Ideas

Deprogramming ISIS recruits comes with high stakes

Wesley Bedrosian for the Boston Globe

One year ago, in April 2014, Abdullahi Yusuf walked into the Minneapolis passport office and asked for an expedited passport. The teenage Somali-American looked nervous and avoided eye contact as he presented his junior high school ID and told the passport official that he wanted to visit Turkey. The suspicious agent asked Yusuf a series of additional questions and later reported the encounter to the FBI.

If Yusuf suspected the extra scrutiny, it wasn’t enough to dissuade him of his plans. A month later, he was stopped by FBI agents at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport where, according to court documents, he was en route to join the Islamic State in Syria. Yusuf’s family knew nothing.

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Like many aspiring foreign fighters, Yusuf plotted his escape from the American Midwest to the Middle East with a hometown friend, Abdi Nur. The day after Yusuf was stopped by the FBI, court records say, Nur hopped on a flight to Turkey and later made his way to Syria, where he has been tweeting about his life as an ISIS fighter, including a photo of himself holding a Kalashnikov and smiling.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Yusuf pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support for to the Islamic State and, as he awaits sentencing, has been allowed by Judge Michael Davis to enter an experimental program that aims to reintegrate him into Minnesota society. It’s the first attempt in the United States at what’s been called “deradicalization,” and the stakes are high, particularly because the group taking on this task has no experience with doing so. “The question is: Can we reattach young men to their community, can we reattach their adolescent brains to something in the future that’s positive?” said Mary McKinley, executive director of Heartland Democracy, a halfway house that is working with Yusuf.

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There has been much discussion over how to prevent young people from joining extremist movements. But the United States is also at a significant impasse over what to do with those who want to opt out. In February, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf went on MSNBC’s Hardball to explain what a long-term strategy against militants associated might look like.

“We’re killing a lot of them, and we’re going to keep killing more of them,” Harf said. “We need, in the medium to longer term, to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity for jobs,’’ before being interrupted. It was a clumsily phrased articulation of a sentiment widely shared in the counter-terrorism community, which is simply put: We can’t kill our way out of this problem.

Less violent resolutions, however, remain elusive and controversial. The Minnesota program curriculum is still being fleshed out, though it will probably contain elements reminiscent of gang-intervention programs. It will also probably draw from the many other deradicalization programs currently underway in dozens of countries, which attempt to reintegrate into society — or at least defang — one-time followers of the world’s most violent terrorist groups.

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Yet, while these models all have a noble cause at their core, there is no concrete evidence that they actually work, despite some programs having been underway for more than a decade. In fact, even a workable definition of “deradicalization” is slippery. Does it mean rejecting extremist ideas? Or does it mean abandoning violence? Both? Academics and experts in the field quarrel over these semantics, which illustrates a larger truth: Most extremists don’t engage in violence, and many engaged in violence are not ideologically extremist.

“We can’t understand deradicalization because we don’t truly understand the radicalization process,” said Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former CIA officer who penned “Leaderless Jihad,” an influential treatise on the subject. That lack of understanding, however, leaves the future of young recruits, restless to return to a normal life, in limbo.

Today, foreign fighters by the tens of thousands are flocking to join the Islamic State, as it wages its campaign across the deserts of Iraq and Syria. More than 25,000 have already left their homes in more than 100 nations to join the Islamic State, according to the most recent report from the United Nations . Foreigners are also joining up with the ranks of the Kurdish peshmerga and various Christian militias fighting against ISIS.

It has become common for ISIS recruits to burn their passports, often recording it on video, as an act of allegiance to their new state. Some will regret it. And in those experiences may lie a key to understanding deradicalization.

“Many foreign fighters will die, either in battle or at the hands of the groups they join. But for others, the life will not suit them,” said John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who has interviewed many former terrorists for his research. Horgan contends that deradicalization is achievable. “For some, it’s a life of utter boredom without the running battles they imagine, and that’s something very difficult for many recruits to reconcile. Sometimes, that disillusionment happens within hours of joining.” (The more troubling corollary to this, is that there are others who grow disillusioned and leave terrorist groups because they are insufficiently savage.)

Lesley Becker/Globe staff; Shutterstock / Tashatuvango

Social media is a powerful recruiting tool for foreign fighters, but it also offers a window into their experiences. Chloe, a Muslim convert from San Francisco, left the United States and married a fighter in Syria, according to her social media posts as tracked by Anat Agron at the Middle East Media Research Institute. On Jan. 16, 2015, she posted a long list of things she missed about the United States, including bagels and cream cheese, Netflix, and her family. Two weeks later, she tweeted a photo of a pizza with the caption: “I would give my left kidney for this. K maybe not but still. No late night pizza delivery in Syria.”

For all those who regret joining terrorist groups immediately, there are others who have told Horgan they were disillusioned for years before finding a way to leave. “The radical discourse is just ideas, it’s not a contagious disease you catch by being in contact with contaminated people,” former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mourad Benchellali told Radio France Internationale earlier this year. “You can go back, reflect on what you’ve done. But you need help to do that.”

Decommissioning combatants is probably as old as conflict itself. Indeed, some of it happens naturally as radical generations moderate with age. (Nor, truth be told, is the foreign fighter a new phenomenon: Consider George Orwell, Davy Crockett, and the Marquis de Lafayette — all radicals, of a sort, who fought under a foreign flag.) Even as the fight against the current wave of terrorism stretches into its second decade, it’s worth remembering that all terrorist groups — no matter how formidable — call it quits eventually.

Even when the conflict stretches on, individual warriors can quit the game. In the 1970s, the British government began releasing members of the Irish Republican Army after they served prison sentences. Spain did the same a decade later with members of the Basque terrorist group, ETA. The Italians granted amnesty to many of the members of the Red Brigades.

In none of these cases was there a prerequisite of reeducation or deradicalization. Freedom for IRA members was never contingent on moderating their Catholicism or abandoning a desire for Irish independence. In Spain, there was no talk of “deradicalizing” members of ETA. What they did have to do — in all cases — was renounce was violence.

There have already been some defections from ISIS, and more will come. The defectors’ reasons for leaving are often as varied as their reasons for joining. Yes, some will deradicalize on their own. Others may do so on their own at first, but find that graduating from an official program can help demonstrate to authorities their commitment to abandoning the cause. To this end, current programs in other countries (and even those run by the US military in places like Iraq and Afghanistan), frequently offer carrots like reduced prison sentences in exchange for information about terror groups or the requirement that the deradicalized help deradicalize others.

But there will be still others who need an official program to find another path.

All the major deradicalization programs underway in dozens of countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom have components of religious instruction or reinstruction. Some utilize former terrorists, others religious leaders, but all focus on getting subjects to concede the interpretations of Islam that led them to violence are illegitimate.

What the curricula of these efforts look like vary widely, depending on the country. But they usually include religious education (often led by “moderate” imams or former radicals), vocational training, psychiatric counseling (particularly for former child soldiers), various type of civic reengagement, and intensive monitoring by the state upon graduation. There are variations on a theme, of course. Some programs, for instance, focus on developing mentoring relationships while others may try outside-the-box ideas, like art therapy, with which the Saudis have experimented.

The Saudi government runs one of the oldest and best-known programs, and its operators claim great results through a combination of intensive religious reeducation, job placement, monitoring, and monetary support. But they have also refused to show comprehensive data to outside researchers, notes Jessica Stern, a Harvard scholar and coauthor of the new book “ISIS: The State of Terror.”

What is known, however, is that many graduates of the Saudi program have gone on to flourishing terrorist careers. Said Ali al-Shihri, to name one of many, graduated in from the program in 2007, fled to Yemen, and became the deputy commander of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Indeed, metrics generally remain elusive. Some critics say good data is impossible without a control group — that is, a group of returning terrorists who don’t go through the programs. Others say deradicalization is impossible and contend that combatants should remain imprisoned for the duration of what today appears to be an open-ended conflict. As Horgan explains, “Deradicalization is incredibly difficult from a public policy standpoint because we have to be prepared to accept a less than 100 percent success rate.” When Harf, the State Department spokeswoman, made her comments in February, it prompted widespread ridicule from conservatives and #JobsForISIS spinning across Twitter.

Back in Minnesota, a curriculum for Abdullahi Yusuf’s deradicalization — the details of which are still being worked out — will most likely end up borrowing a lot from existing prevention programs. As such, McKinley of Heartland Democracy said, employment and tight community ties could help bind youngsters like Yusuf to their communities rather than Al Shabab, ISIS, Al Qaeda, or a local gang. So while we still don’t know enough about either end of the phenomenon of radicalization, it’s hard to miss that prevention and cure look remarkably similar.

Alex Kingsbury will later this month become deputy editor of Globe Ideas. He was previously a senior producer at WBUR’s RadioBoston.

Related:

The jihadi hunters

The terrorist bureaucracy

The surprising appeal of ISIS

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: We must revisit how Marathon bombers became extremists

Jessica Stern: How ISIS, other jihadist groups lure Westerners

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