How to De-Radicalize Terrorists

President Barack Obama secured UN help in tracking foreign fighters.

U.S. President Barack Obama's speech to the United Nations this morning may have attracted more attention, but his chairmanship of the UN Security Council later in the day may have the more lasting impact. The council unanimously agreed to adopt his proposal for a more coordinated global effort to track and arrest so-called foreign fighters -- thousands of whom have joined Islamic State and other jihadi groups. Now it's time to start thinking about what to do with them once they're in custody.

The challenge is immense. At least 2,000 Westerners are thought to be among the 15,000 foreigners estimated to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, according to U.S. intelligence officials. Not all of them pose a direct danger to their home countries: No more than 1 in 9 such fighters have usually sought to conduct attacks after returning home. They can easily radicalize others, however.

Countries will need to work together to combat this threat, sharing intelligence and evidence of recruitment activity. The UN's draft resolution also calls on nations to enact laws strong enough to detain and penalize fighters who return home. Many countries must now first prove a suspect contributed directly to a terrorist attack while abroad.

New laws will need to be written carefully to avoid abridging civil liberties. Australia, which last week broke up an alleged Islamic State plot to kidnap and behead random victims, is probably going too far in proposing to bar citizens from even traveling to certain designated parts of the world. Laws allowing governments to revoke the citizenship of suspected terrorists will be counterproductive if they alienate those fighters who have grown genuinely disillusioned with jihad and want to quit the fight.

Whether such fighters can be rehabilitated is a broader question that countries will also need to consider. Over the past decade, programs that purport to "deprogram" or "de-radicalize" jihadis have been established in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Egypt and Morocco -- all using similar techniques: Independent, moderate clerics challenge prisoners' warped views of Islam. Psychologists and social scientists assess their motivations and the sincerity of their conversions. And, further along in the process, prisoners engage in team-building activities designed to replace the camaraderie of jihad.

Several of these programs claim impressive success rates -- at least 80 percent in Saudi Arabia, virtually 100 percent in Singapore. But attaining such numbers takes a big commitment. The Saudi program, which has processed by far the largest number of militants -- about 4,000 by early 2010 -- spends heavily on each one. Those who finish the program are set up with jobs or schooling, as well as money for weddings and even cars. After prisoners are released, security services track them intrusively, while extended clan and family networks serve as a powerful check on behavior. Even after all this, the ex-jihadis' understanding of Islam remains fairly radical by non-Saudi standards. The program has had several high-profile failures.

To design the most effective rehabilitation strategies for their citizens, Western countries will need a better understanding of what attracts the people to militant activity abroad in the first place. Most Western recruits aren't particularly religious; they're attracted more by the romance of defending fellow Muslims and by the brotherhood they find on the battlefield. Disputing their understanding of specific Koranic teachings, as Singapore's Religious Rehabilitation Group does, may help counter some of the twisted ideology they pick up once there, but it won't necessarily replace the sense of purpose that jihad offers.

Rehabilitation can be well worth the effort, because any "defectors" who can be turned can become sources of intelligence or, at least as important, propaganda. More than any number of moderate clerics, they can present a powerful and graphic argument against jihad.

--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Mary Duenwald

To contact the editors on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net