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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Yet today, the Egyptian branches of both organizations have renounced violence. And in Dr. Ashour's eyes, the Islamic Group has undergone an "ideological deradicalization," the abandonment of violence not just for practical reasons, but a rejection of its acceptability.Skip to next paragraph
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What happened? In the mid-1990s, the group waged low-level warfare against the Egyptian state, with hundreds dead on both sides and eventually more than 30,000 alleged militants and supporters in indefinite government detention. Militant leaders were growing older and increasingly worn out inside prisons, and their families on the outside were suffering. The group's leaders in prison began to make overtures to the government.
QUIZ: How well do you know Middle East geographyThen, in 1997, militants associated with the Islamic Group carried out a massacre: Armed with guns, they hunted down busloads of tourists at Hatshepsut's Temple near Luxor in upper Egypt, murdering four Egyptians and 58 foreigners. The attack horrified Egypt as well as many of the group's senior leaders, and led to an even harsher crackdown. By the early years of the last decade, the group's imprisoned ideologues were publishing books from prison and even running a website denouncing terror tactics as illegitimate within Islam, an effort that trickled down to the rank and file.
"Everything changed after Luxor," Montasser El-Zayat, a lawyer and former militant who served jail time, told the Monitor in 2004. "A new thinking came about that such attacks were not only counterproductive but wrong."
Ashour recounts talking to a former jailed militant a decade ago who said the shift of the leadership was crucial in changing rank-and-file attitudes. While Al Azhar, an Islamic university associated with the Egyptian state, had been telling militants that violence was "un-Islamic" for years, its claims weren't heeded.
"He told me, 'the message can be very strong, but the messenger is more important. That's when ... the rank and file will listen,' " says Ashour. "This message just isn't the same as when it's from charismatic leadership."
Also crucial was the government's easing back on repression in response to deals being made. Sometimes, not much more is required in terms of additional resources, as radicals often are seeking a way back into society. As Mr. Kruglanski puts it, "the life of a terrorist is not exactly a cakewalk – and after a while they get tired of it."
Talk alone is insufficient, Kruglanski says. "In that sense, the Saudi program makes a lot of sense," he says. "An organization that takes care of the family of the detainees is important."
But while the well-resourced Saudi program is one thing , sometimes all that's required is to make sure militants get a job and find a place in society, "not necessarily providing anything extra," says Kruglanski.
Today in Egypt, Salafis are competing in elections, something they would have scorned less than a decade ago. The Islamic Group is among them, taking 13 seats in the new parliament. The name of its new organization? The Building and Development Party.
They still have what most in the West would consider regressive views about the role of women and minorities in society, and still desire to replace civil law with their own Islamic code. But if solutions to violent radicalism are being sought, there is clearly a way forward.