11/11/2014 04:53 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

Drivers of Deradicalization: Needs, Narratives, Networks

Dealing with violent extremism occupies, these days, a top spot on the world's agenda. Like the Ebola virus, another global threat du jour, the disease of radicalization is spreading with alarming speed. A reported 20,000 foreign fighters from over 70 countries are now engaged in Syria and Iraq, including 3,000 fighters from the West (Plebani, 2014).

Security services worldwide are troubled. The danger is one of blow back, wherein foreign fighters on return to their countries of origin, radicalize scores of others, commit acts of terrorism or both.

Expressing a general concern, Hans-Peter Friedrich, France's former minister of interior referred to possible returnees from Syria as "ticking time bombs". British authorities referred to this development as a "game changer" and "the most profound shift in the threat we have seen since 2003." (Plebani, 2014)

The phenomenon of violent extremism is as enigmatic as it is dangerous. Particularly disturbing is the fact that seemingly well-adjusted youngsters born and raised in the West, and indistinguishable from millions of others in their generation turn up as ruthless, Islamist killers engaged in untold atrocities. Like in a terrifying science fiction movie, wherein family and friends are transformed into empty-eyed "aliens", so also, erstwhile neighbors, colleagues and intimates incomprehensibly change into gun totting fanatics, happy to murder and die for an unfathomable cause.

Emotional angst aside, the burning agenda item is what can be done, and how the tide of violent extremism can be stemmed. The instinctive, knee-jerk reaction is to squelch it by brute force. Yet the experience of the "global war on terror",now in its 13th year, suggests that force alone doesn't do the trick, and in fact might exacerbate the problem by inciting vehement anti-Western sentiment .

An oft-discussed alternative is to temper the use of force with a "soft" approach and psychologically "disarm" the militants in a process of deradicalization. But is this a realistic pursuit, or a "will o' the wisp" effort doomed to fail from the start? Can hardened jihadists be deradicalized?

The answer from psychological science is a decisive yes. Radicalization means holding (and acting on) radical attitudes, those that deviate from accepted norms. Attitudes, however, are malleable and susceptible to change (Albaracin, Johnson, & Zanna, 2014).

Just as persons can be radicalized they can be deradicalized, but also re-radicalized yet again. There are striking instances where erstwhile militants left terrorism behind either as individuals (Bjorgo & Horgan, 2008; Fair, 2005; Reinares, 2011) or as entire groups (Ashour, 2009). Our own recent work on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka suggests that their attitudes have become significantly less extreme following a year's exposure to a deradicalization program.

It is one thing to observe that deradicalization can and has occurred, and quite another to understand how it came about. Simply put, deradicalization (and persuasion more generally) depends on three Ns: the Need, the Narrative and the Network.

The Need part expresses the fact that our beliefs are based on our motives. We do not necessarily see what is out there. Often we see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe. Valid arguments, however "strong," aren't necessarily convincing if they run counter to our needs. The need to hold radical attitudes is typically based on the need to feel significant, that one matters, that one is deserving of respect. The deradicalization Narrative has to acknowledge that need and provide a non-violent means to address it.

That is why current deradicalization programs in Muslim countries or countries with significant Muslim populations contain much more than mere theological arguments against violence. Elaborate programs in Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Iraq (El-Said & Harrington, 2010) address the detainees' need for significance by providing them with vocational education, finding them jobs and in some cases wives!

Providing militants with alternative means to personal significance may mitigate their inclination to attain it via violent extremism; it may "soften" their resistance to moderate theological arguments as well, and increase their ability to "see the light" and appreciate its validity. It may open extremists' minds to the message that the "sacred values" of Islam (Ginges & Atran, 2009), far from being served by violent jihad, are actually trampled and desecrated by terrorism.

Finally, though not least important, is the social Network in which militants are embedded (Sageman, 2004; 2011). People's attitudes and beliefs are firmly anchored in the "shared reality" of their group (Hardin & Higgins, 1996). Radicalization occurs in a social context; it is shaped by the group dynamics of social interaction, the impact of family and friends and the charisma of influential leaders.

Deradicalization cannot take place in a social vacuum either. It critically depends on militants' insertion into social milieus that promote moderation, and is undone by their falling under the influence of their violence-glorifying ("bad") company of old. Sophisticated deradicalization programs like those in Saudi Arabia or Singapore break the dynamics of militants' groups by separating the detained leaders (core members) from their followers. These programs also make wise use of militants' families, called upon to exert moderating influence on graduating detainees, and prevent their slide back into extremism.

Skillful application of the "3N" approach to deradicalization can thus engender a powerful force toward moderation. Whether the desired change would ultimately happen depends on whether that force is strong enough to overcome the psychological resistance to deradicalization. Resistance, in turn, depends on a number of factors. It is stronger to the degree that militants' former engagement in violence lent them greater significance than the new, moderate, means they are now afforded.

In our work with deradicalized Tamil Tigers, for instance (Kruglanski, Gelfand, Bélanger, Gunaratna, Hetiararchchi, 2014), they often voiced the complaint that their new jobs (e.g. as translators) are hardly as exciting (and as significance bestowing) as what they did in their fighting days. It is also likely that militant leaders enjoyed a greater sense of personal significance in their organization than did marginal "foot soldiers;" consequently leaders may be more resistant to change than followers.

Finally, resistance to deradicalization may depend on how much attitude change is called for. Disavowal of all violence on moral or religious grounds requires a more profound change (hence, evokes greater resistance) than personal disengagement from violence (e.g. on the grounds that one has done one's share) while condoning it for others (Kruglanski et al., 2013; Reinares, 2011). Complete de-legitimation of violence is more difficult to embrace than its de-legitimation against other Muslims, while continuing to condone it against infidels. Abandonment of fundamentalist beliefs ingrained in one's world view from childhood, e.g. commitment to a Sharia-governed state or the literal interpretation of the Qur'an, requires the most far reaching change, evoking the greatest resistance. In short, it is crucially important to determine what kind of deradicalization one aims for, and what is realistically possible.

With thousands of militants detained in facilities around the globe and thousands more about to return home once the fighting is done, the issue of deradicalization is more poignant than ever. Though the psychological principles of deradicalization (the 3Ns) aren't mysterious, their application in practice requires skill, creativity, and resources.

There is no other way, however. We cannot "kill our way out of this mess," as Governor Romney aptly quipped, nor would we want to. Deradicalization of militants is a global imperative these days (Angell & Gunaratna, 2011) that merits our utmost diligence and commitment. It is a quintessential challenge for our time.

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