The Necessity of Prison Programs to Deradicalize Terrorists Photo Courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons

The Necessity of Prison Programs to Deradicalize Terrorists

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Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) founder Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid. London bomb plotter Muktar Ibrahim. American ISIS fighter John Georgelas. What do these men have in common? They are all terrorists who were radicalized in prison and released back into society without undergoing reformative rehabilitative programs.


Why is this relevant today?

On May 23rd, John Walker Lindh was released from a U.S. federal prison after serving 17 years of his 20-year sentence. Lindh was a fighter for the Taliban in Afghanistan when he was captured in 2001. His early release for good behavior is highly controversial, particularly as the 2017 National Counterterrorism Center report claimed that Lindh was an “advocate for global jihad” who continued to “write and translate violent extremist texts.”

Lindh will be closely monitored, but details of his future remain uncertain. Lindh is not unique in his situation. Approximately 100 Americans who are currently incarcerated for their association with extremist groups are expected to be released within the next 4 years. It has become increasingly vital for the U.S. to deradicalize these individuals, as they threaten our national security.


What’s being done to deradicalize terrorists?

Unfortunately, not much. The U.S. relies heavily on prosecution, and programs meant to deradicalize terrorists in prison are fragmented and few.

As convicted terrorists arrive in prison, they may find comfort in their like-minded peers, some of whom are trying to recruit new members. There are numerous examples of how personal relationships have slowly led to radicalization. As such, it is imperative for programs to begin early to stop the cycle of terrorist recruitment in prison and focus on rehabilitation.

There are a variety of strategies that can be used for a more comprehensive approach to deradicalize in prisons. The strategies include staff and inmate training, prisoner intelligence systems and surveillance, and strong corrections management. It is also critical to connect educational training inside the prison to opportunities after release and tailor training programs and counseling to the individuals.

Separation from the general population is crucial to preventing further recruitment. Yet many prisons do not want to separate extremists from other inmates because it is expensive, even though evidence “suggests that this is an essential first step toward containing radicalization.”

Furthermore, violent and nonviolent extremists should be separated. In particular, deradicalization programs should focus on nonviolent offenders to help them reintegrate into society. It is vital to concentrate on this population, as they may be able to dispel certain myths and appeals of terrorist organizations, which may dissuade others from joining.


An American program

Although there are several deradicalization programs around the globe, Minnesota’s Terrorism Disengagement and Deradicalization Program is the first in the U.S. The voluntary program began in 2016 when U.S. District Judge Michael Davis ordered four men facing terrorism charges to be evaluated by Islamic extremist expert Daniel Koehler to explore the potential for rehabilitation. The evaluation identified motivations, the risk of reoffending, and specific strategies to “steer them away from radical ideologies.” Currently, 25 people are participating in the program.

Participants are evaluated to determine how and why they were radicalized. These factors are used to create a tailored approach based on the different ways each individual became “involved in extremist ideology.” The program uses tactics such as counseling, religious mentoring, education, and community reintegration.

Although still a relatively new program, it has already shown success. Abdullahi Yusuf, 18 at the time of his arrest when he tried to travel to Syria to join ISIS, was the first to go through the U.S. deradicalization initiative. According to Yusuf’s lawyer, “[Yusuf’s] transformation has been incredible. He went from being a surly, closed-down kid to this really open, warm, intelligent, thoughtful, introspective young man, who recognizes why he’d been attracted to ISIS and why there are so many other options for him.” The hope is other young extremists will also be positively influenced and turn away from terrorist organizations.


The bottom line

Deradicalization programs are necessary in prison, a place often seen as a hotbed for terrorist recruitment. Programs such as the Terrorism Disengagement and Deradicalization Program are important in helping people successfully reintegrate into society without returning to violent activities or extreme viewpoints that can threaten the U.S. Perhaps if Lindh had participated in such a program, the American public would feel more confident about his release.