Reducing Recidivism Among Islamic Extremists

As the United States embarks on new policies and a new administration, its citizens must be more vigilant now than ever before. There will continue to be an upsurge in extremist ideology and high recidivism rates among convicted terrorists who have now reengaged in violence. Rehabilitation may be the only real solution to combat this ongoing threat.

According to a July 2016 House Homeland Security Committee Report, at least 875 people were wounded or killed globally in Islamic extremist-related attacks in 2016 – an increase from 720 people the previous year. Most of those plots were conceived by people who were merely inspired by the Islamic State group (IS), as opposed to those who trained beside fighters in Iraq and Syria. In one of his last speeches as president, Barack Obama stood before the men and women in uniform at MacDill Air Force base on 6 December 2016 and stated, “No foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland.” Although the IS did not physically bring fighters from the fields of Iraq and Syria to carry out attacks on U.S. soil, those inspired by the IS ideology were unfortunately successful in their efforts.

Radical Islamic-Inspired Attacks on U.S. Soil

Inspiration from terror organizations and online social networks served as the easiest means to carry out attacks – through the radicalization efforts of Islamic extremists abroad. During the eight years of the Obama Administration, there had been 13 verifiable attacks linked to radical Islamic propaganda:

  • June 2009, U.S.-born Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad in Arkansas carried out a drive-by shooting at a military recruiting station in Little Rock. Muhammad claimed to be a member of al-Qaida.
  • November 2009, U.S.-born Major Nidal Malik Hasan carried out an attack in Fort Hood, murdering 13 people. Hasan pledged allegiance to IS.
  • April 2013, Russian-born Tamerlan (U.S. green card holder) and Kyrgyzstan-born Dhozkar Tsarnaev (naturalized U.S. citizen) both carried out attacks in Boston at the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 260 people. Both brothers were self-radicalized through online jihadist propaganda and pledged allegiance to al-Qaida.
  • September 2014, U.S.-born Alton Nolen in Oklahoma beheaded Colleen Hufford and stabbed another person. It was surmised Nolen was radicalized online as his method of attack was inspired by online radical videos.
  • October 2014, U.S.-born Zale Thompson in New York City injured two police officers with a hatchet before being shot. Thompson was radicalized by propaganda online by the IS, al-Qaida, and al-Shabab.
  • December 2014, Ismaayil Brinsley in New York City murdered two police officers execution style. Brinsley had ties to a terror-linked mosque and promoted jihadist ideology on social media.
  • May 2015, two gunmen – U.S.-born roommates Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi – opened fire in the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, where a Muhammad cartoon contest was taking place, and were subsequently killed by a police officer. IS claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • July 2015, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Kuwaiti-born Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez (naturalized U.S. citizen) shot and killed four Marines and a sailor. He was inspired by IS.
  • December 2015, in California, U.S.-born Syed Farook and wife Pakistani-born Tashfeen Malik (U.S. Green-card holder), shot and killed 14 people and injured another 22 at an office holiday party. IS claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • June 2016, in Florida, U.S.-born Omar Mateen opened fired at a nightclub killing 49 and injuring 53. Self-radicalized, Mateen pledged his loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
  • September 2016, in Minnesota, Kenyan-born Dahir Ahmed Adan (U.S. citizen) attacked people with a steak knife at a Minnesota mall, injuring 10 people before being killed. He had recently become self-radicalized.
  • September 2016, in New York City, Afghan-born Ahmad Khan Rahami (naturalized U.S. citizen) detonated multiple bombs in the New York and New Jersey area injuring over 30 people. Rahami had been inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, Nidal Hassan, and Osama bin Laden.
  • November 2016, in Ohio, Somalian-born refugee Abdul Razak Ali Artan (legal permanent U.S. resident), attempted to drive over Ohio State students. After his car was stopped, he began attacking people with a butcher knife, injuring 11 people, one of them critically. Artan was inspired by IS, which subsequently took credit for the attack.

Engaging & Re-Engaging in Terrorist Activities

The ark of progress for the United States has been long and upward in terms of its readiness to prevent and combat acts of terrorism – but preparedness alone simply will not end the attacks. Additional strategies are needed to combat terrorism and further curb the appeal of the radicalization path so many youth travel. The House Homeland Security Committee Report articulates what many have postulated: many of those radicalized, and those having aligning beliefs with IS, continue to be young men under the age of 30. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, because of the convenience of smartphones, 92 percent of teenagers go online daily, and 24 percent are online “almost constantly.” Based on this data, it would be easy to surmise why so many of those radicalized online are under the age of 30. IS attracts those who are tech savvy and social media serves as an accelerant of the radicalization process.

Although religion plays a marginal role in the radicalization process, a majority of these people are driven by political or social change, grievances, personal dissatisfactions, and sense of adventure. There is no “simple” or “easy” explanation or reasoning behind radicalization, as different people follow different paths to get there. Behavioral changes and certain traits can be attributed to the radicalization process and are a strong indication that an individual is gravitating toward extremist beliefs and becoming radicalized.

Aside from the newly radicalized youth that seek fame and fantasy fighting abroad or plotting at home, those who have reengaged their terrorist beliefs are also of great concern. A 2015 report issued by the Director of National Intelligence suggests that upward of 28% of former detainees from Guantanamo Bay are suspected of or have reengaged in terrorism. Senate Foreign Relations Committee member U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, reinforced this in January 2017 when he stated, “About 30 percent of terrorists at Guantanamo Bay went back into battle. We know that a dozen or so killed Americans.”

As countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have increased the detention of terrorist suspects, it is apparent that extremist problems cannot be solved with mere detention efforts. Eventually, the detainees will be released from prison and, conversely, the need to release suspects who have previously engaged in terrorism must be done in a way to minimize the risks to national security. For example, in February 2017, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Abu-Zakariya al-Britani carried out a suicide bomb attack in Mosul, Iraq; IS claimed responsibility and praised al-Britani. He had been held at Guantanamo Bay detention center for his connections to al-Qaida terrorists from 2002 through 2004, then released without charges and returned to England. He later reengaged in his extremism fighting on the battlefields in Syria.

Despite the reality that there has been an enormous amount of research on the desire to understand and prevent radical Islamic extremism, research has neglected to focus on deradicalization or disengagement from terrorism. After 9/11, efforts to combat terrorism were focused solely on counterattacks and improving the infrastructure to combat further terrorist acts, nothing was done to actually undermine the appeal of terrorism.

Finding the Best Deterrent Tactics

The Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) has several Programs and Initiatives in place to explore curbing the appeal to radicalization and aims to disengage those from extremist ideologies. Since late 2015, the CVE Program promotes counter-messaging and alternative narratives, and addresses radicalization through the criminal justice sector, such as police-community engagement, diversion programs, and juvenile justice. In 2015, recognizing the rise of extremism in its own country, France created a national database for terrorist offenders (FIJAIT), a database utilized to identify previous offenders and to further prevent terrorist recidivism. France is now able to register names and terrorist offenses for up to 20 years in the FIJAIT. There is an obvious need to evaluate the effectiveness of established deradicalization programs as a new strategy in countering recidivism of Islamic extremists and implementing the effective components. Several countries are now exploring alternative means to counter the rise and appeal to radical extremism.

The deradicalization, disengagement, or rehabilitation process may prove to be, for the most part, complex for traditional Islamic extremists since they are motivated by an ideology, but religion plays only a marginal role in the radicalization process. The deradicalization or disengagement process is the sequence of shifting a person’s faith, religious re-education through rejecting the Islamic extremist ideology, and the acceptance of more conventional values. With the optimism that reforming an Islamic extremist can actually happen and is ultimately achievable, efforts to establish programs to deradicalize those connected to Islamic extremism have been established in multiple countries around the globe. However, much doubt remains over the effectiveness of these programs.

Deradicalization is not deprogramming – but rather rehabilitating. The main premise is to re-integrate these people into conforming society and re-socialize them by combining counseling efforts, religious re-education, psychological therapy, and communal engagement efforts. Most terror suspects face imprisonment with no rehabilitative component, hence the high rate of recidivism. People who commit acts of terrorism are not only troubled but vulnerable, and easily influenced. Unfortunately, there are no successful programs currently in place in the United States.

In early 2016, a federal judge in Minnesota recommended an experimental program be established that assesses the risks posed by terrorist offenders and provide recommendations for deradicalization. The program enlisted the assistance of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies. The German Institute has led training on deradicalization and intervention programs previously in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The program in Minnesota will explore the defendants’ level of capability and intent to commit future acts of violence, and measure their stage of radicalization. The program will work much similar to that in the correctional system today by imposing conditions post-release, instituting rehabilitation programs, and monitoring within the community. At this point, it is too early to gauge any success rate in the Minnesota program.

Deradicalization programs are comprised of several approaches directed at changing extremists’ interpretation of Islam, distancing these people from the extremist group they were once part of, and most importantly reintegrating them back into mainstream society. Saudi Arabia boasts a 12% recidivism rate, which translates to about an 80% success rate. However, the 20% hardliners are far more violent and more involved in the actual terror acts themselves versus minimal involvement of material supporters (i.e., training, financing, recruitment, promotion of propaganda).

Saudi Arabia has been considered a model of rehabilitating terrorists; many former Guantanamo Bay detainees have successfully completed the Saudi-based program. Despite some impressive successes, many have relapsed and returned to their activities related to terrorism. Of those released from Guantanamo Bay detention center, many are known or suspected of subsequently joining Islamic extremist groups. This is only a snapshot of the problem as thousands more are detained around the world. The only hope to reduce the chance someone will return to acts of terrorism is through deradicalization, the only means to potentially defuse the threat posed by these Islamic extremists. When deradicalization is coupled with disengagement, it creates additional barriers to recidivism.

Islamic extremist groups fulfill both a psychological and primary need for those involved. Considering this, several rehabilitative efforts must be examined and implemented that focus on the importance of establishing strong social and family networks, conflict resolution, and most significantly religious re-education efforts. Going forward, the impact and significance of Islamic extremist rehabilitation programs will affect the national security of the United States and that of the world. Radicals exist on the periphery of almost every religion; however, the fears concerning the increase of radical Islam have grown to be particularly widespread over recent years. Deradicalization could very well be the only means to permanently neutralize the ongoing danger posed by radical Islamic extremism.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. Additionally, he has authorednumerousscholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combating human trafficking. 



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