Re-education and Incentivisation: The New Counter-Terrorism

In a major effort to defeat extremism, Saudi Arabia is re-educating more than 40,000 Muslim clerics in an attempt to both amend and modernise their interpretation of Islam.

Such non-militaristic strategies aimed at decreasing the potential for terrorism are of vital importance and can have enormously positive repercussions: Saudi Arabia is moderating its religious heads with a real hope that the rest of the devout population will follow. These kinds of models must be used in other nations as well in order to reinforce existing counter-terrorism strategies.

Social policies implemented to prevent terrorism from its core provide the only long-term solution to curb its threat. In an article published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr Andrew Silke, UN adviser and Director of Terrorism Studies at the University of East London, writes: “A remaining critical concern is that the current [UK] legislation is very poor in offering terrorists and their supporters a way out of extremism. There is no system to encourage terrorists to leave.”

Although it is vital that terrorists are stopped and brought to justice, there must also be rewards for their change in behaviour (assuming there is proof that they have denounced their past beliefs and actions).

Dr Silke adds: “Psychology has long known that it is much easier to change behaviour with rewards than with punishment. The UK though shows no sign of introducing a carrot to accompany the many sticks in its legislative approach, and this omission may yet prove costly.” Dr Silke mentions “Penititi Laws”, introduced in Italy in the 1980s, that cut prison sentences and granted early release for rehabilitated terrorists. This helped eradicate terrorism in the country.

By showing a criminal that he can benefit from both denouncing violent fundamentalism and from becoming more socially accepted, we have eliminated his reason to fight. But, meeting a criminal’s violence solely with state punishment only increases the offender’s rage and sense of social alienation, as well as his group’s perceived injustice. The Economist recently published an article on the Prison Entrepreneurship Programme in Texas. It states, “During the past four years PEP has put more than 300 inmates through four months of business classes and study…About 40 graduates already have businesses up and running. The vast majority are employed. Fewer than 5% have reofended.”

These kinds of effective methods can be applied to rehabilitate terrorist suspects as well. It is also essential to implement intelligent and personal methods to defeat terrorism at its very inception. Yehya Birt, a research fellow at the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, argues that the UK must be doing more in this respect as only a fraction of one percent of the annual counter-terrorism budget in 2007 was allocated to support “hearts and minds” strategies.

However, other counter-terrorism procedures are still vital. In August 2006, 8 British terrorists were arrested on their way to blowing up 7 transatlantic flights from London. Although surveillance was crucial in this instance, the problem with relying too heavily on intelligence gathering is that the penetration of terrorist cells is both limited and random at best.

To the UK’s credit, there are signs of progressive counter-terrorism methods that may also improve the efficiency of terrorist cell infiltration. Hassan Butt, a recently reformed ex-British facilitator for terrorist activity, appeared on BBC2’s Newsnight last month. He said that he is working to deradicalise Jihadis in urban areas of Manchester.

In this case, having a reformed terrorist deradicalising extremists is a highly effective tool: Butt has a working knowledge and understanding of Jihadi thought and propaganda, which he eventually denounced (what we want all would-be terrorists to do). There is an underlying risk that anyone charged with a terrorist crime could just claim to be rehabilitated and ask for special treatment. But, as Martin Bright mentioned in The New Statesman on the 3rd of April, UK terrorism laws may be an effective counter-balance to this problem.

Under the Terrorism Act 2006, ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’ is a new UK legal offence that makes it easier to charge suspects and prevent attacks. Bright argues that this is further facilitated by the introduction of ‘threshold charging’, which he says, “allows the police to bring a prosecution on the ‘realistic suspicion’ of terrorist activity, rather than the usual need for the reasonable prospect of conviction” – the latter being a more tenuous charge.

Appropriate and robust terrorism laws must be coupled with societal and individual-based deradicalisation efforts that centre on the reasons behind terrorism. Jihadis reiterate their concern for the suffering of Muslims in places such as Gaza and the West Bank, Iraq and Afghanistan. Further military operations that kill or injure civilians in these areas will only intensify an extremist’s sense of injustice towards Muslims, and create newly hardened Muslims from the moderate majority.

Terrorist organisations themselves use images aired on News channels that show Muslim civilians attacked or threatened by US, Coalition or Israeli troops. Individuals with certain psychological and aptitudinal profiles are more affected by these images and may be susceptible to recruitment by radical groups.

The Observer’s Jason Burke recently published an article about a Saudi programme to rehabilitate Jihadis. He wrote: “According to […] a psychologist working at the centre, many of the prisoners have very poor reasoning capacity and poor communication skills.” Burke also points out that the prisoners manifested emotional problems that were identified in order to alter their effect in a positive manner and diminish extremist thought and behaviour.

Methods that incorporate incentives, re-education and rehabilitation can eventually defeat terrorism and decrease the need for inflammatory militaristic methods. While progressive approaches must be applauded, a global emphasis on deradicalisation must take root and work alongside existing strategies.

Terrorism, in the long-run, cannot be defeated through the use of force alone; this would only add fuel to an already raging fire. Social, psychological and legal methods can eliminate the very cause of terrorism and reduce suffering and violence on a global scale.

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