Do Exit Programs for Islamists Actually Work?

Germany wants to contribute €50 million to the Taliban "exit" program in Afghanistan. The idea is to undercut support for the insurgency by helping individual Taliban leave their group, de-radicalize and re-integrate into Afghan society. Sounds like a great plan, but how do these programs actually work? And -- more importantly -- are they successful?

Over the past few years, countries all over the globe have started exit programs for Islamist terrorists and insurgents. Small armies of "de-radicalization consultants" have descended upon Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries, offering their services for hard cash and creating a small -- yet highly profitable -- industry. Exit programs have been run in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia, Jordan, Singapore, Iraq, Malaysia and Egypt. The Philippines will soon join the club.

From the outside, all these programs are very different. Some have emerged spontaneously and can often seem chaotic. The Indonesian program, for example, was run by a former terrorist and is said to have received its funding from the Indonesian mafia. In Yemen, the program came out of a so-called Dialogue Committee, whereby Islamic scholars challenged the terrorists to engage in a debate about the religious justification of jihad.

The contrast with the Saudi "mega" program couldn't be greater. Nearly 4,000 terrorists have by now graduated from the program. They are supervised and instructed by several hundred policemen, psychologists, and Islamic scholars. Indeed, the Saudi government built special training units in which participants can entertain themselves with computer games, table tennis and art therapy, among other activities.

Far from a Universal Remedy

Despite the differences in size and appearance, all these programs are based on a similar recipe. They all contain an element of re-education, which involves challenging insurgents' political and religious opinions. They all emphasize re-socialization, that is, providing insurgents with jobs and a new social environment away from extremist influences. And there is always a threat of punishment if insurgents return to violence.

At the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), we have looked at nearly a dozen exit programs, trying to find out what works and what doesn't. Our conclusion: de-radicalization and exit programs are far from being a universal remedy. Their record, in fact, is rather mixed, and Germany and its international partners would do well to study their successes and failures before spending large amounts of taxpayers' money.

There are five lessons that are worth keeping in mind.

First, no program is perfect. Even the world's most sophisticated exit program -- that in Saudi Arabia -- could not prevent a small number of its graduates from re-joining al-Qaida. (Two of them, in fact, are said to have been involved in planning the attempted Christmas Day Bombing over Detroit.) Politicians need to understand that 100 percent success is unachievable, and they should support such programs even if things are going wrong.

Returned to Violence

Second, exit programs are expensive. In successful programs, much of the money is spent on providing "after care," that is, looking after former insurgents' economic, social and psychological well-being after they complete the program. Where no proper after care is available -- like in Yemen -- large numbers of former insurgents have returned to violence.

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