Terrorist Disengagement: A Response to Dr. Angel M. Rabasa by Anne Speckhard

Dr. Rabasa makes some excellent points in his recent article regarding the affective, ideological and pragmatic components of exiting terrorism. Indeed, as he points out, the trajectories into violent extremism are often different than those off the terrorism trajectory—and both pathways are highly contextual—and we should not only better study but also be more creative and committed in our attempts to deradicalize militant jihadis.

In regard to the affective level, I would posit that there are many reasons that individuals radicalize, of which only one is emotional engagement with other group members. For instance, an individual may be deeply caught inside a group that he or she has married into and will have to not only break emotional commitments but also to obtain a divorce in order to leave—a decision with economic, child-rearing and other significant repercussions. Likewise a terror group that is providing hospital, schools, health clinics and other services may be harder to walk away from than simply a group of guys that one has come to care about.

That said emotions are important. In my experience interviewing over 400 hundred terrorists, their close associates, family members and even hostages, I found that emotional responses to pictures, films, actual events and other persons inside the group were paramount. Rather than the “logic” of any ideological arguments, these emotional connections are what caused most of them to seek out and become drawn into the groups. Those who have seen violence enacted; “collateral damage” of women and children killed; lost loved ones, homes, territory or power; or been unjustly imprisoned or tortured, may have such strong emotional responses, including posttraumatic stress, that they seek out terrorist groups and become willing to sacrifice their lives to enact revenge. These individuals may sign onto a terror group and its activities without engaging ideologically, and their pathway out is not ideological deradicalization as much as it is to come to a psychological redirection—to calm the traumatic stress, grieve and find other ways to address their painful emotions. Similarly those who join because they are angry over discrimination, marginalization or lack of meaning in their lives, or are simply seeking adventure may also find their path out more shaped by a gradual loss of confidence in their cadres than by arguments against the ideology of the group.

For others who are ideologically committed it may also take emotion-laden experiences, relationships and arguments to win them back from the brink of violence. For instance one bomber armed in her suicide vest that I interviewed in prison said that her emotional response to seeing a baby—one of her many would-be victims—stopped her from exploding herself. Likewise when imams do go into prisons to engage on Islamic arguments they often find that the emotional relationships they build are equally, if not more, important than the religious arguments they make to encourage a nonviolent response to prisoners’ grievances.

In Iraq, I was involved in designing the Detainee Rehabilitation Program used by the Department of Defense to address its over 20,000 detainees, including 800 juveniles. There we found that a particularly charismatic imam who had served as an ideological propagandist for al Qaeda in Iraq but then decided to walk away—as he was disgusted with practices like beheadings and the terrorist killings of civilians—was particularly able to turn the hearts and minds of hard core militant jihadis due to his “street cred” —his real experiences, his ideological knowledge and his charisma.

When I designed our program to involve both an Islamic ideological challenge to terrorism and psychological treatment he was in total agreement and asked for my help citing prisoners he’d been able to turn from the militant jihad. They were now suffering an acute emotional crisis of having to face that their actions had not been “in the path of Allah”, but were simply murders, and they were having posttraumatic stress and nightmares. They required the help of a psychologist, as well as an imam, to recover themselves and to be fully equipped to walk out of terrorism.

The experience of working on behalf of the Department of Defense in Iraq also made me acutely aware of the bureaucratic and political issues that become wrapped up in attempts to reach violent extremists in credible and genuine ways—to try to turn them back from violence. Everyone needs to be on board and believe in the mission or it can end up not being carried in a compromised manner.

It is important to note the necessary differences between programs of different countries. When working in a highly controlled situation, such as Saudi Arabia or Singapore, one can monitor released detainees closely. Detainees are also less likely to be sent back into chaotic and painful circumstances. In Iraq, extremists with blood on their hands could potentially be sent back into an active conflict zone. Even if we had addressed the original vulnerabilities that had attracted them to extremist violence and convinced them to renounce their ideological commitment to it—even if they had been fundamentally changed, the change might be reversed if they encountered violence again. There is little we can do to monitor that in an active conflict zone.

In my experience I have learned that no one is born a terrorist—events and life circumstances come together alongside groups, ideology and social support to create a confluence that propels vulnerable individuals onto the terrorist trajectory. Similarly no one need stay a terrorist—the same vulnerabilities that were addressed by joining a group and taking on its virulent ideology can also be addressed both on a psychological and emotional level, and ideologically by challenging their commitment to extremist violence. It can and does work, and we should commit to trying it more often, and studying our efforts when we do.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is the author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”.