Developing Counter-Radicalization Programs Against ISIS

Since 2001, policymakers and practitioners have complimented traditional “hard” counterterror practices with counter-radicalization efforts to prevent terrorist recruitment.  Local and federal agencies, as well as a number of American allies, have implemented a wide array of programs—from de-radicalization and rehabilitation regimes for captured terrorists to community engagement and social media campaigns to counter terrorist narratives. The San Bernardino and Paris attacks have elevated such efforts as a top priority both internationally and within U.S. counterterror policy under the title of “Countering Violent Extremism (CVE),” including a 2015 White House Summit on the topic. Yet, counter-radicalization today remains depressingly underdeveloped with little empirical evidence of success, despite years of various efforts.

This backgrounder provides an overview of counter-radicalization practices in order to inform policymakers about the challenge of crowd-sourced terror in the age of ISIS.  While hard counter-terror practice will always be a primary imperative, U.S. counter-terror policy must increasingly depend on counter-radicalization efforts to dissuade would-be “lone-wolfs” and other local groups inspired by ISIS and other terrorist propaganda.  At the same time, America’s safety depends upon strong, successful de-radicalization and counter radicalization programs in other countries. This backgrounder highlights best practices from local, federal, and foreign governments in order to provide policy recommendations for future counter-radicalization efforts, both in the United States and abroad.    

Background on Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization

While there are a number of different definitions, “radicalization” generally refers to the process by which individuals come to approve of and ultimately participate in the use of violence for political or religious aims.  It often, though not always, involves the adoption of extremist beliefs and ideologies.  Some make a distinction between cognitive radicalism—where a person believes violence is justified—and behavioral radicalism—where someone wants and seeks to commit violence.  The academic consensus is that radicalization is a dynamic process with no single cause or personality type that leads someone down the path to terrorism.  As one study points out, there are many pathways into radicalization, and each pathway can be affected by a variety of factors ranging from personal grievances and poverty to thrill-seeking and group identity which push an individual towards a commitment to violence over time

Counter-radicalization is an umbrella term that refers to the range of non-coercive practices used to dissuade individuals or groups from mobilizing towards violence and to mitigate recruitment, support, facilitation or engagement in ideologically motivated terrorism by non-state actors in furtherance of political objectives.  Counter-radicalization can be broken into three distinct categories: (1) preventing radicalization (prevention), (2) disengaging radicalized individuals from violent terrorist organizations (de-radicalization), and (3) “deprogramming” and reintegrating former violent extremists back into society (rehabilitation).  

Despite the high-level attention given to counter-radicalization programs in recent years, counter-radicalization programs have had a mixed record at best.  Several European countries and American cities have also piloted community engagement initiatives in the hopes of improving prevention, though measuring success has been difficult in the absence of data metrics.  U.S. allies in the Middle East and Southeast Asia have also experimented with counter-radicalization programs with varying degrees of success.  Interestingly, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has had the most success with de-radicalization and rehabilitation programs, even though much of the radical ISIS ideology draws from Wahhabism, the officially promoted interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia.  The next section considers several counter-radicalization case studies in order to draw out best practices.

Case Studies in Counter-Radicalization Programs

A number of countries have developed counter-radicalization programs from which U.S. policymakers can draw lessons learned. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is widely considered to have the best rehabilitation program, while a number of Southeast Asian countries have also developed their own rehabilitation programs with varying degrees of success.  The most relevant case studies, however, come from democratic European countries, where authorities have implemented ambitious strategies for over a decade.  The United Kingdom has been the pioneer in the developing community-based prevention initiatives, while the Netherlands and Denmark have also developed sophisticated programs.  In the U.S., New York City has had some success in countering radicalized individuals through its Community Affairs Bureau. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice recently launched a three-city counter-radicalization pilot program in Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis, which should provide valuable lessons learned from a local perspective, once the programs generate data on metrics of success. 

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia’s counter-radicalization strategy is known as the Prevention, Rehabilitation and After-Care (PRAC) approach, though it is predominantly known for its rehabilitation program.  The program is premised on the notion that Islamist extremists have been lied to and deceived into following a misinterpretation of Islam.  It therefore focuses on removing detainees’ radical understanding of Islam and reintroducing the official state version of the faith.  This is achieved through a complex process of religious dialogue with official state clerics, psychological counseling, and extensive social support for the detainee and his family.  Once detainees are released, the government provides a stipend, a car, housing, and often a government job.

  • The Results.  As of 2010, official data revealed that 3,033 detainees had participated in the de-radicalization and rehabilitation program.  Of these, only 231 had been released.  The Saudi government claims to have an 80 percent success rate, with less than 5 percent of released detainees rearrested.  The 20 percent failure rate includes detainees who refused to participate in the program, those who failed the rehabilitation program, or those who have been rearrested.  While the low recidivism rate might indicate the success of the program, so far those who have been released were at the lower end of the radicalization spectrum with the more ideological committed and violent extremists remaining in prison.  More importantly, it is hard to accurately assess the program due to the difficulty of obtaining data or accurate metrics of success.
  • Lessons Learned.  The Saudi PRAC program does not contain many lessons learned for potential U.S. domestic counter-radicalization programs.  It is essentially a Saudi solution for a domestic radicalization program based on the Saudi’s Wahhabi brand of official Islam.  Most importantly, the U.S. cannot replicate either the Islamic instruction or the extremely generous social support the state gives to detainees.  However, the Saudi program does provide valuable lessons for other Muslim states, particularly the emphasis on correcting misinterpretations of Islam, providing alternatives to violence, and offering a social support system. 

New York City.  The New York City Police Department has the most robust municipal counter-terror apparatus in the United States.  While it does not have an official counter-radicalization program per se, the Police Department does have a Community Affairs Bureau, which handles community outreach duties.  The Community Affairs Bureau separates community engagement from the Department’s intelligence collection efforts, which use aggressive surveillance and informant systems to identify and disrupt terror networks.  This administrative separation attempts to avoid the stigmatization of Muslim communities that otherwise might occur.  The Community Affairs Bureau also attempts to engage communities more broadly on gangs, drugs, and other issues through its New Immigrant Outreach Unit and Clergy Liaison Unit, which seek to integrate Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern communities.  Nevertheless, the Police Department’s counter-terror efforts have still drawn the ire of civil rights and human rights groups.

  • The Results.  There is little evidence of the program’s effectiveness due to the lack of metrics to evaluate its success.  Local community leaders do report strong relationships with the police and local authorities, even though they still resent the surveillance of their communities. 
  • Lessons Learned.  New York Police Department’s counter-terror program has been successful in separating the community engagement function from the intelligence and enforcement functions.  While it has not been perfect, and resentment still exists among Muslim communities, the fact that local authorities have attempted the separation from the start while not labeling it a “counter-radicalization” program targeted at Muslim extremism has made it more acceptable to local community leaders. 

Minneapolis.  Minneapolis’ CVE pilot program focuses stemming recruiting by cultivating and funding youth programs, job training, and expanded after-school initiatives intended to facilitate mentorship.  The pilot program integrates a number of community-led intervention programs, which makes it easier for families to request help from mental health professionals, religious leaders, teachers, and others if their children are suspected of being at risk for terrorist recruitment. The city has also made efforts to hire Somali-Americans as sworn law enforcement officers and community liaisons in order to enforce the perception of community participation in public safety and to integrate their cultural understanding into police work.  The city has created a Youth Safety Camp, where a primary goal is to engage the Somali youth in order to create an environment in which they can interact with children from other cultures in Minneapolis.  Lastly, the Minneapolis Police Department has convened the Somali Women and Women in Law Enforcement to build relationships directly with the mothers and other relatives of young people.       

  • The Results.  Although the program is very new, surveys of community participants report increased trust between the Minneapolis Police Department and Somali communities.  Out of 158 interviews conducted by USC’s Homeland Security center, 97 reported positive feelings about and a willingness to collaborate with law enforcement.  More time and data is needed to further measure the results of the program.
  • Lessons Learned.  Based on the community responses in Minneapolis, the major take-away is that communities want to take part in the effort to stem violent extremism with local law enforcement.  Furthermore, community engagement is particularly effective among both students and parents when conducted as part of education initiatives, such as after-school programs.  

United Kingdom.  The UK’s counter-radicalization program is known as PREVENT, and focuses on partnering with police, local governments, and NGOs to challenge radical Islamism and increase the capacity of communities to intervene in the radicalization process.  The program has 5 components: 1) countering radical Islamist ideology by bolstering moderate Islamic leaders; 2) Impeding and criminalizing efforts to radicalize others in mosques, schools, prisons, and on the Internet; 3) Increasing local communities’ resilience to radicalization efforts by bolstering moderate religious leaders; 4) Eliminating grievances by reducing inequality and discrimination; and 5) Intervening with vulnerable individuals through mentorship and training programs.  To achieve the last component, the UK government instituted the Channel Project, a local program that relies on communities to identify individuals who are radicalizing and then help them to return to a better path.  Community partners refer authorities to those individuals exhibiting radicalizing behavior, and then the authorities develop an intervention plan in conjunction with local community leaders.  In June 2011, the UK government revamped its Prevent program to “de-securitize” its efforts to integrate Muslims into British society in order to prevent the alienation of Muslim communities.         

  • The Results.  The results for the UK program have been mixed.  On the one hand, the program is undoubtedly the most comprehensive and sophisticated among Western democratic nations.  On the other hand, the program has received significant pushback from Muslim communities, which feel targeted for discrimination and spied upon by their government.  The most successful element of the UK’s strategy has been the government’s partnership with Muslim NGOs, particularly organizations like the Quilliam Foundation, which promote moderate interpretations of Islam and use de-radicalized former terrorists to engage at risk individuals.  While there are not enough metrics to evaluate the success of the program, Prevent is an example of a comprehensive program implemented by a democratic state with similar values to the U.S.
  • Lessons Learned.  The U.S. can draw several important lessons learned from the UK’s prevent program.  First, communities and society at large play a large role in Prevent’s success by partnering with local police forces and government agencies to identify at-risk individuals.  Second, the most effective interventions are both developed in coordination with local community leaders and tailored to the individual’s needs and situation.  Third, the community programs must be developed carefully and in close coordination with local leaders in order to avoid alienating the community.  Finally, the violent extremist ideology must be countered by engaging moderate Islamic organizations and amplifying their voice in the debate. 

Netherlands. The killing of Theo Van Gogh in 2004 caused Dutch society to debate its liberal immigration policies and address growing radicalization problems among its large Muslim immigrant population.  The Dutch government views radicalization primarily as a youth phenomenon that occurs when isolated individuals are searching for identity, rather than as a distinctly religious issue.  The Dutch counter-radicalization program therefore specifically aims to enhance social cohesion by integrating alienated individuals back into society.  Launched from 2007-2011, the Dutch Polarization and Radicalization Action Plan places responsibility on local governments—including local youth workers, truancy officers, police and other local authorities—to prevent, identify, and intervene in cases of potential radicalization.  The national government supports local authorities by addressing the grievances that make individuals susceptible to radicalization by reducing discrimination, facilitating employment, providing fair access to government housing, and providing access to healthcare and other services.  Local authorities are given broad discretion to develop their own programs, though all are expected to focus on strengthening the link between individuals and society.

  • The Results.  The results of the Dutch programs are hard to measure, since the program developers have admitted that they did not have measurable indicators for success.  The program has also been criticized for a lack of transparency and for allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to expand its presence in several major cities. 
  • Lessons Learned.  The most significant lesson learned from the Netherland’s counter-radicalization experience is that metrics for effective evaluation are critical to evaluating the efficacy of the program.  Without measurable indicators, it is difficult to draw lessons learned for program improvements or for replication in other cities and states.    

Recommendations for U.S. Policymakers and Counterterror Policy

Counter-radicalization initiatives are one tool in the U.S. government’s counter-terror toolkit.  They are a partial solution and should not be the dominant approach to fighting global terrorism.  Drawing on the lessons learned from various counter-radicalization programs around the world, U.S. policymakers should consider the following proposals in devising future counter-radicalization programs in the United States:    

  • Focus on combating the root causes of extremism, including the radical interpretation of Islam as a violent ideology.  The Saudi and UK programs demonstrate the importance of both understanding the motivations behind why individuals become radicalized and combatting the interpretation of Islam that facilitates it.  However, unlike Saudi Arabia, the U.S. cannot draw upon a group of state-backed clerics, nor should it try to run its own programs since anything overtly run by the U.S. government will lose legitimacy to the audience it is trying to reach. Rather, the U.S. should identify and support partners among local religious leaders and NGOs who can provide counter-radical narratives and intervene as mentors with at-risk individuals.  U.S. policy should also take into account that it may not always be possible to convince someone to give up an ideology, but it can still convince someone to give up violent elements of that ideology.  Called by some as disengagement from violence, the goal is to lead individuals away from violence as a means of promoting their ideology by providing alternatives.
  • U.S. policy should allow for experimentation and innovation at local levels, particularly in developing channels for community outreach, while providing best practices and information-sharing coordination from a single source.  Counter-radicalization pilot programs in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York demonstrate the value of allowing local government to develop programs tailored to their specific community needs.  Local experimentation and innovation provide the best chance for developing efficient and effective programs that are both flexible and responsive to the community.  At the same time, the White House should designate a single agency as responsible for promoting information sharing, best practices and benchmarks, and policy coordination. 
  • U.S. policy should be careful not to stigmatize Muslim communities or alienate Muslim community leaders, since the community is vital for identifying at-risk individuals.  The UK’s Prevent program suffered early problems by alienating Muslim communities and leaders, a problem from which they have never quite recovered.  Unlike the UK, the U.S. has a much more integrated Muslim community in American life and culture.  In designing counter-radicalization programs, the U.S. should ensure that Muslim communities do not feel stigmatized or alienated by policies that appear overly focused on surveillance, monitoring, spying, or appear in any way discriminatory.  Since counter-radicalization depends upon local communities identifying and referring at-risk individuals to authorities, it is vital to build trust between the government and those communities.        

In addition to developing a domestic counter-radicalization program, U.S. policymakers should consider the following recommendations with regards to our allies:

  • Support foreign country counter-radicalization programs through sharing best practices, facilitating intelligence and information sharing, and providing financial support.  U.S. national security depends upon the success of foreign counter-radicalization programs.  To that end, the U.S, should provide substantial support to foreign countries as they develop their own programs. The U.S. should understand that context matters and various programs will look different from what the U.S. might implement.  At the same time, the U.S. should facilitate information sharing of intelligence and best practices, while drawing on the experience of our allies for our own programs.    
  • U.S. allies expect and deserve unwavering support for their counter-radicalization initiatives.  The U.S. needs to provide greater support for counter-radicalization efforts in such places as Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, the Emirates, Malaysia, Tunisia, Algeria, and Indonesia.  Considering the existential nature that radicalization poses for many of these countries, they expect and deserve at the very least support in the form of information sharing and political backing as they establish their own programs.  Since public support is needed from non-radical Islamic communities in each country, strong messaging campaigns by religious and civil society organizations should also be encouraged and funded in perpetuity.  The U.S. can support these efforts by providing unwavering support for these governments while encouraging counter-radicalization efforts through international institutions, such as the UN General Assembly and the Global Counterterror Forum.        

Finally, for both domestic and overseas counter-radicalization programs, U.S. policymakers should work with allies to define the scope of such programs. In particular, they should consider assumptions about the resonance of the ideology among recruits and outline attainable objectives in light of these assumptions. Setting these parameters in advance would enable U.S. policymakers and allies to more effectively evaluate the successes of counter-radicalization efforts.

  • Assumptions about extremist ideology. To a greater extent than any prior jihadist movement, ISIS supporters are committed to an interpretation of Islam—Salafism—whose sectarian and literalist interpretations were first articulated centuries ago. It is this originalism that defines the direction and aims of ISIS and gives its “caliphate” a sense of authenticity among followers. Therefore, when combatting the root ideological causes of today’s violent extremism and the radical interpretations of Islam that inform ISIS, U.S. policymakers and allies will need to determine whether the extremist ideology is limited to anti-Western rhetoric or whether it extends to the more deeply-entrenched sectarian ideas that ISIS promotes. If the latter, U.S. policymakers and allies should consider which domestic and foreign actors have the most authority to effectively counter these narratives, and whether some institutions could be tasked with countering rhetoric that incites to violence while others could address radical interpretations of Islam.
  • Assumptions about institutions and channels of counter-radicalization. A key aspect of Salafism’s appeal among its followers is its claim to represent the original and authentic version of Islam as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad himself. Salafism rejects not only modern Western institutions and processes (nation states, elections, and parliament) but also traditional Sunni ones (the Islamic schools of law, canonical texts, and institutions of “official” Islam such as al-Azhar, which Salafis see as agents of local governments). Therefore, when identifying which local actors and institutions should be charged with counter-radicalization efforts, U.S. policymakers and allies should determine what these institutions are capable of realistically achieving based on their credibility among violent extremists.
  • Defining and prioritizing objectives. In light of the two aforementioned assumptions, the U.S. and its allies should define and prioritize counter-radicalization initiatives according to near-, medium- and long-term objectives. Near-term objectives focused on preventing would-be violent extremists from becoming active could be pursued through closer intelligence sharing, more rigorous local law enforcement programs, and working with social services and community outreach programs to identify and track signs of radicalization and at-risk individuals. Medium-term objectives focused on trust-building with local Muslim communities could be pursued through partnerships between state and city law enforcement with local Muslim communities. Long-term objectives aimed at countering the extremist narrative and ideology could include working through NGOs and Muslim scholarly communities in the U.S. and abroad to challenge radical interpretations of the religion’s sacred texts, and to establish coherent and credible institutions of religious authority and instruction (as well as networks and media) to more effectively disseminate moderate interpretations of Islam.