programs more transparent and admit external evaluation if they are to make progress. A poorly designed program is not just a waste of resources—it can backfire and make things worse.
But the bottom line is that for people to leave terrorist groups behind and never look back, societies need to provide pathways out of terrorism. This doesn’t mean failing to prosecute those who have done bad things: Prison can allow time and space for change, as it did for Faranda. Nor does it alter the fact that at the end of the day, it’s down to the extremists themselves to choose to face justice and work toward reintegration into society.
But supporting those who do make sincere efforts to reintegrate is critically important. One thing’s for sure: if society doesn’t offer young terrorist recruits the possibility of change, none of them will ever take it.