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The Phenomenon of Islamist and Jihadist De-Radicalization

09/07/2009

Imagine this news headlines: ‘Bin Laden’s New Fatwa Prohibits Attacks Against the West’ or ‘Bin Laden Denounces Terrorism.’ Too preposterous? May be. But the series of processes that we now call ‘de-radicalization’ does not suggest so.

De-radicalization is a process of relative change, one in which a violently radical group reverses its behavior and ideology to abandon and de-legitimize the use of violent methods to achieve political goals, while also moving towards an acceptance of gradual social, political and economic changes within a pluralist context.  Does that even apply to armed Islamists? Yes, it does – in quite a large scale.

Several armed movements, factions, and individual militants have shown remarkable behavioural and ideological transformations towards non-violence. The ‘de-radicalization’ processes of these movements removed tens of thousands of former militants from the ranks of al-Qa’ida’s supporter and acted as disincentives for would-be militants. These processes have taken place on a large scale (organizational levels, in Egypt, Algeria, Tajikistan, and on a relatively smaller scale (factional and individual levels) in the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia — among other countries.

Too many questions pop up: Reasons? Conditions? Repercussions? I cannot answer them all here. However, previous research on de-radicalization processes concludes that a combination of charismatic leadership, state repression, interactions with the ‘other’ as well as within the organization, and selective inducements from the state and other actors are common causes of de-radicalization.

There is a pattern of interaction between these factors leading ultimately to de-radicalization in many of the aforementioned cases as well as in non-Islamist cases. State repression and interaction with the ‘other’ often affect the ideas and the behavior of the leadership of an armed organization and probably lead them to initiate three endogenous processes: strategic calculations, political learning, and weltanschauung(s) revision(s).

The first process is based on rational-choice calculations and cost-benefit analyses. The second process is a product of socialization and interaction with the ‘other’. The leadership will update its beliefs and reassess its behavior due to the behavior of their interaction partner(s). The third process is mostly based on perceptional and psychological factors. It is a process in which the leadership of an armed Islamist movement modifies its worldviews as a result of severe crises, frustration and dramatic changes in the environment.

Following these processes, the leadership initiates a de-radicalization process that is bolstered by selective inducements from the state as well as by internal interactions (lectures, discussions, meetings between the leadership, mid-ranking commanders, and the grassroots in an effort to convince them about the merits of de-radicalization).

Also, de-radicalized groups often interact with violent Islamist groups and, in some cases, the former influence the latter (domino effect). That type of interactions is well-demonstrated in the Islamic Group and al-Jihad Organization in Egypt; the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) and other smaller Islamist militias as well as factions from the GIA and the GSPC in Algeria; and de-radicalized Islamist figures and individual suspects in Saudi Arabia.

So what should we do from here – both policy and research-wise? Well, for starters, this is an understudied phenomenon not only in security studies, but also in sociological, political, Islamic and area studies. In that sense the new project on de-radicalisation of ICSR is commendable (yes, Neumann strikes again!).

Policy-wise, there are already some implications regarding counterterrorism, security, foreign and social policies. There is no wonder that more than thirty countries rushed to setup de-radicalization programs in their prisons – from the liberal and free (UK, US and others in Western Europe) to the repressive and not so free (Uzbekistan did not miss the rush!).