The London Bridge attacker was undergoing 'deradicalisation'. Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images

March 31, 2021   5 mins

Can terrorists be “deprogrammed”? It is one of the most daunting and complex questions facing European states today, and one of the most urgent. Just a few years ago, over 40,000 people from 80 different countries were attracted to Islamic State’s expanding tyranny in Iraq and Syria. Today, as the “Caliphate” they dreamed would last until the end times lies in rubble, close to 2,000 have returned to Europe, including some 450 to Britain.

Combined with a burgeoning, noisy and influential extremist contingent in our prisons, they form a UK jihadist population larger than ever before. Some will have returned disillusioned, others will be battle-hardened and trained. Some, as my own research shows, will have committed war crimes but freely walk the streets, able to update their LinkedIn profiles and pick up their lives like nothing happened.

So, even as attention turns elsewhere and despite the horrors already suffered, it’s likely the challenges posed by jihadism lie ahead rather than behind us. All of this makes the question of whether terrorists can change an urgent one. The short answer is yes. Of course they can. Because people leave terrorist groups all the time, and for all sorts of different reasons. The question of whether this can be replicated by the state or some other institution is quite another matter — one for which evidence is scarce, as underlined by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation last week.

Cambridge University’s Learning Together programme believed that terrorists could change. Perhaps this belief, their desire to believe, misled them into the ultimately fatal trap of including Usman Khan, who would go on to slay those who sought only to help him late in 2019. Khan, a convicted terrorist who plotted to blow up the London Stock Exchange, was a participant in two separate state “deradicalisation” programmes before joining Learning Together. Did Khan hate them for believing in him? Was he lashing out at the very idea of terrorist rehabilitation itself, in a spectacular act of bloody ridicule? He wanted to be a glorious martyr, instead he found himself in conference workshops with lukewarm tea and flipcharts. It’s not hard to imagine his disdain and frustration.

It wouldn’t be the first or last time terrorists sneered at such schemes. The independent reviewer, Jonathan Hall QC, reported how some extremists in prison wore headphones, pretended to sleep, or took extended toilet breaks to disrupt sessions with mentors.

A French jihadist “returnee” told journalist David Thomson of her amused contempt for her deradicalisation programme: how they spoke to her like an alcoholic and combed her past for the traumatic event which must have “pushed” her towards Islamic State. And in a scene straight from the mind of Chris Morris, academic Hugo Micheron described how jihadists — some suspected of the most serious crimes — were encouraged to stroke a ferret in workshops in order to connect with “otherness” and the value of life.

A vein of supposed wisdom runs through counterterrorism policy which imagines terrorists not as moral, intellectual agents of their own destiny, but as mere entities “pushed” or “driven” to violence by structural factors above and beyond their control; or as vulnerable minds transformed by nefarious online radicalisers.

And if confusion over radicalisation persists, its implications for deradicalisation are significant. The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood recently remarked on the peculiarity of holding deradicalisation as though symmetrical to radicalisation, as if the process could simply be reversed by authorities. The reality is quite different, “because deradicalization happens against the subject’s will in many cases, at the insistence of the government, and radicalization is organic and voluntary.”

Advocates of deradicalisation point to the thousands of individuals who leave extremist groups or who do not reoffend as evidence of its promise. But this tells us little about deradicalisation schemes. It doesn’t tell us whether they didn’t reoffend because of state intervention, and it doesn’t tell us anything about changes in belief. It is perfectly possible of course, to exist peacefully in society while remaining deeply committed to a violent extremist worldview.

In the United Kingdom, the emphasis in official schemes has pivoted towards the more modest objective of disengagement from terror, rather than deradicalisation. As Jonathan Hall puts it: “a tacit recognition that seeking to change a person’s beliefs is a perilous endeavour.” Still, the Government’s official Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP) — in which Usman Khan was a participant — does seek to “tackle the drivers of radicalisation”, and includes theological and ideological mentoring.

DDP participants are required to meet with mentors twice a week, practical and theological. The challenge here is whether these few hours can pierce the deep bonds developed between extremists, some now forged on the battlefield. These bonds are more than mere loyalty to mates, they inform the development of independent moral matrixes, for as Jonathan Haidt puts it: Morality binds and morality blinds.

Animals build nests but humans build communities of mutual cooperation and defence based on shared morals, which we populate with gods, rituals and symbolism around which to unify. It’s why we get so heated over anthems and flags — or cartoons. It’s also why we reserve some of our strictest judgement for traitors and apostates.

From the inside of these distinct moral matrixes, radicals do not see themselves as such. Surrounded every day by individuals who think and act like them, it is the outside world that appears extreme, twisted and hateful. For many, their life before adopting Salafi-Jihadism was their radical phase, full as it was with ignorance and sin. Their turn to piety, while extreme to the rest of us, is the straight and narrow. What’s more, as European Islamism comes of age, more and more individuals will emerge — like the Abedi brothers — who were effectively born into a radical environment, not necessarily radicalised as conventionally understood.

One thing a mentor needs to pierce this alternative moral universe is credibility, and this is hard for a Government agency to come by. My friend Manwar Ali is a mentor; a kind, softly spoken, patriotic, intelligent and erudite man, he is emotionally invested in his work and it shows. He is also a former mujahid who fought in Afghanistan. Investing all the money we like into deradicalisation won’t produce another dozen mentors like him. His experiences and expertise, the things to which his credibility is owed, are unique.

The optimist thinks everyone deserves a second chance, that everyone can be saved. But even if they can, not everyone deserves to be. The optimist’s view is inappropriate for men like El Shafee Elsheikh or Alexanda Kotey, the unrepentant Islamic State jailers from West London, accused of the torture and humiliation of hostages. The optimist must accept that men like this exist. We should reserve the right to say that some crimes are so unforgivable, and some individuals so dangerous, that punishment and separation are the only appropriate response.

The pessimist doesn’t think terrorists can change, and would see everyone on terrorism offences locked up and the key thrown away. The first part isn’t true and the second part is inhumane and untenable, denying people the second chance to make a meaningful contribution to society. Most extremists are in a different league to El Sheikh, Kotey or the Abedi brothers, and a different response is needed.

By most accounts, the overwhelming majority of terrorists do not reoffend, but the consequences of those few reoffenders can horrify, destabilise, inflame and undermine state monopoly on violence unlike ordinary crime. While those who disengage but do not deradicalise can pose challenges in other ways: Europe’s first generations of militant Islamists did not attack at home but helped to socialise a bigger, more radical generation. A network of Libyan extremists put their roots down in Manchester decades ago. In 2017, their impact echoed dreadfully in the lobby of Manchester Arena.

For these reasons, we must try to deradicalise. But it is recognising the sincere from the insincere — as Usman Khan ultimately proved — which may be the even more formidable challenge. It’s unlikely we’ll truly know if our efforts to deradicalise are successful for many years, but if deradicalisation is to work it must respect the agency of the terrorists, as well as the intellectual and spiritual potency of their worldview.

It must recognise that it is not just changing beliefs, but an attempt to dismantle a competing moral universe, one powerfully anchored in an interpretation of scripture. But to avoid future catastrophe, it must also recognise that the pale exists, and that some individuals are simply beyond it.

Liam Duffy is a researcher, speaker and trainer in counter-terrorism based in London.