De-Radicalization and the Psychology of Terrorism

April 30, 2010 — Dr. John Horgan, Director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism and Associate Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Pennsylvania State University, joined us for a discussion on de-radicalization and disengagement programs and the psychology of terrorism. Dr. Horgan is the author of Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements (Routledge 2009).

Dr. Horgan started by outlining the main questions which frame all discussion on the psychology of terrorism – how and why do people become involved in extremist groups, what function do they perform within the group, and lastly, how and why individuals disengage or leave an extremist group? Through the analysis of responses to these questions, it is possible to understand not only the mechanisms for engagement in violent radical movements, but also for disengagement. Dr. Horgan uses these analyses in order to assess the effectiveness of programs aimed at reducing the risk of re-engagement in violent terrorism by program participants.

Dr. Horgan then highlighted a number of the more prominent de-radicalization/disengagement programs in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and Indonesia to explain how each program is largely context specific and how no single program could be re-implemented in Afghanistan or Pakistan with the same expectations for success. However, there are certain elements of these programs that can be effective as U.S., NATO, Pakistani, and Afghan governments and militaries adopt strategies to reduce the risk of re-engagement after a member has participated in a disengagement or reconciliation process. An important take-away from Dr. Horgan’s remarks is that these programs largely aim to prevent future terrorism and promote successful re-entry into society of former combatants, rather than truly de-radicalize the participants.

The Question and Answer session provided a more in-depth look at many of the components of certain de-radicalization/disengagement programs, as well as the societal and economic factors that contribute to violent radicalization and also disillusionment and disengagement. In conjunction with the formal programs covered in the briefing, efforts at counter-radicalization and delegitimizing violent extremist groups were also stressed as tactics necessary in reducing the risk of recidivism and violent engagement within target populations.

Lastly, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where unemployment and poverty are large drivers of involvement in violent extremist groups, programs aimed at providing skills, jobs, and a productive role in society for participants would likely be much more effective than those aimed at challenging and changing a participant’s ideology or religious interpretation. Through the assessment of de-radicalization programs and the study of the psychology of terrorism, Dr. Horgan provides an understanding of the forces at play in these complex conflicts and possible characteristics of programs aimed at disengagement in Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Security for a New Century is a nonpartisan discussion group for Congress. We meet regularly with U.S. and international policy professionals to discuss the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security environment. All discussions are OFF-THE-RECORD. It is not an advocacy venue. For more information, please call Mark Yarnell at (202) 224-7560 or write to [email protected].

This event is part of the Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran briefing series in partnership with the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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