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.

Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor / File
In this file photo, a demonstrator, with his face covered, protests the US war in Afghanistan in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Terrorists are often described as beyond reason, beyond redemption. But the reality, as recent and not-so-recent history shows, is very different.

The record shows that some radical groups can be persuaded to give up the gun when the combination of inducements and local conditions is right. It's an imprecise prescription. But a combination of the heavy stick of the state, followed by giving militant leaders positive incentives to rejoin a society they often come to regret having left, seems to be at its core.

Now, scholars and researchers are looking to tease out common patterns from global successes. The Pentagon recently gave a $4.5 million grant to a group of psychologists based at the University of Maryland to conduct a five-year study on not only how to deradicalize militants, but perhaps also find ways to intervene with potential recruits before they sign up.

More than 10 years after 9/11 and following the experience of Iraq, where the violence did not ebb until the US military reached out to the Sunni groups that aided Al Qaeda militants, there's a hunger for solutions that rely less on the hammer of an artillery strike and more on the stiletto of engagement with personal motivations and the broader social context.

The Pentagon grant is just the latest money directed at multidisciplinary research efforts into the causes and conditions behind radicalization. "I've seen a major shift towards sociocultural funding. The [Department of Defense] has always done it, but it's of a very different scope now," says Michele Gelfand, a psychologist at the University of Maryland who will be working on the study.

Others have already been working on the back end of the problem.

•In Saudi Arabia, the government is planning a fivefold expansion of its flagship program dealing with Al Qaeda militants and fellow travelers.

•In Sri Lanka, nearly 10,000 former Tamil Tigers – some previously trained as suicide bombers – have gone through programs that include vocational training and been released, with limited further incidents.

•In Singapore and the Philippines, programs focused on giving financial support to the families of detainees have helped decrease the local members of the Al Qaeda-inspired Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

"Deradicalization" is now a growth industry in corners of the psychological and anthropological professions. Research is being published and careers are being made on it, so caution in assessing it is required. And it should be noted that, by itself, deradicalization doesn't address the grievances that fuel the drive to militancy.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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