Deradicalization programs aim to 'get ahead of the curve' on extremists

As lawmakers look to expand police powers to thwart attacks such as the one that occurred on Parliament Hill last week, some say Canada could be doing more to "deradicalize" individuals who have fallen under the sway of an extremist ideology.

Saudi Arabia, Denmark, Germany have comprehensive programs

A major concern for many countries is the number of people who are travelling abroad to fight with the Sunni jihadi group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and possibly returning to wreak havoc at home. (Reuters)

As lawmakers look to expand police powers to thwart attacks such as the one that occurred on Parliament Hill last week, some say Canada could be doing more to "deradicalize" individuals who have fallen under the sway of an extremist ideology.

"Other countries – Denmark, Saudi Arabia, the U.K. – have such programs, so it’s odd that we’ve let this simmer," says Paul Bramadat, director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria.

Deradicalization programs aim to help individuals abandon potentially violent ideologies, particularly radical Islam.

While the 9/11 attacks made Westerners aware of the threats lurking inside their borders, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a series of "lone wolf" attacks carried out in their name have heightened interest in reaching militants before they turn to violence, says Rachel Briggs, research and policy director at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

She says many governments see deradicalization programs as part of an effort to "get ahead of the curve" in confronting the extremist threat.

Rehabilitating jihadis

A number of countries have established such programs. Arguably the best-known is one operating in Saudi Arabia, which has had longstanding problems with militant jihadis, says William McCants, director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World for the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Hamilton man Mohamud Mohamed Mohamud was recruited to be an ISIS fighter and is believed to have been killed in northern Syria. (

"They had a massive amount of people who were supporters of al-Qaeda, whether they were fighting or not," says McCants.

Funded by the government, the Saudi program was created in 2004 and aims to rehabilitate imprisoned jihadis by focusing on religious re-education and nurturing a family support system, says Briggs.

Saudi deprogrammers try to convince radicals that they have misinterpreted the true teachings of Islam, while also reaching out to their families — sometimes with cash incentives — to ensure that the individual returns to a loving, supportive and financially stable home.

While countries have common cause in reforming extremists, experts say it's difficult to export a program such as the Saudi one because its methods are so country-specific, says Bramadat.

"What it might mean to be a fully functioning member of Saudi society is quite different than what it might mean to be part of French, German or Canadian societies."

Fighters who return

A major concern for many countries these days is the growing number of people who are travelling abroad to fight with groups such as ISIS and then returning home with the possible intention of carrying out attacks.

Deradicalization programs in countries such as Sweden and the U.K. are based on the belief that strengthening an individual's support network and providing economic opportunities will reduce that person's capacity for violence, says Briggs.

Denmark has taken a more unique approach by offering help in finding a job and a home to any militant who returns from fighting abroad. The individual is still screened by police, but the Danes will not automatically imprison them, which is what lawmakers in the U.K. and Australia have been proposing.

Many individuals from Muslim families living in Europe have experiences of discrimination, racism and exclusion, which can inspire an extremist worldview, says Julia Reinelt, head of international affairs at the Violence Prevention Network in Berlin.

"Their life narrative is usually, 'Everybody rejected me, nobody gave me a chance,' and they kind of connect that to the meta-narrative of the Muslims that are oppressed" in the Middle East.

London, Ont.'s Xristos Katsiroubas was involved in an attack by an al-Qaeda-linked group on an Algerian gas plant in 2013. Katsiroubas died in the attack. (CBC)

If any deradicalization program is going to be effective, it has to convince a potential radical that "they can be an acknowledged part of society, and that includes having a job and prospects for your life," says Reinelt.

One of the most influential programs to emerge in recent years is the Berlin-based counselling service Hayat, which was partially inspired by Exit Germany, an organization launched in 2001 to rehabilitate members of neo-Nazi gangs.

Funded by Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, Hayat (which is Arabic for "life") offers a 24/7 hotline for anyone concerned that a family member, schoolmate or colleague may be exhibiting radical sympathies.

After investigating a claim, Hayat devises a plan with the person's relatives and colleagues to show that the love of friends and family is preferable to any radical ideology. In one instance, family members convinced a man who wanted to fight injustice in Syria that he would be better off starting a charity in Germany.

According to a report by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Hayat programs are being considered in the U.K., Australia and Canada.

'The statistics aren't there'

While there is greater interest in deradicalization programs, questions remain about their effectiveness.

McCants at the Brookings Institution acknowledges that the Saudi program has had some success in turning detainees into productive members of society, but "whether they've left the ideology behind is a harder question to answer."

The Saudi government has acknowledged some of the graduates of its deradicalization program have returned to extremist activity, including one who became deputy commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Brian Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corporation, says that while a lot of things are being tried, the success of deradicalization strategies is notoriously difficult to measure.

According to a story published in the Christian Science Monitor in July, Hayat Berlin had steered 20 individuals from fighting in Syria. But even if they had proceeded to the front lines, it doesn't necessarily mean they would have returned to wage attacks at home.

"Is there some comparative statistic that says, does this particular technique work, did that particular technique work? I haven't seen anything that tells me that," says Jenkins. "The statistics aren't there."

Part of that may be deliberately hedging on the part of the governments involved, says Jenkins, but it also reflects the fact that while it's easy to keep statistics on criminal incidents, "it's hard to count things that don't occur."


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