Pakistan is an unexpected leader in rehabilitating former jihadis

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Marco Werman: Look no further than the two brothers who carried out the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris--one or possibly both of them came back after getting training from extremists abroad, ready to carry out attacks in their home country. So, is it possible to de-radicalize people like that? We asked John Horgan that question. He directs the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, and he’s written a book on this very topic. So, Dr. Horgan, let me ask you--in the story we just heard, French authorities continue to hold a former fighter eight months after he returned from Syria. Are they right to be afraid of him?


John Horgan: I think they’re right to be afraid of him because they probably don’t know what to do with him. We are facing a problem on a scale of which I don’t think we fully understand. I mean, there are hundreds, if not likely thousands of foreign fighters who will want to return. Some European countries have already grasped the challenge; certainly, there’s quite an interesting deradicalization program already underway in Denmark. But to my knowledge, the French haven’t yet begun to realistically consider what that might entail.


Werman: Is there any way to know who’s dangerous and who is not?


Horgan: Yes, there is, and it’s done by typically a very resource-intensive one-on-one risk assessment endeavor that’s typically done by a psychologist, intelligence analyst, but part of that challenge is understanding what motivated someone to go to Syria or Iraq in the first place. Were they motivated by religious or humanitarian reasons? Did they just want to get a sense of adventure fighting with ISIS? Did they want to go to cut people’s heads off? It’s critical that we understand what pushed or pulled that person into terrorism in the first place, if we can somehow make a judgement on whether or not they may be safe to release back into the community when they return.


Werman: So, figure out their motivation and then kind of then reverse-engineer that to figure out how deradicalization might work?


Horgan: Yes, absolutely. And there are about a thousand steps in between. There are huge challenges with respect to resocializing former militants. One issue is to also ascertain what kind of experiences they actually had in the battlefield.


Werman: In France, they’ve got this anti-jihadism campaign going right now, they’ve produced a series of posters, almost crowd sourced, how to identify extremists in our midst. But they’re saying things like “jihadists will stop eating baguettes” or “they become very isolated and will hang out among their own type.” How dangerous is that, to kind of let the public help out with this whole deradicalization?


Horgan: I have to say, in the absence of any program, that’s the first step. I’m aware of those posters, I saw them when they were first released, and I think they were largely being greeted with a sense of derision. The reality is, and few who study terrorism are willing to admit this, but the signs for risk factors for radicalization and terrorism just isn’t there yet. I mean, truth be told, we don’t really know in great detail what separates a radicalist from a terrorist until it’s too late.


Werman: It sounds like there’s a lot of work to be done. How close is France, the United States, working together trying to figure this out?


Horgan: That’s a great question. There are about 40 to 45 deradicalization reintegration programs operating around the world right now.


Werman: That’s a lot.


Horgan: Yes, and not all of those are necessarily conducted in public. Some are very well known; there are programs in places like Saudi Arabia that are highly publicized.


Werman: Of all those programs, what is the most creative and promising deradicalization program that you’ve seen or encountered?


Horgan: I’ve seen some truly remarkable progress in Pakistan, and that’s saying something--I mean, we’re talking about a region that is absolutely racked from civil strife and conflict and terrorism from multiple directions. But I think for me, and what’s truly innovative about that, is that they place most of their emphasis on reintegration as opposed to deradicalization. I think, again, there is this assumption that we need to somehow undo the brainwashing that these individuals get in training camps by giving them a different kind of brainwashing. So, making them a model French citizen or a model Saudi citizen or whatever it might be. The Pakistanis actually take a very pragmatic approach, which is that they try to focus on giving the individual a meaningful purpose in their lives post-jihadism. I think people are right to be skeptical about these programs--I certainly see myself as a skeptic--but these represent some of the most creative efforts we’ve seen so far when it comes to counterterrorism. I think there is a dawning realization that we can’t capture or kill our way out of this problem, and unless we get ahead of the challenge for thinking about returning foreign fighters, we’re going to see ourselves in crisis very, very soon.


Werman: UMASS-Lowell professor John Horgan, the author of “Walking Away From Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement From Radical and Extremist Movements.” Thank you very much for your thoughts today.


Horgan: Thank you for having me.