When terrorists need rehab: inside the world of jihadist deradicalisation

There are 15,000 foreigners from 80 countries acting with extremist groups in Iraq and Syria with according to a UN report, which warns they represent a future threat on home soil. Can these recruits ever be reintegrated into society?

Mohammed Ahmed from Birmingham admitted to linking up with an extremist group fighting jihad in Syria, after a family member reported them to the police. West Midlands police / PA
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In the summer of 2007, the Saudi extremist Ahmed Al Shayea became the poster boy of deradicalisation.

Born in the town of Buraidah, capital of the conservative central northern farming region of Al-Qassim, by the age of 19 he was bored, jobless and disillusioned – and easy prey for Al Qaeda recruiters seeking cannon fodder for the Iraq insurgency. On Christmas Day, 2004, Al Shayea drove a fuel truck wired with explosives into the Al Mansour district in west Baghdad, where it exploded, killing nine people. The fireball burnt off his fingers and disfigured his face, but he survived.

That should have been that for the teenage jihadi. But after a stint in Abu Ghraib prison he found himself repatriated to Saudi Arabia and enrolled into a new programme in Riyadh designed to deradicalise nationals who had taken the path to violent extremism.

Two years earlier, the bombing of two western compounds in Riyadh had killed 39 people and signalled the start of a wave of terrorist activity in the Kingdom. The last thing Saudi Arabia needed was battle-hardened extremists returning to continue the fight.

The programme, which is still in operation, combines spiritual and temporal inducements, striving to re-educate jihadis in the true ways of Islam, while helping them to find jobs, start families and generally become useful members of society. Some are even given cars and monthly incomes.

By July 2007, Al Shayea, now 22, was regarded as such a successful graduate of the programme that the Saudis decided to show him off to the world. “I realised that all along I was wrong,” he told the Associated Press in an article published around the world. He even appeared on American TV shows. “There is no jihad,” he said. “We are just instruments of death.”

Unfortunately, Al Shayea wasn’t done with being an instrument of death. According to his Twitter feed and reports in the British media, last November he once again left Saudi Arabia for Syria, where he has now joined the Islamist extremist group ISIL.


High-profile failures do not mean that such programmes are doomed to fail, says Raffaello Pantucci, the director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute. Which is just as well, as governments across Europe are now struggling to put together a similar response.

Last week, the United Nations submitted a report to the Security Council warning that fighters from more than 80 countries were acting with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, with about 15,000 in the region in total. In a chilling warning, the report states that these men and women “form the core of a new dia­spora that may seed the threat for years to come”.

“It is something they have to start figuring out how to do,” says Pantucci. “Some of the people who get drawn to fight in these places are mad, bad and psychotic and they need to be dealt with in a specific way. But many are just young idealists who have made a choice which is horribly wrong and you need to be able to give them a credible way out.”

The problem is particularly acute in the United Kingdom, where at least 500 young British-born Muslims are thought to have answered the call to jihad and the government is under pressure to come down hard. The prime minister David Cameron put on a belligerent display at his party’s annual conference in September.

“To those who have had all the advantages of being brought up in Britain, but who want to fight for ISIL, let me say this: If you try to travel to Syria or Iraq, we will use everything at our disposal to stop you … we may even prevent you from coming back,” he said. “You are an enemy of the UK and you should expect to be treated as such.”

Subsequent legal advice that it would be difficult to withdraw the passports of UK-born citizens has forced a change of tack.


Behind the scenes, the UK government has consistently supported the work of Channel, a multi-agency, Home Office-funded programme set up in 2006 in response to the July 7 bombings the previous year, in which four British-born suicide bombers claimed the lives of 52 people.

Channel, designed to identify and mentor children and adults at risk of being drawn into terrorist activity, began as a pilot project. Now nationwide, in the past year it has offered mentoring support to 1,281 people and, say insiders, it is this scheme and its network of community elders and front line professionals that is likely to be at the heart of plans to “deprogramme” British citizens returning from Syria or Iraq.

“Many different countries already have deprogramming procedures in place, including Saudi Arabia, famously,” says Usama Hasan, a senior researcher at Quilliam, a London-based counter-­extremism think tank that “stands for religious freedom, equality, human rights and democracy”.

“We now know there are programmes for reintegrating foreign fighters from Syria in places like Belgium, Germany and Denmark and there is talk of doing that in the UK. We already have the Channel mentoring scheme and any reintegration scheme in this country would presumably be an expansion of that.”

The primary problem with such schemes, believes Hasan, is that they amount to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

“Why have people been radicalised in the first place? At Quilliam we argue that is the primary issue that needs to be tackled, and the root cause is extremist ideology and other factors exploited by the jihadists to recruit people and develop a sense of grievance or disenchantment with the West.”

Hasan knows something about radicalisation. As a teenager he became a self-professed “radical salafi activist” and, in the early 90s, while still a Cambridge University undergraduate, he briefly took part in the jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Despite this, he believes that “if people have committed terrorist acts they should be prosecuted and put away. But they will come out of prison eventually and there will have to be work done to reduce their threat level to society.”

But before that can be done, says Arie Kruglanski, the co-director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and ­Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, it is vital to understand exactly what it is that motivates second- or third-generation Muslim immigrants to turn their backs on their countries and embrace violent extremism. Assuming they are motivated by deep religious beliefs may be a mistake, he says.

In many attempts at deprogramming extremists, “the counter-narrative is phrased exclusively in theological terms, in arcane Quranic arguments that very likely are going to fall on deaf ears of youngsters who do not have much interest or knowledge about the religion”, says the American social psychologist who has become an acknowledged expert in the psychology of terrorism.

“It is important to understand that the appeal of extremist ­ideology lies in its psychology and not its theology … psychological elements have to be addressed in whatever deradicalisation efforts are going to be made.”

Kruglanski and his team have worked with and studied re­integration schemes all over the world, ranging from Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to neo-Nazis in Sweden, and in almost every case have discovered the same two basic motivations. One, says Kruglanski, is “a need for order and coherence in one’s world views and opinions”. For young people in a transitional stage of their lives, “who are unemployed and feel disenfranchised, futureless and discriminated against, radical fundamentalist ideology is very appealing to them because of its dichotomous nature. It casts everything in black and white terms, in terms of good versus evil, sinners versus saints”.

The second “and, perhaps, even more important aspect” is that fundamentalist ideology “promises these youngsters a sense of significance – a contribution, a place in history – that they could never have hoped to obtain through business as usual in the workaday world. The promise of significance through bravery and fighting, and the promise of a status of heroes and saints, is extremely alluring to these people. Even for women, the promise of becoming a wife of a jihadi, the mother of future fighters for Islam, is extremely ­alluring.”

As a psychologist, Kruglanski also believes that ISIL and other similar organisations capitalise on the two most fundamental of human motives, identified by Freud as Thanatos and Eros – the instincts for death and life.

“ISIL’s cleverness is that it uses sex as a reward for aggression,” he says. “This is of evolutionary proportions. In the animal kingdom the buck fights for the doe with its rivals and is rewarded by sex. The warrior in a medieval tournament is rewarded by a favourable smile from his lady and ISIL uses this in terms of bribes for jihadis – the legitimation of sex in brothels and the rape of infidel women.”

Releasing these “instinctual tendencies for dominance and sex from their civilised restraints”, ISIL is effecting “a very clever reversal that turns the profane into the sacred. So now, to rape and to dominate women becomes a sacred duty, a birthright of the jihadist warrior, and this is extremely powerful and effective.”

There is plenty of evidence that rape is a significant ISIL tactic. At the beginning of August, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq received reports that more than 450 women and girls had been taken to Tal Afar in Ninewa, from where unmarried women and girls from the Yazidi and Christian communities “were reportedly transported to Syria, either to be given to ISIL fighters as a reward or to be sold as sex slaves”.

There were also reports that “an office for the sale of abducted women was opened in the Al-Quds area of Mosul city”. The buyers were said to be “mostly youth from the local communities”, to whom “ISIL is selling these Yazidi women … as a means of inducing them to join their ranks”.


In January, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, 22-year-old Britons from Birmingham who had spent eight months fighting in Syria, were arrested by counter­terrorist police upon their return to the UK.

In July, when they pleaded guilty to terrorism charges, it emerged that before leaving to become jihadists one had left a note for his family declaring his intention to “die as a martyr”.

Yet it is not certain that either of the former school friends knew much about the cause for which he was apparently prepared to die. Before leaving for Syria, the pair had ordered books from Amazon including Islam for Dummies.

Desmond Molloy, a former member of the Irish Defence Forces and an expert in disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration with the International Research Group on Reintegration, agrees that it is important for societies hoping to bring extremists back into the fold to be able to offer them a better life – something he has helped to achieve among Al Shabab militants in Somalia, for example. But he cautions against dismissing the importance of religious belief, no matter how misguided such belief might be.

“I am quite sceptical about the whole issue of deradicalisation per se,” he says. “Dealing with politically driven conflict such as you had in Northern Ireland and dealing with people who for the past 1,000 years have been trying to develop the Caliphate are two very different things.”

In his view, unlike groups such as the Irish Republican Army, ISIL “would not be susceptible to finding temporal solutions that would allow them to place their weapons beyond use. They have a much higher, theological motivation.”

In Puntland in north-eastern Somalia, Molloy and his colleagues are working to bring back into the community people who have been involved in piracy. “We’re using the local imams to declare their engagement in piracy as haram and, until ISIL accepts that decapitating people on video and destroying other ethnic groups is haram, I don’t believe that deradicalisation efforts from the West are going to be very effective.”

But whatever the motivation of individual jihadis, Kruglanski believes that any attempt to reintegrate them into society in their home countries must offer more than a return to the world of work and mortgages.

“In Sri Lanka we have thousands of former Tamil Tigers who have surrendered and undergone what I consider to be a fairly successful deradicalisation programme,” he says. But now the crucial question is how to reintegrate them into ­society.

“We have spoken to some, who now are employed as translators, and they complain about the boredom of it all. Once they were ­Tigers, and they lived like tigers, and now they live like pussycats.”

His advice to western governments would be to exploit the pent-up potential of any warrior returning from the war in Syria and Iraq. “I think addressing their need for significance, mobilising the psyche but in reverse, would be very useful and helpful,” he says.

“In many cases former jihadis and others have become very significant warriors against extremist Islam, so promising them significance as ‘white knights’ as opposed to ‘black knights’ can be extremely appealing – not merely reintegrating them into society but capitalising on their quest for significance and turning it around, ju-jitsu style, to allow them to obtain significance by helping the fight against extremism.”


There are at least two high-­profile examples of former extremists who have, in effect, reintegrated themselves back into society by adopting precisely this “white knight” role.

In his 2007 book The Islamist, the British-born Ed Husain wrote of the racism he experienced growing up in London's East End and how, as a teenager, he became involved with Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international organisation dedicated to building a pan-­Islamic caliphate. After five years of flirting with extremism and "much emotional turmoil, I rejected fundamentalist teachings and returned to normal life and my family".

Today, Husain is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a respected commentator on the threats posed by radicalisation and ­terrorism. Husain’s co-founder at Quilliam is Maajid Nawaz, a British-born Muslim who was also recruited into Hizb ut-Tahrir as a teenager.

Last year Nawaz published Radical, an account of his "journey from Islamist extremism to a democratic awakening". He had travelled rather further down the path to extremism than Husain, on a journey that took him to Egypt, where he was arrested on the eve of 9/11. He spent four years in an Egyptian jail and it was there that his deradicalisation began.

In early October, Nawaz published an open letter to western Muslims who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. It is, in effect, a blueprint for deradicalisation that western governments struggling to cope with returning jihadis would do well to study.

Calling on them to recognise that, while they had rallied to the just cause of fighting tyranny and injustice in Syria, they had instead now become part of “the worst Muslim on Muslim civil war of our age”, he urged them to return home – and offered them help to do so.

“Seek sanctuary in the justice systems of your home countries by surrendering yourselves,” he wrote. They would probably face arrest and imprisonment. After all, they had “joined a group the brutality of which the world hadn’t seen since it rid itself of the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge [and] you will need to take responsibility for your role”.

But while in a western prison they would be fairly treated, allowed to practise their religion and, eventually, would be released, all of which was “better than dying in a great tribulation – fitna – and facing a most uncertain judgment from your Lord”.

Nawaz ended his moving letter with a promise to all those who heeded his advice.

“If you invite me, I will put myself on the line [and] fairly represent to the judge what you were probably thinking when you went, why people like you decide to return, and how it is possible to repent and regret such mistakes.

“I believe you yet have value in your lives … If you take one step to the good, we will all make leaps towards you. That is a promise. I have not given up on you. To do so would have been to give up on myself.”

Jonathan Gornall is a regular contributor to The National.