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Recent years have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of ‘deradicalisation’ and ‘disengagement’ programmes for violent extremist inmates, with the beneficiaries commonly offered basic education, vocational training, psychosocial support, religious and civic education, and a range of other activities. Yet, particularly in Europe, there remains limited publicly available information about such initiatives, with this lack of transparency often justified on national security grounds. Within this context, Juan José Fernández’s recent article about the Spanish deradicalisation programme (The Framework Programme for Intervention in Violent Radicalisation with Islamist Inmates) in El Periódico, a morning newspaper published daily in Spain, is illuminating. The key findings of the article are stark: only 23 of the 252 individuals classified by the Spanish authorities as ‘radical Islamist inmates’ were found to have taken part in a deradicalisation programme, but none of the beneficiaries of these effort is alleged to have been channeled away from their fanaticism since the initiative began in 2016.
Of course, such headlines come with the important caveat that changes in attitudes frequently take more than two years, as the Spanish authorities themselves previously discovered with ETA, the Basque separatist group that dissolved earlier this year. Nevertheless, in this instance the lack of success is reportedly also driven by resource constraints, including an alleged shortage of translators able to converse in the required Arabic dialects. Yet it is of even greater concern that this programme also seemingly exhibits broader conceptual failures regarding its intended aims. The El Periódico article quotes one official who highlights an absence of stipulated objectives for the counter-radicalisation initiative, a sure recipe for failure. While experts agree that such programmes should be tailored to individual needs, Spain’s alleged difficulties with defining objectives echo wider debates in other countries on whether the overarching focus of such efforts should be on the ‘deradicalisation’ or simply on the ‘disengagement’ of violent extremist inmates. For, if preventing a return to violence is considered the uppermost aim of such programmes, then there are alternative means through which this may be pursued.
The concept of deradicalisation is generally assumed to imply attitudinal change – in other words, reduced support for violent extremism, or ideally a complete rejection of ideologically-justified violence. Advocates of deradicalisation as an explicit objective for such programmes argue that such changes in opinion are necessary to ensure that individuals avoid returning to violence over the long term. However, this concept proves to be controversial, not least as there is limited empirical evidence to show that interventions actually drive positive attitudinal change with any consistency; in this respect, the current evidence from Spain only reinforces this point. Furthermore, certain Western states are also reluctant to offer any form of ideological intervention as this may potentially infringe on the political and religious rights of the beneficiaries, a point observed by Daniel Koehler, who heads the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, in his excellent book Understanding Deradicalization.
By contrast, the concept of disengagement (with certain authorities preferring the term ‘desistance’) refers directly to behavioural change, and it is most often defined either in relation to individuals exiting violent extremist groups, or more specifically in terms of individuals ending their direct contributions to violence. Advocates of this objective highlight that while attitudinal change is clearly desirable, it is often unnecessary. For instance, there are many individuals who continue to support violence, but who cease being directly involved in its creation as they opt instead to dedicate more time to their families or careers, or are simply ‘burn out’. An explicit focus on disengagement thus involves promoting positive alternative pathways through providing basic education and vocational training, and through helping to strengthen ties to families and the community.
To be clear, these debates often rest on the flawed premise that it is necessary to choose between deradicalisation and disengagement. In practice, many programmes effectively incorporate both by aiming for behavioural change to be achieved both directly and indirectly via attitudinal change; these include prison initiatives supported by the author of this commentary in both Somalia and Nigeria. And the debate about the right balance between these two objectives continues to evolve, with commentators such as Sarah Marsden from Lancaster University advocating an explicit focus on the objective of reintegration in her recent book Reintegrating Extremists. One advantage of this alternative lens is that it emphasises the long-term nature of a process that certainly does not end at the prison gates, and thus encourages the relevant authorities to focus on social and economic matters back in the community. Either way, to the extent that El Periódico’s portrayal of the Spanish prison programme failure reflects reality, it seems overly focussed on deradicalisation at the expense of other possible aims.
Moving beyond individuals with an existing history of violent extremism, Spanish policy also emphasises the need to prevent the radicalisation of other inmates. In broad terms, the simplest means through which to achieve this is through isolating violent extremists from the wider prison population, thus reducing the extent to which they may act as radicalising agents. While relatively common, this approach does come with several notable drawbacks, including the fact that concentrating violent extremists in one prison environment can help them to maintain their internal structure and discipline within prisons. Segregation can also reinforce the notion that such groups hold a distinct and allegedly political status, as was notoriously the case with the terrorists held in prisons in Northern Ireland. The policy of prison segregation also has the potential to undermine individual efforts of deradicalisation, as this process can effectively be driven by interactions between violent extremists and their non-ideological counterparts if the two groups are allowed to mix.
In summary, to the extent that El Periódico’s portrayal of the Spanish prison programme reflects reality, concerns are apparent not only regarding the inadequacy of resources devoted by the Spanish state to this effort, but also more broadly at the conceptual level. The debate between deradicalisation and disengagement objectives is set to continue, particularly as this form of programming effectively remains in its infancy and thus there is still limited empirical evidence to support arguments for either approach. In any case, the current momentum is for programmes to focus on both objectives, by aiming for behavioural change to be achieved both directly and indirectly via attitudinal change, and there is a strong case that this approach should also be adopted in Spanish prisons. The relevant authorities must also continue to evaluate their approach in relation to segregation versus dispersal policies.
James Khalil is a Barcelona-based consultant CVE and deradicalisation expert with programme experience in locations such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria. Twitter handle @JamesKhalil1.
BANNER IMAGE: A view of Carabanchel Prison in Madrid, Spain from Las Cruces Park. Courtesy of Wikipedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.