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Are terrorists beyond redemption?

The record shows that some radicals can be persuaded to give up the gun when inducements and local conditions are right. The Pentagon recently spent $4.5 million to find out more.

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To be sure, there have been many failures. Bagus Budi Pranoto, a JI member involved in an attack on the Australian embassy in 2004, was released from prison after going through Indonesia's program. In 2009, he was involved in bomb attacks against Jakarta's Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels that killed seven people, and was later gunned down in a raid of a JI safe house in Central Java.

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Former Guantánamo Bay inmate Said Ali al-Shahri, a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was released to Saudi custody in 2007 and quickly cycled through its rehabilitation program. By 2009, he had resurfaced as an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen. Unconfirmed reports last year claimed he had been killed.

Proponents of a deradicalization approach argue that occasional failures don't mean the programs are not working.

"The Saudi program is occasionally criticized because some graduates occasionally return to radical activities.... I think that's a misunderstanding," says Arie Kruglanski, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland who studies radical groups and will be leading the Pentagon-funded research program.

"If a person leaves the program and is inserted into a social milieu that influences him to return to previous beliefs, that doesn't mean it didn't work: People can always be reradicalized," he says.

It isn't all about talking, either. Omar Ashour, a professor at the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in England and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, wrote in his book, "The De-Radicalization of Jihadists," that the heavy hand of the state played an important role in the most thorough deradicalization successes. Perhaps the best recent case is that of Egypt's Gamaa al-Islamiyah, or "Islamic Group."

The group's roots date to the late 1970s, when a group of young Islamists broke from Egypt's dominant Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood. While they shared the vision of an Egypt eventually governed by Islamic law, these youths took issue with the Brothers' willingness to cooperate with the modern state and minority groups to pursue that goal. The men were heavily influenced by the puritanical Salafi strain of Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia and viewed participation in electoral politics as tantamount to a sin.

Members of the fledgling organization participated in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, an event that led to a mass roundup and imprisonment of Islamist militants. Soon after, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qaeda, created an offshoot and competitor of the group, called Al-Jihad. Neither group was known for compromise.


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