Finsbury Park
Tributes at the scene of the attack near Finsbury Park mosque in north London, June 2017

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2017 edition of New Humanist.

Several years ago, a young man walked into a mosque in England and declared he wanted to fight jihad in Syria. Staff called the government’s anti-terrorism hotline. The man was referred to a community engagement unit where he was assessed, then referred to the government’s deradicalisation programme, Channel. This was when Rashad Ali, a Channel practitioner, started to work with him.

“I prefer to take a Socratic approach,” says Ali, who has been working in deradicalisation for nearly a decade, after being drawn into Islamist groups himself as a teenager. “Let them explain what they think and feel and why, make them question how they think about these things.” He worked with the young man over a period of months, until he was deemed to no longer pose a risk.

Channel is one part of the government’s anti-terrorism strategy Prevent, aimed at identifying individuals vulnerable to radicalisation and working with them personally to counter the threat. In addition to direct interventions of the type Ali carries out – which might involve a religious scholar discussing theological points, or more straightforward political debate, depending on the person – it might also include psychotherapy, support with housing, employment or education, and a range of other assistance. This takes place over several months with regular assessments.

Deradicalisation programmes happen all over the world. In the UK it is a pressing issue, as laid bare by recent Islamist attacks in London and Manchester, and far right attacks in London and Yorkshire (where Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered last year by a neo-Nazi). Yet the very terminology is disputed: what does radicalisation actually mean? By their nature, these schemes tend to be secretive, meaning little accountability on where they draw these boundaries. And if there no evidence that a crime has been committed, there is nothing to prosecute for. So how do deradicalisation programmes function, here and abroad? Should we be using them more? And do they work?

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After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, deradicalisation programmes were set up or expanded in many countries, from Saudi Arabia to the Netherlands, focusing on both Islamism and the far right. Although funding, methodology and structure vary widely, the basic principles have much in common with traditional criminal rehabilitation. They usually involve a mixture of vocational training and counselling along with ideological or theoretical discussion. This could be a religious component – but it might also look at politics, such as an overly black and white world view. Programmes have variously been praised as a crucial part of countering violent extremism and criticised for coddling, rather than punishing, extremists.

One problem in the UK is that there isn’t always a clear distinction between counterterrorism (preventing acts of violence) and counterextremism (tackling radical views). Deradicalisation programmes are usually aimed explicitly at preventing terrorism – either by rehabilitating people convicted of terrorism-related offences, or by preventing those affiliated with terror groups from carrying out a violent act. Some experts maintain that disengagement – whereby a person rejects violent action – is a sufficient and realistic goal, but some states, including Britain, want the rejection of extremist ideas themselves. This is complicated by the fact that the definition of a radical or extremist idea is hotly disputed. Most would agree that planning, partaking in, or espousing violence against other groups in society merit intervention. But some of the “signs of radicalisation” identified by the British government – such as vocal criticism of foreign policy – are less clear cut. At what point does the exercise of free speech require deradicalisation, and who is deciding?

There are two well-established strands of deradicalisation programme, both of which have fairly clear boundaries about who they are targeting. The first is in Muslim majority countries, where programmes tend to be primarily administered in prisons, meaning that participants have already been apprehended for involvement with terrorism. The second is Europe’s Exit programmes, developed to help people leave far right organisations. In Sweden, these have been running since the 1990s, and they are also long established in Norway and Germany. Participants are people deeply enmeshed in far right structures who need logistical and psychosocial support to disengage. Both strands could be broadly characterised as rehabilitative.

In the UK and elsewhere, there is a growing emphasis on early intervention. The limited research in the field supports the thesis that the earlier the intervention, the higher the likelihood of stopping someone carrying out an act of terror – but serious questions are raised. Critics characterise such measures as a dystopian form of “pre-crime”, where the state is deciding that someone is likely to carry out a violent act, often on specious grounds. Association with banned groups or sympathy for violent action are clear indicators, but a whole host of lesser causes can be used to refer someone for early intervention, too.

It is also difficult to say with any certainty whether deradicalisation works. Across the globe, there is limited data. In Britain, we know that last year around 4000 people were referred to Channel, and of those around 1000 actually went through the process after assessment by a panel. We also know that around a third of those referred were far right extremists (the remainder were mostly Islamists). Beyond that, we don’t know much at all; the programme is shrouded in secrecy.

“In the case of Channel, it may be that a successful story can be told but they are trying to keep the information away because of the context of counterterrorism and security,” says Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College London. “I think more transparency would, rather than harming the purpose of these programmes, enhance them and preempt some of the wild speculation.”

The British programme is viewed with particular suspicion because it is administered through the police – despite the fact that participants have typically not committed crimes. People might be referred by teachers, social workers or friends for expressing extremist views, but by and large they have not broken the law. One key criticism is that the bar for being deemed dangerous is too low. After it was made a statutory duty for public officials to report signs of extremism in 2015, horror stories abounded: like the Muslim child referred after misspelling “terraced house” as “terrorist house”. Advocates argue that such cases do not end up actually being referred to Channel.

For those who do go through the referrals process and end up on the programme, interventions are carried out by individuals or NGOs, and services provided by the local authority – but initial police involvement is enough for many people to suspect the programme of being a cover for intelligence gathering or blanket criminalisation of Muslims. “That has been the cardinal sin, the construction flaw of the Prevent programme: that everything is in the hands of police and security services,” says Neumann.

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Elsewhere in Europe, programmes are structured differently. In Denmark, deradicalisation varies regionally, but the approach taken in Aarhus has become famous. Individuals such as fighters returning from overseas conflicts, or those who want to fight abroad, are assigned trained mentors and are helped to think about critical life decisions.

In Germany, too, deradicalisation work is well established, focusing not just on early intervention but on helping people to disengage from networks they are already ensconced in. These programmes are usually run by state-funded NGOs. Clear rules dictate when practitioners need to contact police, but most deradicalisation work is firmly rooted in longer-standing community engagement. When people call hotlines, they can be absolutely confident that they are not reporting their child or friend to the police.

One such NGO is Hayat, which means “life” in Arabic. It has been running in Germany since 2011, with roots in Exit, which helps neo-Nazis reintegrate into society. It focuses on family counselling. Daniel Köhler, a researcher on deradicalisation and a counsellor for Hayat until 2014, explains the approach: “We want the family to become a positive, living counter-narrative.” Plans to pilot Hayat in several London boroughs, announced in 2014, do not appear to have materialised but some former far right activists are working to set up a UK Exit programme.

The fact that a significant proportion of Channel referees are from the far right has not drawn much attention. Ali says that far right referrals usually spike after a high-profile incident of far right or Islamist violence. “The referral process and assessment framework is the same for the far right side, the Islamist side or anything else,” he says. “There’s a set of criteria – looking at things like ideology, political grievance, sense of belonging – which are good stepping stones for detecting vulnerabilities.”

Across Europe, the approach to deradicalisation taken for far right and Islamist extremists is usually broadly the same. “Of course the ideologies and biographies are different but the psychological mechanisms are often very similar,” says Köhler. “Find out what is driving them towards extremism, provide solutions for negative aspects – such as conflict resolution, drug treatment, PTSD treatment – and provide positive alternatives for their goals and interests. Plus you need to build strong, positive and pro-social emotional affective networks around them.”

Many Muslim majority countries – Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and others – run prison-based schemes for radicals. In some provinces of Pakistan, people apprehended carrying out acts of militancy (excluding the most serious crimes) are sent to military-run centres where they are given psychological treatment, religious teaching and mainstream education. This is compulsory, and is seen as a good alternative to prison. In most of Europe, participation is theoretically voluntary – though a recent Human Rights Watch report noted that the British government sometimes restricts travel if people refuse to participate in Channel. Ali says that some people referred to Channel refuse to take part – many experts recognise that people have to be willing for schemes to be effective.

Researchers say that prison can be a time when there is a “cognitive opening” where someone might be receptive to new ideas. The ICSR produced a report in 2010 suggesting that “prisons are not just a threat but can make a positive contribution to tackling problems of radicalisation and terrorism in society as a whole”.

The Saudi programme draws on the theocratic nature of the Saudi state. “It comes with the authority of a government that has religious credibility by itself,” says Neumann. “It tries to convince people that only the Saudi government has the authority to declare jihad. No non-Muslim majority country would ever be able to pull that off.”

As this shows, context is vitally important, which is one reason why researchers agree that there is no silver bullet for deradicalisation. In a war-torn country such as post-2003 Iraq, for instance, an individual’s motivations for joining a terrorist group are clearly different from those of someone in the UK. While tailoring to the political context – as well as to the individual – is vital, some themes consistently emerge. “Most of the more sophisticated programs use multi-disciplinary approaches drawing resources from at least five different fields: religious, educational, social, psychological and creative arts or sports,” says Köhler.

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The increased frequency of terrorist attacks in Europe and the associated rise in far right hate crimes and social tension have made clear the urgency of action against extremism. France has been resistant to the “soft” side of counterterrorism work, disregarding preventative outreach work entirely until two years ago, when it established a scheme. This hastily drawn together programme – including a deradicalisation centre in the countryside where French philosophy and history were taught – was recently criticised by a bipartisan Senate committee as a “failure”. But the fact that even France is working in this area illustrates growing acceptance of its necessity. “In most Western countries there has been an increase in the public perception that these programmes are important,” says KÖhler. “The pressure to have some kind of programme helping with reintegration and risk mitigation increases with a growing number of returnees [from Syria].” The case of returnees from Syria has become a pressing issue. Around 900 people are believed to have travelled there from the UK since the war began in 2011, and around 400 have returned. Not all were active fighters, but most will have been exposed to extremist ideas.

While in many European countries deradicalisation or intervention programmes are seen as a gentle approach, in the UK they remain bound up with Prevent, which has become a toxic brand to many. Several experts in the UK have called for a “reset” to make it clear that there is a division between the policing and preventative arms. According to Ali this process of separation has already begun, so that deradicalisation programmes are the responsibility of social services rather than police. He compares referrals to Channel to those for drugs services or sexual grooming. “What critics don’t realise is once you remove the soft side – the only thing left is the securitisation, the hard-edged intelligence gathering and prosecutions,” he says.

Rehabilitation for those already involved with terrorist groups or convicted of related offences is not the controversial aspect of deradicalisation; it is early intervention that causes most discomfort. Central to the debate is the question of what constitutes extremism, and when it is appropriate or necessary for the state to intervene. We live in a society where the definition of extremism is elastic, and where certain views might be considered radical from one citizen but not another, based on class, race or religion. When the definition of extremism is expanded, it has a knock-on effect for everyone: civil liberties, free speech and how we relate to one another.

A 2014 report by the Institute of Race Relations questioned the effectiveness of Exit programmes for far right extremists in Europe. Among other things, it criticised the characterisation of far right extremism as a social rather than political phenomenon. (This contrasts with criticisms often made of Islamist-targeted programmes: that the state shouldn’t get involved in battles of ideas.) The report also suggested that practitioners often take credit for work already being done by police and youth workers. This is crucial: targeted interventions should only be one part of a much wider programme of community work that functions separately from intelligence gathering. In recent years, funding for basic services like youth work have been drastically cut in the UK, but this broad-based quality community engagement is widely regarded as one of the most effective tools for social cohesion.

There appears to be growing acceptance that rehabilitating extremists is better for society as a whole. But the parameters must be clearly drawn, or a well-intentioned measure could be at best ineffective or at worst a drastic state incursion on free speech.