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Deradicalization Programs: A Counterterrorism Tool Photo credit: VOA. Surrendered Islamic State Fighters in Afghanistan

Deradicalization Programs: A Counterterrorism Tool

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An increase in extreme weather events, a global pandemic, and a particularly potent digital climate all lend to a global rise in resource scarcity, social isolation, and misinformation; conditions which sometimes contribute to an increase in radicalization and extremist recruitment. While the focus of U.S. counterterrorism (CT) strategy continues to follow hard-nosed power projections, U.S. allies have begun placing more focus on the integration of deradicalization programs. This shift highlights the realization that extremist ideology cannot be defeated simply by exterminating or subduing terrorists. Instead, focus must be given to understanding the underlying conditions of extremism as it pertains to radicalization.

The State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) acknowledges that countering violent extremism (CVE) communications are an important facet for combatting terrorist and extremist influence. However, the primary goal of the GEC, in terms of CVE, is to repel online messaging campaigns from terrorist organizations, disregarding other important factors attributing to radicalization such as economic and situational stressors, low self-esteem, and exposure to violent ideologies by family members or friends.

Deradicalization programs aim to reform terrorists and individuals with extremist beliefs already in custody by confronting these underlying factors. The most successful iterations of the process follow an individualized approach tailored to each detainee and typically utilize religious, cultural, and historical reeducation, psychological counseling, mentoring, and aftercare upon release. The objectives of these programs tend to differ situationally. It is important to note that although phrases like ‘deradicalization’ and ‘disengagement’ are often used interchangeably, they are distinct in aims and context. While deradicalization is the process of moderating one’s beliefs, particularly extremist ideologies, disengagement refers to the process of changing one’s behavior, such as refraining from violence and withdrawing from extremist organizations, without necessarily changing one’s beliefs.

The following list highlights deradicalization program models:

Saudi Arabia

Started in 2004, this program is possibly the most well-known because of its size and touted success on former Guantanamo Bay detainees. The program utilizes a specialized approach following the PRAC model: Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Aftercare. While the focus was initially on modifying behavior rather than changing beliefs, through trial-and-error, the approach was changed to provide ideological guidance away from extremist beliefs and convictions.


While most European countries jail individuals who want to join extremist groups, Denmark instead provides these would-be jihadists with mentoring, housing, and employment. The Aarhaus program focuses on community outreach as a core component with societal reintegration as the end goal.


Germany’s first deradicalization program, EXIT-Germany, was aimed at deradicalizing and reintegrating neo-Nazis. The second program, Hayat-Germany, follows the EXIT model but focuses on jihadists. Although attention is primarily given to individuals already involved in these groups, these programs also focus on the prevention of vulnerable individuals committing violence.


Started in 2016, the U.S.’s first deradicalization program borrows from European programs’ utilization of individualized approaches consisting of mentors, religious support, and strengthening family ties. Though the program initially started with a focus on young Somali men trying to leave the U.S. to fight for ISIS, it has been utilized for a few white nationalists as well. This program focuses on a reintegration model as opposed to the typical incarceration model – which opens the potential for increased radicalization within the prison environment.

Lessons and Integration

The most common shortcoming with deradicalization programs is the lack of universal metrics to measure recidivism rates. However, the inclusion of rapidly-evolving and intensive aftercare programs, as seen in Saudi Arabia and Germany’s programs, have helped to stymie this difficulty. Another difficulty, primarily in the West, is that community outreach programs tend to single out specific minority-centric communities, typically Muslim ones, which may lead to profiling and a dissolution of rights. The disconnect between Western governments and Muslim communities can also lend to credibility issues, especially if programs overemphasize attempts to replace extremism with secular “counter-truths” or Western identities over Islamic ones, which may be seen as an attack on religious freedoms. Islamophobic rhetoric and attitudes in Western nations can also prevent the strengthening of grassroots collectives led by moderate Muslim community members, which are necessary for some program aspects.

U.S. deradicalization programs should take into account the lessons learned from other state-programs such as:

  • Prioritizing mentors, including reformed extremists, and inclusive community outreach as a method to develop counternarratives
  • Individualized approaches
  • A clear program objective with distinctions between deradicalization and disengagement goals
  • Prioritizing evaluation to tackle the problem of recidivism measurements, including intensive aftercare programs

The U.S. should also invest in multilateral and partner-nation deradicalization initiatives. This could create a more globalized approach to deradicalization efforts while saving resources in the long-term. Proper integration can utilize deradicalization programs as a broadening-tool for CT and counter-radicalization efforts, addressing international and domestic U.S. security threats.


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