Golfing in a Minefield: Deradicalization of Terrorists


By The Gunship Blogger

Pundits and experts constantly debate radicalized religious zealots turned terrorists on TV today.  The debate arena is a minefield of political correctness and pandering.  A straight and true putt towards the hole might inflame the wrong pundit and result in setting off an explosion of emotional arguments.  For this discussion, let’s not golf in a minefield and be frank about cause and effect.

While motivations and ideology do form the two pillars for understanding terrorist mental flashpoints, there is a ‘je ne se qua’ which binds them together in a tight composite.  Looking at the examples from the Rand study by Rabasa, it seems that this undefined quality is the level of complacency of the immediate society (Rabasa, et al. 2010).  The sheer strength of ideological loyalty might be difficult to change, but social pressures to act like a normal human being might be sufficient to disengage radicalized individuals.

The job of deradicalization seems quite easy to the uninitiated as all one must do is point towards logical contradictions and use that as the ‘trigger’ to initiate the “cognitive opening” (Rabasa, et al. 2010).  However, ideology is often blind to facts.  The United States is an excellent case study which lends itself to better understanding of the problem.  Political affiliation is an ideology for many.  And with political groups, there are certainly some extremists on both sides of the US political spectrum.  Therefore, a technique one might consider is to rhetorically ask “What would have to happen to make me change from a Republican to a Democrat? [or vice versa]”.  If politics isn’t a personally polarizing subject, then perhaps another topic where ideology drives a fierce loyalty (apple versus PC, vegan vs carnivore, pro-choice vs pro-life, etc.).  When framed in that way, the task of deradicalization seems insurmountable.  If a billion dollar a year political machine can barely break a 50% margin in election season among voters, how will a significantly less funded rehabilitation program fare against a significantly more ideologically entrenched individual?

Using the above reference framework, disengagement, as mentioned in the Rand piece seems to be a potentially more economical method of countering terrorism (Rabasa, et al. 2010).  As an individual, I find it much simpler to be disengaged from enacting a particular belief than to have my ‘radical’ opinion changed.  In a very simple example, I believe that one should travel normal highway speeds in construction areas with no workers present, however I will still adhere to the posted construction area speed limit, no matter how low it is.  The effort required to convince me to embrace and actually believe in a lower speed limit, even with no workers present, is monumental for such a simple task.   The policy of a speeding ticket shapes my behavior adequately enough to force me to disengage my actions from my own beliefs.  In that instance, should I know I wouldn’t be fined, I would speed back up to normal highway speeds.  This similar experience could similarly apply to radicalized individuals as well.  While it does not change ideology or motivations, it adds in additional ideologies and motivations which channel the former two in a socially acceptable fashion.

For religious based terrorists, one might base or justify the violence off of the texts or mythology of the religion as seen in the Sikh terrorist motivations (Juergensmeyer 1988).  As religious historian Phillip Jenkins observed, the Bible (in his opinion) was far more ‘bloody’ than the Quran (Hagerty 2010).  The written ideology of both the Bible and Quran contain plenty of fodder for extremists to leverage (Hagerty 2010).  In Syria, Christians and Muslims have lived as neighbors for years, however only one group has chosen to wholesale slaughter the other (Al-Habib 2015).  The restraint that the victimized group has shown in the past year is astounding.  So what makes the groups different?  Both have Abrahamic based texts which can easily be interpreted in violent manners (Hagerty 2010).  Both reside next to each other with similar economic backgrounds (Al-Habib 2015).  Neither has latent personal animosity against the other (such as Palestinians and Israelis).  Socially, there must be some aberration which facilitates such violent behavior.  Perhaps it is social approval which allows and encourages such behavior.  One only needs to look at ISIS terror videos to find ordinary citizens watching the horrors stoically or cheering the terrible crimes to realize there is a degree of social acceptance and toleration of the horrors (Saul 2015).  The social rejection of inhumane treatment of others is completely lacking among the society which grants the terrorists their legitimacy.

Social rejection could be a viable disengagement strategy.  It will not change the core beliefs of those who might commit the offenses, but it may stay the hand.  Opinion polls of ISIS show significant amounts of territory which may be gained by the enemy.  In the 2015 Pew poll, 62% of Pakistanis had no opinion on ISIS, with 9% openly in support of ISIS.  The results of the aforementioned and startling Pew poll was titled: “In nations with significant Muslim populations, much disdain for ISIS”.  Perhaps the group needs better headlines to convince readers that ISIS is socially unacceptable.  The title sugar coats an ugly truth that the majority of a nation doesn’t think ISIS has done anything wrong.  Communism in the 1950’s was met with the House Un-American Activities Committee which provided a ready-made opinion to American citizens who had not delved into the communism/capitalism debate.  The media is a huge tool to create such sentiment.  Perhaps the same could be used to not win the hearts and minds, but shame the hearts and minds.

One of the more extreme, but very potent examples of disengagement versus deradicalization is the home destruction policy in the Israel/Palestine conflict.  It is common knowledge that conflict in the Levant involves two parties who are deeply ideologically entrenched.  A fascinating case study in and of itself, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of a law enforcement policy that makes compulsory the demolition of family homes of terrorists (Donnelly UNK).  The policy has the court notify the family that one of its members has been charged with terrorist activities.  The family and the individual are both given the opportunity to turn in that individual or admit to the crime (Donnelly UNK).  The families maintain the right to defend themselves and their knowledge of the crime in court (Donnelly UNK).  Should the families refuse to give up their radical member and it is proven in court that they knew of his/her terrorist action/plans, the entire family dwelling is razed (Donnelly UNK).  In the region, multiple generations of a family live under a single roof, meaning the razing of the family home means uncles, grandfathers, parents and children are left without a home.  The policy has been credited with five individuals turning themselves in within the two week period the policy had been in place (Donnelly UNK).  In fact, one story actually relays that a father shot his own would be terrorist son in the leg in order to prevent him from conducting a terrorist act and thus lose the family home (Donnelly UNK).  The ideology did not change, but the individuals were disengaged.  Sacrificing one’s life is one level of ideological commitment, but shaming your entire family by making them homeless and forcing them to live in squalor is a completely different level of ideological commitment.

In closing, the reading’s debate of disengagement versus deradicalization demonstrate the extreme difficulties in deradicalizing individuals and the poor methods of measuring successes.  More entrenched individuals cannot be deradicalized but may be disengaged (Rabasa, et al. 2010).  Our world revolves around differences of opinion.  Day to day life indicates how difficult it is to convince a true believer to recant.



Al-Habib, Maria. Islamic State Militants Attack Christian Villages in Syria. March 07, 2015. (accessed November 26, 2015).

Donnelly, Matt. Israel Destroys Homes to Deter Terrorists. August 20, UNK. (accessed November 29, 2015).


Hagerty, Barbara. Is The Bible More Violent Than The Quran? March 18, 2010. (accessed November 26, 2015).

Juergensmeyer, Mark. “The Logic of Religious Violence: The Case of the Punjab.” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 1988: 22-65.

Poushter, Jacob. In nations with significant Muslim populations, much disdain for ISIS. November 17, 2015. (accessed November 26, 2015).

Rabasa, Angel, Stacie L. Pettyjohn, Jeremy J. Ghez, and Christopher Boucek. Deradicalizing Islamist Extremists. Research Report for National Security Research Division, Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2010.

Saul, Heather. Isis films reactions of cheering crowds watching Jordanian pilot burned alive on screens in Raqqa. February 04, 2015. (accessed November 26, 2015).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s