skip to Main Content

Winning against al-Qaeda and ISIS: The Case for Combining Deradicalization with Disengagement Approaches in Prison and Community Programs Addressing Former and Current Members of Militant Jihadi Groups

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., and Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. 

PDF here


Even after decades of military efforts and loss of human lives on the part of western governments against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and most recently ISIS, these interventions have proven insufficient to eliminate the threat of militant jihadi terrorist attacks abroad and at home, as evidenced in recent attacks in Iraq, Syria, France, U.K., Belgium, Spain, and elsewhere. Terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda continue to inspire and call for violence, increasing unease among the citizens of many countries worldwide.

This chapter goes over the history of militant jihadi deradicalization programs, highlighting their strengths and weakness as they evolved and in the contexts in which they evolved. Throughout the chapter, the term deradicalization will denote measures or programs aimed at changing the mindset and ideological beliefs of those already radicalized. Comparatively speaking, disengagement will refer to measures or programs aimed at behavioral change, including an individual or collective decision to abandon terrorist organizations and cease violent activities. One must note that disengagement may not lead to deradicalization and that deradicalization is not a prerequisite to disengagement.[1]

Given that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, at least on some level, pose an ideological challenge, in this chapter we argue that when dealing with those imprisoned on terrorism charges or detained as potential terrorists, deradicalization should remain a key component of any sound counterterrorism policy. This is not to say that terrorist disengagement alone is not a worthy goal, however. Indeed, several authors have contributed significant amount of research on terrorist disengagement and deradicalization programs aimed at far left nationalist and separatist organizations between the 1960s and 1990, such as the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and the Red Army Faction (RAF), that appeared successful without ever addressing ideology.[2] In addition, individuals belonging to such terrorist groups were not subjected to deradicalization programs, and most of those released from prison were not known to reengage in terrorism. . However, one must note that in many cases the terrorist groups themselves were beginning to fade in prominence at the time, unlike the continued social movements of al-Qaeda, and now ISIS, which continue to have a strong “brand” in terms of selling the idea of bringing a fundamental change to the existing political, social, and economic world order and basing that change on twisting religious principles that are well established and already accepted by many. Moreover, there is strong research evidence that perhaps unlike terrorist movements that were nationalist or separatist in nature, ideological commitment and sacred values wound up in strongly held religious beliefs become central to those who become ideologically indoctrinated by ISIS and al Qaeda. In fact, ISIS goes to great lengths to ideologically indoctrinate its recruits, requiring them to take weeks long shariah training courses to introduce them to the ISIS Takfir ideology and indoctrinate them into believing that all others not adhering to their views can be killed.[3] While these ideas continue to entice many, failure to address continued ideological commitment to terrorist violence in those who may temporarily or permanently disengage from it, we argue, may pose a serious risk that the individual can easily return later to the same terrorist group or to a similarly minded one should circumstances again favor doing so. Likewise, we should note that those programs that addressed ideology alone also often failed, or relied on strict social control and surveillance upon release to ensure non-recidivism. In this regard, when possible, we believe it is best to address both aspects – the reasons for engaging and support for disengaging and the possibility of relinquishing and changing one’s ideological stance and commitment to terrorist violence—for the greatest likelihood of success.

The primary objective of this chapter is to discuss measures and programs applied to detainees and individuals convicted of terrorist crimes. More specifically, a significant portion of this chapter is dedicated to discussing deradicalization and disengagement efforts applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles held in Camp Bucca in Iraq in 2007. It serves to trace historical components of this deradicalization and disengagement program and clarify its goals, means, and methods of potentially bringing those who have committed to violent extremism back into reengaging and reintegrating into society. While deradicalization and disengagement efforts in this chapter are discussed in relation to al-Qaeda, the findings could also be applied in the case of deradicalization and disengagement programs aimed at members of other Islamist-driven terrorist groups.

To understand the failures and successes of deradicalization and disengagement efforts, especially in relation to Islamist militants, one must understand both the reasons that motivate one to join and reasons that motivate one to leave, which in fact can be quite different, as are the trajectories into and back out of terrorism. The making of a terrorist comprises of four components: a group, its ideology, social support, and individual motivations and vulnerabilities, which breakdown by conflict and non-conflict zone. [4] For instance, in conflict zones, individual motivations and vulnerabilities for engaging in terrorism nearly always encompass some degree of personal and collective traumatization, including the loss of homes, territory, resources, as well as being subjected to occupation, imprisonment, torture, rape, and killings, among others, and a subsequent desire for revenge for which terrorist groups are often very willing to equip such individuals. In contrast, in non-conflict zones, individual motivations and vulnerabilities for engaging with groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda generally involve societal marginalization, discrimination, frustrated aspirations, or identifying with victims in conflict zones. They also include issues such as unemployment, poverty, inability to get married, wanting to escape , or a desire to pursue an adventure or falling in love. In all cases, these four factors interact in a multitude of manners, making pathways into and back out of terrorism very contextual. Similarly, the motivations and vulnerabilities for joining a terrorist group differ significantly from person to person, and deradicalization is not a simple reversal process of getting on the terrorist trajectory, but involves its own process of disillusionment, cognitive changes, and so forth.

Academics and counter-terrorism researchers have long known that the pathways into terrorism do not always begin on the ideological level but may instead involve a match between what the group offers in terms of meeting individual vulnerabilities, meaning a recruit may join a terrorist group because he or she resonates to its ideology or for the plethora of possibilities that the group offers, such as belonging, friendship, purpose, dignity, significance, adventure, romance, financial rewards, or escape from problems—to name but a few. As the needs of such individuals are met, they gradually come to also embracing the group’s ideology.

Programs to disengage and deradicalize violent extremists and terrorists have been around for decades, and are primarily rooted in identifying and detaining violent extremists and terrorists. The first programs aimed at militant jihadis from al-Qaeda and likeminded groups, were in the category of, what we refer herein to as, Islamic Challenge programs. One of the first deradicalization programs of this type was introduced in Yemen. The program was based upon the “Committee for Dialogue,” where Muslim scholars helped to determine where the detainees strayed from the teachings of Quran. [5] Charismatic Islamic scholars met with detainees and tried to guide them back into a nonviolent interpretation of Islam that did not embrace militant jihadi ideals. Detainees were granted amnesty through the program provided they agreed to denounce violence and did not yet have blood on their hands from prior terrorist attacks. Approximately 364 detainees were released from this program in 2005, and at the time, Yemen officials declared that Yemen was 90% terrorist free. However, it later turned out that at least eight of those who had gone through the program wound up volunteering themselves to al-Qaeda in Iraq. [6]This fact caused many experts in the counter-terrorism field to wonder if the clerics’ program, while well-intentioned, was also serving as a means of expelling terrorists out of Yemen to nearby conflicts, as many posed a serious risk in terms of radicalization and weaponization. The prospect of dying in other conflicts also ensured that such individuals would not return to Yemen.

The Saudis also developed a program that they have been continuously revamping over the years. In its inception, the Saudi program was much like the Yemeni program, although it relied on a number of well-respected Saudi ulema (religious clerics) who were specifically trained to engage with militant jihadi prisoners. The Saudi program is much better resourced than any other program to date, as the new al-Hair Prison, one of the five detention facilities in the country holding over 5,000 inmates charged with terrorism-related offenses, just south of Riyadh is well-known for being extremely luxurious and modern for any prison setting. In the nearby Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Rehab participants in the rehabilitation program enjoy the luxury of playing soccer, ping-pong, swimming, video games as well as engaging in art therapy before being released backed into society. [7] The treatment also includes some group and individual counseling. Upon their release, some prisoners are given cars, jobs, health care, education for their children, and set up with wives to marry—and watch over and report upon them if things go wrong. [8] These offerings are resources that many other deradicalization programs could not hope to provide. Likewise, the Saudi government is able to carefully monitor and keep track of released prisoners, creating a strong deterrent to reengaging in terrorist activities. The Saudi program at first addressed only prisoners who had no blood on their hands and were guilty of only downloading terrorist propaganda—issues that might be considered free speech rights in other countries. Their program was also Islamic Challenge in nature and relied on the ulema to create rapport with the prisoners and then argue the Islamic scriptures with the prisoners they were sent in to challenge.

As noted, the Saudi program has been continually revamped over the years and now includes both psychological and religious interventions. The Saudi government officials maintain that their program is voluntary and not at all coercive, although there is a strong incentive to enroll in such program as it leads to release over time. Furthermore, those who following their designated 8-12-week stay do not pass the psychological evaluation necessary for release, are compensated monetarily (e.g. $267 reported in 2015) per each they are not released back into society, with the “option of legally challenging the decision.” [9] Those who have done more than simply download terrorist materials and who have committed actual acts of terrorism also take part in the program, but are not released after completing it, as they must serve their sentences despite having taken part in the program.

The Saudis take pride in their deradicalization efforts, and have invited international scholars to come and review their deradicalization program. The Saudi program is highly respected, although it was also severely criticized after two high-value Saudi detainees they received from the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention facilities, who went through the program with claimed success, traveled to fight with al-Qaeda in Iraq after their release. Specifically, Said al-Shihri successfully went through the Saudi deradicalization program and re-entered society, but then went on to become the deputy leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen. He was responsible for the 2008 American Embassy bombing in Sana’a, Yemen. [10] Understandably, U.S. authorities and its allies were dissatisfied with such an outcome.

The Saudis systematically study their results and tout them proudly, claiming to have de-radicalized over 90 percent taking part in the deradicalization program. In 2007, it was reported that 1,500 out of 3,200 participating in the program had been released back into society. [11] The Saudi program has had high success with those early on the terrorist trajectory—downloaders of propaganda and those curious exploring terrorism both online and offline—but is not as effective with those who they referred to as the “hard-core” committed types. Approximately 10 percent of those participating in the prison program are defined as “hard-core” prisoner.[12] Clearly, the Saudi program failed with several of the Guantanamo Bay detainees who likely represented the “hard-core” population.

Based after the Yemen initiatives, Singapore, too, developed a deradicalization program in response to the 2002 terrorist attack by Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) in the popular tourist area in Bali, the 2003 bombing of JW Marriot Hotel in Jakarta, and the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Compared to Yemen’s deradicalization program focused solely on religious engagement, Singapore’s deradicalization program strikes a balance between religious and secular engagements. Its core functions are initiatives rooted in countering prisoners’ extremist beliefs, utilizing moderate Islamic scholars to counsel and debate with prisoners, and providing financial assistance and educational opportunities for prisoners and their family members. The Singapore program primarily consisted of Islamic Challenge which was carried out by a group of Singaporean clerics, with some trained at al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt —a highly respected Islamic institution. This was important as the prisoners addressed in this program had all been deeply radicalized by al-Qaeda’s Salafi/Takfiri ideology, and to argue with them required deep knowledge of the scriptures al-Qaeda type militant jihadists twist and rely upon to justify their terrorist attacks. Upon their release, the Singaporean government supported their prisoners to a certain degree, but nothing comparable to the Saudis. The released prisoners and their spouses continued meeting with the clerics, and like Saudis, keeping surveillance on this small group of released prisoners was not difficult for authorities. There was no recidivism reported with any of them. That said, the group was small and being imprisoned likely gave them all cause to reevaluate their potential future as terrorists. Moreover, the government of Singapore was able to keep close tabs on them following their release.

Indonesia also created an ad hoc deradicalization program aimed at its imprisoned terrorists in the wake of the Bali bombings in 2002. It also was geared towards changing the ideological beliefs of captured jihadists. Their program has also evolved over the years but began with a bit of a cult following, as Omar Bakri, a controversial figure in some circles, who was imprisoned for his role in the Bali bombings, gave up his commitment to al-Qaeda and began working with prisoners, arguing from his own experience how he was deluded and tricked by the group. The current version of the deradicalization program has moved beyond his approach and focuses on ideological counter-narrative, psychological counseling, and reaching out to the family members of terrorist prisoners has recently been criticized for not achieving desired results.[13]

Malaysia also developed a deradicalization program that relied on Islamic Challenge, carried out by law enforcement and prison officials, as well as relying on welfare organizations, social services, and psychologists for expert assistance on rehabilitating the detainees and those imprisoned. The officials in Malaysia claim high success rates for the program—97.5 percent, according to some sources—although the methods used in the program as well as the statistics reported have been criticized by some as lacking transparency and relying upon highly coercive techniques with little recourse (e.g. detainees are held for long periods with no charges or recourse and basically forced into treatment). [14]

Under the guidance of the military and focused primarily in the Swat valley, Pakistan runs several deradicalization programs throughout the country, with a primary focus on offering formal education, vocational training, counseling, and therapy to its prisoners. Pakistan’s deradicalization program emphasizes the paramount importance of economic incentives and initiatives to the families of detainees, which arguably makes sense given that extremely impoverished youth in Pakistan have been given to terrorist sponsored schools by their families or encouraged to take up terrorism for the financial benefits offered.

Some European countries also began prison deradicalization programs after al-Qaeda managed to recruit their citizens to travel to train with and join militant jihadi groups as well as plan homegrown terrorist attacks. The Netherlands, for instance, began a prison deradicalization program after rounding up a group of locals who became known as the Hoftstadt group, one of whom was responsible for the stabbing and killing of Theo van Gogh.

The United Kingdom began its prison deradicalization program in 2006 by engaging in Islamic challenge and using Islamic prison imams who concentrated at first upon converts to Islam. The U.K. imams were of Caribbean backgrounds and converts to Islam but took their Salafi training in Jordan and Saudi. Their main course of action was to create rapport and ask the converts who were displaying commitments to al-Qaeda type ideologies and groups on what basis they justified their beliefs. In response, they would teach their youthful mentees how to judge the Islamic legitimacy of a Hadith or scripture and show them that many of the scriptural interpretations, and even Hadiths that al-Qaeda ideologues rely upon, are not considered legitimate. The hope was to empower them to critically analyze the ideologies they were being seduced into and be able to delegitimize them on their own. They also identified serious vulnerabilities in the converts they were addressing, including being fatherless, having parents who were criminals, etc., as well as protection and camaraderie that was extended inside prisons for new converts to Islam. However, despite recognizing the need to address psycho-social vulnerabilities, their program began as Islamic challenge only, and to our knowledge, it is still not psychological in nature.

The U.K. Prevent initiative, for which the first author also consulted, was organized in and included community activities designed to prevent radicalization to violent extremism and to disrupt terrorist recruiting by delegitimizing terrorist groups and their ideologies. Through its Channel initiative, the goal was to identify those already moving along the terrorist trajectory by intervening to better address their grievances and vulnerabilities through adjustments to their educational programs, housing, mental health, psychosocial needs, etc. In their inception, the U.K. Prevent community interventions relied heavily on logical arguments put forward in person and on websites against the Islamic concepts of jihad and martyrdom being manipulated by terrorist groups. The cognitive arguments, which may have reached many, were criticized by the first author for lacking any emotionally compelling features and falling flat in the face of emotionally compelling narratives put forth by international terrorist groups that relied on showing graphic photos and videos from conflict zones, coupled with music and Islamic scriptures that urged viewers to heroically join the terrorist groups and support their cause. Similarly, U.K. authorities at the time declined suggestions by the first author to stop simply keeping the 200+ serious terrorist suspects they were keeping tabs on under observation and instead send in imams and psychologists to attempt to turn them back from their terrorist trajectories. They also declined suggestions to start a prevention hotline and rapid intervention teams—something that is now finally being taken up by many countries around the world despite the first author having suggested such activities for over a decade.

In the United States, the term deradicalization gained prominence following the U.S.- led coalition invasion of Iraq in which the Detainee Rehabilitation Program (DPR) was designed for 20,000 imprisoned detainees, including an additional 800 juveniles.[15] When faced with such large numbers of prisoners held under uncertain circumstances and without charges, and in the face of international agreements that compelled them to house the detainees in group settings, U.S. military leaders understood that many terrorist cadres were not only highly radicalized and a threat themselves, but they were also indoctrinating others in the prison setting to their terrorist ideologies and training them in how to make IED’s and plan terrorist attacks. As al-Qaeda in Iraq, at the time, was drawing record numbers of foreign fighters and increasingly westerners and Southeast Asians were traveling to train with and join militant jihadi groups, as well as plan homegrown terrorist attacks, other countries recognized the need to organize rehabilitation, reintegration, and deradicalization programs in their prisons. There was a need to integrate psychological and ideological counseling within treatment programs; yet that was initially done in an ineffective manner. [16] The need for effective counter-terrorism strategies and deradicalization programs became paramount. The Detainee Rehabilitation Program, discussed in the ensuing section, may serve as a model of what could work and what does not work in terms of deradicalization and disengagement programs carried out in detention facilities.

Camp Bucca 

In 2006, the U.S. military in Iraq had taken into its custody 20,000+ adult male detainees and 800 male juveniles, all arrested in raids, sweeps, and the immediate aftermath of terror attacks. Mandated by U.N. regulations at the time, detainees were housed communally in blocks of 100 or more. The numbers continued to grow while the U.S. military were noticing alarming trends among the detainees, including self-appointed emirs, garnering a following of adherents and teaching and enforcing sharia law. Those with bomb making skills were training youth in particular in how to make and carry out IED attacks. As the numbers grew, it became harder to sort out serious violent actors and ideologically indoctrinated into al-Qaeda from those who had simply been picked up in sweeps, with potential guilty actions, such as transporting guns for money in a taxi, handing off messages, or being a money courier—to name just a few. Those not involved in violent terrorist groups were being recruited while those who were already part of al-Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorist groups were consolidating relationships and forming deeper bonds during their detention.

In 2006, General Garner attempted to create a deradicalization program aimed at pulling those in groups like al-Qaeda away from it and, at a minimum, turning them away from their commitment to enacting violence against the U.S.-led coalition forces and the newly formed government of Iraq. The first author was called in, along with Rohan Gunaratna and Ustaz Mohmammed, to consult on whether the detainees could be reached with such programming and to decide what it should entail. Following their initial assessment, the first author, leading a team of experts, wrote for the U.S. military what became known as the Detainee Rehabilitation Program. The program was designed with a multi-prong approach that considered the psycho-social, religious, and socio-economic factors involved in radicalization into violent extremism. The first author designed the psychological and Islamic challenge part of the program (with the writing of the Islamic portion carried out by Salafi imams) and suggested also holding a school for the 800 juveniles, so they would not be released back into society with serious educational deficits, making them vulnerable to recidivism.[17] The U.S. military also planned a skills training program to increase the likelihood of employment for all detainees.

The psychological part of the program explored the trauma and revenge aspects of being motivated to join a terrorist group as well as anger over being held for lengthy periods of time in U.S. detention facilities without charges; being beaten at the time of arrest, possibly tortured while in Iraqi hands; anger over the U.S. coalition invasion of Iraq and loss of homes; anger over losing employment and resources; and harm to family members, among others. The program also clearly spelled out if charges against detainees would be leveled and offered them a means of working their way out of detention by participating in the program, as not knowing their sentence or how long they would be held created anxiety for many of them.

Detainees were invited to discuss with psychologists the reasons for believing that engaging in terrorism would lead to desired results for themselves and their loved ones, particularly in light of it having resulted in imprisonment. It also redirected detainees to other solutions to real and pressing problems in Iraq, including in their personal lives. The Islamic challenge portion of the program used trained clerics to address and attempt to debunk the Islamic justifications for engaging in militant jihad and redirecting detainees into nonviolent solutions to their real or perceived grievances.

Given the large number of detainees, growing at one point to over 24,000, the Detainee Rehabilitation Program was designed for large-scale application with group versus individual counseling as the main mode of treatment. To facilitate moving large numbers through the program, it was designed for a psychologist and imam to jointly treat 20 detainees in a group setting daily, over a six-week period. The twenty detainees were divided into groups of 10 detainees each, with one group treated by a psychologist in the morning, and the other ten seeing the imam, with the two groups switching in the afternoons. During lunch, the imam and psychologist were to consult carefully with each other about crossovers between their psycho-social and religious concerns, as well as about detainees of concern. The most worrisome cases were to be treated individually for one hour in the late afternoon. While the sheer numbers of detainees needing to be put into the program precluded treating many of them individually, individual sessions were to be scheduled for the most difficult cases each day.

Taking part in the program was voluntary but necessary to be considered for accelerated release. Human rights were carefully observed throughout, including warning detainees not to share information that could lead to them being charged and handed over to the Iraqi authorities for criminal proceedings. The military holding the detainees also began to hold hearings to explain to detainees the reasons for their detention and give them an opportunity to clear their names.

Terrorists in Camp Bucca, including in Camp Cropper, had implemented their version of shariah law among their followers. In Bucca, they even set up shariah courts operating secretly late at night. It is in such courts that traitors were punished, by having their arms broken. Due to concerns of retaliation for agreeing to take part in the program, detainees who agreed to undergo treatment were to be separated out from the other detainees. Likewise, there were concerns that day time efforts to deradicalize and disengage terrorists from their groups and ideology could be undone at night if they continued to mix with the others.

The pairing of an imam or religious scholar and psychologist worked well. One Islamic scholar, for instance, reported to the first author that he managed to talk an Algerian foreign fighter out of his belief that the teachings of Islam condoned the killings of other Muslims in support of al-Qaeda’s goals and objectives. The scholar quickly felt out of his depth, however, when the foreign fighter began having traumatic responses and feeling as though he was no longer a hero, but rather a murderer. His posttraumatic symptoms of extreme fear, inability to sleep, and traumatic reinterpretation of his experiences were shared with the psychologist for treatment. Moreover, the psychologists were able to turn to the religious scholars for help in unpacking adamant insistence that adherence to al-Qaeda and violent extremist ideologies was religiously ordained, opening the detainees to the possibilities of exploring more openly their reasons for joining and alternative pathways to achieving similar end states without a commitment to violence.

The situation in Camp Bucca was unique in the sense that detainees who went through the program were to be released back into an active war zone, where sectarian violence was still rife, and it was impossible to keep track of released detainees’ whereabouts and activities. The chances of encountering politically motivated violence aimed at themselves, or their group, was a serious likelihood. In this regard, the recidivism rates could be expected to be higher than in countries like Singapore or Saudi Arabia where careful surveillance upon release is possible.

Also, during this time period, the tribes in Anbar province were being re-empowered through negotiations with the U.S.- led coalition, and tribal leaders joining the Awakening movement were insisting on release of their detainees. This resulted in changes in the planned for program and mass releases, which meant accelerated treatment for those less ideologically indoctrinated while most of the hardcore detainees did not receive the planned for treatment. When the government of Iraq took over these detainees, and they were ultimately freed, many were still highly ideologically committed. They also faced continued sectarian violence and a security situation that became intolerable for many Sunnis. These factors led to seeing again the Sunni population of Iraq support the repeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq in the form of Islamic State terrorists.

While carrying out the Detainee Rehabilitation Program, it was difficult to find and recruit native Iraqis with sound psychological and social work skills, as many with such skills had fled the country and had relocated to better- paid jobs and safety in Jordan and the Gulf states—an issue that is likely to plague any conflict torn environment. Therefore, the psychological part of the program relied on using introductory scripts written to assist less experienced clinicians to help open up the detainees on particular topics related to violent extremism and help them explore their thoughts and feelings about it. It was judged that this approach would make it easier for less experienced psychologists to engage effectively on these difficult topics.

It was also important that Islamic scholars were Sunni, as those already adhering to the al-Qaeda doctrines rejected Shia outright and would unlikely listen to them. Those with a solid understanding of conservative streams of Islam were most likely to be able to engage with hardcore ideologically indoctrinated al-Qaeda cadres which bore out in experience. In the program, we were able to employ three former al-Qaeda scholars who had defected from the group. We found these defectors to have an excellent rapport and ‘street credibility” with the hardcore, as they had joined for similar reasons and they were well acquainted with the manner in which such groups twist Islamic teachings and scriptures in behalf of justifying terrorist violence. The downside of using former al-Qaeda cadres, however, was that some among the U.S. military and staff and the Shia local contractors feared them and were constantly uncertain of their loyalty, which made relationships difficult and replicated inside the prison the Shia-Sunni divide happening outside the prison as well.

Other difficulties included staff worrying about their own and the safety of their families while al-Qaeda operatives were able to communicate outside the prison to threaten them. One of the three al-Qaeda members who worked with the Detainee Rehabilitation Program was killed afterward by al-Qaeda in retribution for his participation with the U.S. forces. Many other staff members worried about their own and safety of their family members. Equally important, some skilled staff offered their services to the program, but it quickly became evident that they were angling for the possibility to be paid large amounts of money to design and carry out their own programs. We also learned of prison guards carrying out schemes to trick and bribe prisoners’ family members into paying huge amounts of cash to obtain the release of their loved one or communicate with him. 

Discussion and conclusion

In the aftermath of horrific Islamist-driven terrorist attacks in many parts of the world—and given the increase in frequency of such terrorist attacks—many countries struggle to understand why and how some of its citizens become radicalized into extremism and violence. The problem of addressing violence and terrorism becomes especially complicated given that enemies are no longer confined to a clear, discernible territory; rather they have morphed from local insurgencies to global networks, increasing both the enormity of the threat and difficulties in addressing prevention and rehabilitation efforts. In response to such growing threat, a number of government and civil society led initiatives were introduced to target vulnerable Muslim populations, ranging from programs that interlink law enforcement, education, health and human services and religious leaders’ efforts to promote dialogue and introduce vulnerable Muslim populations to different prevention and rehabilitation programs. Likewise, we witnessed the rise of rehabilitation programs that sanction convicted or detained jihadists to mandatory or voluntary counseling as a condition of avoiding incarceration, accelerated release, or release at all.

While it is acknowledged that not all terrorists become ideologically indoctrinated, nor do they necessarily join for ideological reasons, we did find that many do take on the ideology of the group they join. This is particularly true with the terrorist groups like ISIS, as they require those following in their footsteps to take shariah training and heavily indoctrinate them in militant jihadist ideologies, including intimidating them into compliance. Thus, rehabilitation of ISIS cadres or soldiers likely requires the ability to address ideological indoctrination and psychological hooks that drew them into the group as well as the psychological support necessary to help them back out to withdraw from it.

Central to this chapter was the discussion on deradicalization programs applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles in Camp Bucca. The primary objective was to shed light on the rise of deradicalization efforts carried out in various countries that relied first on simply Islamic Challenge programs but over time recognized the need for psychological interventions as well, as the first author designed for the U.S.- run prison detention facilities in Iraq in 2006-2007. While the program that eventually became known as the Detainee Rehabilitation Program was carefully and sensitively crafted, it was never fully carried out as designed. The politics in Iraq shifted so quickly that General Stone in charge of the program in 2007 began scheduling mass releases to the tribes in Anbar who were participating in the Awakening Program to fight al-Qaeda in their areas. The six-week long program designed to include actual counseling became more of a fast-paced program applied to the least dangerous detainees, who after going through it were released en-masse, while the hardcore militant jihadis were for the most part never were invited into the program to be treated before being handed over to the Iraqis when U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq. General Stone’s staff kept recidivism statistics during the year in which detainees went through the program. They found an extremely low recidivism rate, which led him to conclude the program was a success. However, one could argue that once caught and detained by U.S. forces, a detainee would likely be much more operationally careful in his or her terrorist activities upon release. In addition, arguably, the tribes were more accountable than the program itself for holding terrorist recidivism in check during the time of the Awakening movement when participation in al-Qaeda and other Sunni terrorist movements lost social support. The program was tested in a dynamic and active conflict zone environment, thus it initially reflected a success. However, the program could have had even more dramatic successes if applied carefully and consistently to the hard-core detainees as well, many of whom unfortunately later became ISIS cadres wreaking havoc in the region and throughout the world.

While some European countries had introduced deradicalization programs to address al-Qaeda and other terrorist related groups, they began designing community prevention as well as prison deradicalization programs in earnest following the travel of nearly 5,000 European citizens to the conflicts zone in Syria and Iraq. [18] Given that many returned to Europe—some to mount attacks in France and Belgium particularly—governments began making attempts to both prevent and intervene in terrorist radicalization. The example of Camp Bucca, as well as recent attacks in France in particular where ties made in prison led to later terrorist involvement, highlights the importance of adequately addressing terrorism emanating from prisons, primarily due to networking potential in prisons, and encouraging governments to introduce rehabilitation programs with deradicalization components as an important step in fighting terrorism. That said, good governance, including controlling terrorist activity and recruitment outside the prison, is equally important, as the psycho-social, political, and economic environment in which one is released back into will likely be the key components in ultimately determining whether the individual remains interested in and engages in terrorism.

As terrorist groups like ISIS continue to lose significant swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, many more foreign fighters are likely to return. In many cases, the process of decommissioning from the battlefield is likely to occur naturally. Some are likely to deradicalize on their own after becoming disillusioned and having defected from the group.[19] Others, against whom strong incriminating evidence exists, will be imprisoned, and these may choose to engage in rehabilitation efforts to demonstrate their commitment to abandoning the violent cause or out of genuine desire to redirect themselves to a better life.

One of the key aspects of the deradicalization program in Camp Bucca was the ideological component, or inoculating and turning detainees against the appeal of ideologies of terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and offering counter-narratives to such ideologies. In addition, psychological issues were addressed—the key vulnerabilities and motivations for engaging in terrorism and the need to offer psychological, social, and economic support to withdraw from terrorism. Similar to many detained in Camp Bucca whose radicalization process into Al-Qaeda in Iraq was intertwined with religion, the process of deradicalizing those imprisoned from terrorist groups like ISIS will require rehabilitation efforts focused on introducing moderate interpretations of Islam while addressing their extremist ideological beliefs by those who can understand that mindset as well as measures focused on psychological rehabilitation and social reintegration. These efforts must be carefully balanced with punitive measures so as to motivate participation and to avoid the potential for return into violence upon release. Our research with ISIS defectors and ISIS prisoners worldwide suggests both possibilities—that is, of sliding back into terrorism while in prison and receiving the ideological and psycho-social support necessary to walk away from it. [20]In this regard, adequate religious education, psychological counseling, job placement, and monitoring upon release are all useful to ensure success. Equally important, in seeking to reintegrate and rehabilitate returnees and detainees, governments and civil society organizations must refrain from direct intrusion into the spiritual space of individuals to redefine their religious beliefs, as it may prove counterproductive in the long run. Rather, the focus should be on engaging in philosophical and intellectual aspects of religion and offering tools to understand one’s religion and how to judge the legitimacy of terrorist claims about it to counter the use of violence.

As discussed in the chapter, three former al-Qaeda scholars who had defected from the group helped with the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Camp Bucca. While using formers in deradicalization efforts can often be problematic, defectors and returnees from the so-called Islamic State may also play a crucial role in not only educating vulnerable populations on the dangers of joining terrorist groups like ISIS, but also creating counter-radicalization and deradicalization programs to deter potential future recruits. [21] Defectors and formers have a unique cache in that they have been there themselves and understand what it means to be part of a terrorist group. In such capacity, they can play a crucial role in dissuading or convincing vulnerable individuals not to follow a violent path, provided they are well trained and supported for that role.

It is often easier to convince ideologically committed individuals to change their behaviors than their beliefs. While it is often difficult to change the ideological beliefs of committed individuals, behavior-focused deradicalization components such as psychological counseling, education, vocational training, etc, as discussed in the context of several countries’ deradicalization and rehabilitation efforts, can also be the factors that lead to spontaneous ideological and doctrinal reform on the part of prisoners and detainees. Lastly, the value of deradicalization programs will depend on local political circumstances to which a prisoner is released. When putting together the psychological and Islamic Challenge portions of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Camp Bucca, the first author argued not to expect high success rates in those instances when detainees are released back into active conflict zones, where they cannot be supervised and are likely to again encounter sectarian violence aimed at themselves and their families.

In attempting to turn militant jihadis back off the terrorist trajectory, it is important to understand that such individuals will likely need both psychological and ideological intervention to be able to unhook from the terrorist group. While disengagement is a worthy goal in itself, those who remain ideologically indoctrinated remain at risk for return to terrorist activities with the same or future similarly minded groups—as we have found with defectors that we have interviewed. Many will not return to terrorist activities, but a comprehensive change—both behaviorally and ideologically—is likely the best goal to aim for in reducing the likelihood of recidivism.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) where she heads the Breaking the ISIS Brand—ISIS Defectors Interviews Project in which she has interviewed with ICSVE staff, 63 ISIS defectors, returnees and ISIS prisoners. She is the author of: Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS and coauthor of ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate; Undercover Jihadi; and Warrior Princess. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and many countries in Europe. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. Her publications are found here: Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. – is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).  He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. Prior to joining ICSVE, Ardian has spent nearly a decade working in both the private and public sectors, including with international organizations and the media in a post-conflict environment. He is fluent in several languages. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He also holds several professional certifications in the field of homeland security as well as a professional designation for his contributions to the field of homeland security and homeland security efforts in general. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism courses.


Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (September 28, 2017) Prepublication version of Winning against al-Qaeda and ISIS: The Case for Combining Deradicalization with Disengagement Approaches in Prison and Community Programs Addressing Former and Current Members of Militant Jihadi Groups, Stig Jarle Hansen and Stian Lid, Eds. Handbook on Deradicalisation. Routledge Press


[1] John Horgan and Tore Bjorgo, Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement (New York: Routledge, 2008); Lorenzo Vidino and James Brandon, “Countering Radicalization in Europe,” The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2012,

[2] Andrew Silke,” Disengagement or Deradicalization: Look at Prison Programs for Jailed Terrorists,” CTC Sentinel, January 1, 2011,; John Horgan and Kurt Braddock,” Rehabilitating the Terrorists? Challenges in Assessing the Effectiveness of De-Radicalization Programmes,” Terrorism and Political Violence 22, no.2 (2010): 267-291.

[3] Angel Gomez et. Al, The Devout Actor’s Will to Fight and the Spiritual Dimension of Human Conflict,” Nature and Human Behavior (2017); URL; Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean: Advances Press, LLC, 2016);

[4] Anne Speckhard, “The Lethal Cocktail of Terrorism,” The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, February 25, 2016,

[5] Arie W. Kruglanski, Michelle Gelfand and Rohan Gunaratna, “Detainee Rehabiliation.” Association for Psychological Science, January 2010,

[6] Gregory D. Johnsen, “Yemen’s Passive Role in the War on Terrorism.” Terrorism Monitor 4, no. 4 (February 23, 2006).

[7] Ben Hubbard, “Inside Saudi Arabia’s Re-education Prison for Jihadists.” The New York Times, April 9, 2016,; Paul Sperry, “ “Gitmo Prisoner Reveals that Saudi ‘Terrorist Rehab’ Center is a Scam.” New York Post, November 28, 2016,

[8] Christopher Boucek, “Saudi Arabia’s ‘Soft’ Counterterrorism Strategy: Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Aftercare. “Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2008,

[9]Andreas Casptack, “Deradicalization Programs in Saudi Arabia: A Case Study.” Middle East Institute, June 10, 2015,

[10] “Said al-Shihri,” Counter Extremism Project, 2017,

[11] Christopher Boucek, “Saudi Arabia’s ‘Soft’ Counterterrorism Strategy: Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Aftercare. “

[12] Ibid.

[13] Katharina K. Lestari,” Indonesia’s Deradicalization Program under Fire.” UCA News, November 24, 2016,

[14] See, for example, UCA News article reporting on the success rate of deradicalization programs in Malaysia.; The recent interviews in Malaysia conducted by the first and second author also revealed criticisms about the scope of Malaysia’s deradicalization program, including criticisms regarding relevant legislation that forms its basis.

[15] Anne Speckhard and Stefanie Mitchell, “Possibilities of Peace-Building in Iraq: Questions of Deradicalization and Reintegration amidst Sectarian Conflicts. The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, 2016,; Anne Speckhard, Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers and “Martyrs” (McLean: Advances Press, LLC, 2012).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Speckhard, Anne. Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers and “Martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press, 2012.

[18] See, for example, estimates by The Soufan Group,

[19] Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate; Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci, and Ahmet S. Yayla, “Defected from ISIS or Simply Returned, and for How Long? Challenges for the West in Dealing with Returning Foreign Fighters [manuscript under review].

[20] Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci, and Ahmet S. Yayla, “Defected from ISIS or Simply Returned, and for How Long? Challenges for the West in Dealing with Returning Foreign Fighters.

[21] See discussion by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci on the role of defectors vis-à-vis counter messaging,


Boucek, Christopher. “Saudi Arabia’s ‘Soft’ Counterterrorism Strategy: Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Aftercare. “Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2008.

Casptack, Andreas. “Deradicalization Programs in Saudi Arabia: A Case Study.” Middle East Institute, June 10, 2015.

Gomez, Angel“ The Devout Actor’s Will to Fight and the Spiritual Dimension of Human Conflict.” Nature Human Behavior (2017); URL

Horgan, John and Bjorgo, Tore. Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement ( New York: Routledge, 2008).

Horgan, John and Braddock, Kurt. “Rehabilitating the Terrorists? Challenges in Assessing the Effectiveness of De-Radicalization Programmes.” Terrorism and Political Violence 22, no.2 (2010): 267-291.

Hubbard, Ben. “Inside Saudi Arabia’s Re-education Prison for Jihadists.” The New York Times, April 9, 2016.

Johnsen, Gregory D. “Yemen’s Passive Role in the War on Terrorism.” Terrorism Monitor 4, no. 4 (February 23, 2006).

Kruglanski, Arie W., Gelfand, Michelle and Gunaratna, Rohan. “Detainee Rehabilitation.” Association for Psychological Science, January 2010.

Lestari, Katharina K.” Indonesia’s Deradicalization Program under Fire.” UCA News, November 24, 2016.

“Said al-Shihri.” Counter Extremism Project, 2017.

Speckhard, Anne. Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers and “Martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press, 2012.

Speckhard, Anne. “The Lethal Cocktail of Terrorism.” The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, February 25, 2016.

Speckhard, Anne and Mitchell, Stefanie. “ Possibilities of Peace-Building in Iraq: Questions of Deradicalization and Reintegration amidst Sectarian Conflicts. The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, 2016.

Sperry, Paul. “Gitmo Prisoner Reveals that Saudi ‘terrorist rehab’ center is a scam.” New York Post, November 28, 2016.

Silke, Andrew. “Disengagement or Deradicalization: Loot at Prison Programs for Jailed Terrorists.” CTC Sentinel, January 1, 2010.

Speckhard, Anne and Mitchell, Stefanie. “ Possibilities of Peace-Building in Iraq: Questions of Deradicalization and Reintegration amidst Sectarian Conflicts. The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, 2016.

Speckhard, Anne. Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers and “Martyrs” (McLean: Advances Press, LLC, 2012).

Speckhard, Anne and Yayla, Ahmet S. ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean: Advances Press, LLC, 2016).

Vidino, Lorenzo and James, Brandon. “ Countering Radicalization in Europe.” The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2012.


Back To Top