Countering the General Public Radicalization and Extremist/Terrorist Recruitment

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By Air Commodore(R) Khalid Iqbal TI(M)[*]



The most resistant virus is an idea in the human mind. Radicalization is a process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that reject or undermine the status quo or reject and/or undermine contemporary ideas and expressions of freedom of choice. Radicalism is a state of mind – it is an attitude. Negative attitudes, often, arise out of real facts or imagined perceptions regarding inequitable and or unfair treatment, deprivation of economic equity and an uneven playing field in the pursuit for opportunities. There are multiple pathways that constitute the process of radicalization.  These can be independent but are usually mutually reinforcing.

De-radicalization essentially means de-programming the extremists individually and collectively. The processes of counter radicalization are complex. Each group of radicalized people need an exclusively designed counter radicalization programme while keeping in view local socio-economic, cultural and religious sensitivities. De-radicalization, disengagement and rehabilitation are essential components of any counter radicalization strategy.

Radicalism comes to fore in various formats. Ethnic and cultural conflicts have historically played a significant role in brewing and blooming radical attitudes leading to extremism and terrorism. Religious appeal makes the radical mind-set lethally potent. Stereotyping, discrimination and communal segregation are strong supplementary factors. Inadequate enfranchising of backyard communities into the political system also breeds and accentuates pessimist attitudes leading towards radicalism.  This attitude lies at the core of the motivation to sign up as a recruit, though this is not the only underwriter of radicalization. The causes leading towards radicalization may by apolitical or political or a combination of the two; however the effects of radicalization—extremism and terrorism invariably harbour political objectives.

Counter radicalization means reverse paddling the effects and processes which led to radicalism through a multi-dimensional approach — of accommodation, incentives, compensations and deterrence — gradually replacing the perception of exclusiveness amongst the targeted individual or group with a feeling of inclusiveness.

In most of the cases radicalization is virulent; and it spreads fast, like wildfire. Globalisation and virtual communication systems have phenomenally added to the expanse, speed and outreach of the individuals and entities who wish to spread radical concepts and practices. On the other hand, counter radicalization is a slow and painstaking process, analogous to one step forward and two backwards; it is tedious yet doable.


Counter radicalisation

Counter radicalization can be defined as a combination of social, societal, political or military activities, designed to prevent or thwart the manifestation of radicalization into extremism and terrorism. Many nations have been through the pangs of radicalization, and most of them were able to implement meaningful counter radicalization programmes successfully.  It requires political will, perseverance and a composite state-societal effort. However, one size does not fit all; strategies successfully used by one nation may not yield similar results when replicated by another. Every country needs to evolve its home grown counter radicalization policy and implement it persistently. Taking care of the de-radicalized persons is a lifelong commitment. Their rehabilitation calls for management of a robust social security arrangement and a pervasive de-indoctrination process.

While countering mass radicalism, states often co-opt counter balancing segments of society. At times, a portion of the local population is drafted for combative roles in the counter extremism campaign. This creates new alignments. If these armed gangs are not effectively demobilised at the end of the counter insurgency operation, they degenerate into thugs and their leaders become warlords. This situation sets into motion a new cycle of incubation for radicalism.

Society and state need to be on perpetual watch for discerning the emergence of radicalism. Even during periods of social tranquillity, one has to watch out for the indicators of extremism in their incubation phase. Society at large has to overtly adopt an attitude of anti-radicalism to keep the perpetrators of this menace marginalised through anticipatory measures. State in unison with society has to follow a comprehensive strategy to ward off manifestations of radicalism in the short as well as long-term perspective.

Eradication of radicalism, especially at mass level, is a tall order; it requires a mammoth effort encompassing a multi discipline and multi-dimensional approach. Within the overall broad counter extremism strategy, five phases operate in mutually complementary and interlocking ways to counter radicalization. These are the prevention, containment, curtailment, elimination and consolidation phases; encompassing immediate, short, medium and long term objectives. These phases need to be meticulously formulated and set into motion in various combinations, on a case to case basis. In chronic situations, especially when terrorism is rampant, the first four need simultaneous employment, and are required to be kept on a fast track.

  • Preventive phase is an all pervasive and perpetual phase. It continues to make supplementary contributions even when other phases are functional. Prevention comprises of monitoring the factors that could contribute towards radicalism and keeping the effects of these factors below boiling point. Some of the indicators of brewing radicalism are: hate literature, especially blasphemous content; appeal of intellectually dishonest demagogues; larger than life charisma of clergy based agitators; socioeconomic indicators; hatred promoting customs and traditions, exclusive claim to self-righteousness etc. These indicators need to be managed through indoctrination, statutory measures and constructive social engagements. If this phase is well managed, then half the battle is won against radicalism and extremism. The preventive phase requires institutional and structural support at local, national and international levels. This requires an elaborate monitoring and intervention system, including control over trans-border movement of men and material. State intelligence systems alone cannot perform these actions until societies also join hands.
  • Containment phase comes into play when preventive measures are unable to keep mass radicalisation under control and resulting extremism finds occasional manifestation in the form of brawls and riots. Containment effort focuses on isolating the ideologically committed extremists through active interventions like legal penalties, social pressures corrective dialogue, etc. It may also include occasional use of force to prevent emergence of serious law and order situations. However, the mainstay of the containment phase is positive engagement with radicalized elements by the moderate majority. Political engagement with saner elements and economic support incentives to, not so hardened, extremist elements that look for an opportunity to break-away from the more hardened elements, is an effective line of action.   A proficient containment strategy ensures that public opinion is not swayed in the favour of radicals. It is also essential that appropriate media policy is formulated to ensure that the public at large is made aware of the consequences of the potential hazard of not countering radical entities. A campaign must be launched to de-glorify the extremist elements. Influential communicators drawn out of mainstream ethnic groups and clergy can reinforce the effects of containment measures, by putting across the facts to the general public, in the correct perspective. Side by side, non-compromising elements are taken on boldly, through tactical use of force, on an as required basis.  Choking of financial support and logistical facilitation are important steps towards containment. Here also, state-society partnership is essential to generate due urgency and requisite synergy.
  • Curtailment phase concentrates on interventionist measures by isolating the radical elements from general public. It determines further classification of extremists in the categories of ideologically committed hardened elements and those who are being exploited emotionally, or economically. Then, effort is made to reclaim the latter category through de-indoctrination and incentives. This phase essentially focuses on the economic needs of soft extremists, who desire to breakaway from the hardened cells. Through capacity and capability enhancement, these returnees are made capable of leading an economically and socially viable life.  This is an investment intensive phase and it must start right away as the signs of fermenting radicalism become discernable. Concurrent with curtailment actions, appropriate preventive and containment measures must remain operational for reinforcing the gains of this phase.
  • Elimination phase carries forth the effort of the curtailment phase and eliminates the positively identified hardened cells of extremists through proportionate use of military power and judicial accountability. Here an important caution is due; use of excessive power causes unwarranted collateral damage and breeds sympathisers of hardened extremists. If this phase is not managed through use of low yield precision munitions, brute use of force may produce more extremists than what it is capable of eliminating. Generally, this phase runs concurrently with the preceding phases. The elimination phase must be of short duration, and it should run simultaneously alongside a meaningful political process. Due care must be taken to ensure that the elimination phase does not end up in a stalemate. This is the actual combat phase, with the military instrument in the forefront, and other mechanisms in supportive roles. The judicial process is another component of the elimination phase. This requires specially trained judges and comprehensive legislative cover. Judges and prosecution witnesses need to be protected against intimidation. Forensic skills need to be upgraded for developing all-encompassing circumstantial evidence.
  • Consolidation phase capitalises on the gains of the elimination phase. Its prime objective is to convert an uneasy calm into permanent tranquillity. Disorganized cells of radicals are destroyed though a well-executed mopping up operation. This phase focuses on establishing compatible institutional checks to ensure that the elements which breakaway from the extremist gangs do not relapse due to residual contributory factors.  The end of this phase is marked by the benchmarks that extremists lose public appeal and sympathy, they are reduced in capability and capacity to an extent that they are neither able to regroup and reconstitute nor make sporadic revisits. Overall, they lose the ability to function as an organised entity. During this phase, the military instrument goes into background while maintaining an effective deterrence.
  • To complete the cyclic process, the preventive phase resumes the charge to capitalise on gains of all other phases. Growing wiser by lessons learnt, operators of preventive measures strive to ensure that there are no relapses. This is done by abiding by any political or other agreements reached with the converted elements. Furthermore, it concentrates on blocking the reappearance of previous contributory causes. For example, any adult without compatible means of livelihood is a potential candidate for relapse. This entire process has to be carefully executed, as a whole, by taking into consideration the local socio-cultural sensitivities; lest radical breeding restarts.

During an overwhelming environment of terrorism, primary focus shifts to meeting the immediate objectives of national security through the application of hard power; and dealing with root causes of terrorism—the proliferation of radicalism and its contributory causes— tend to take the back seat and attract only periphery attention. As a result, the recruitment process is able to keep pace in replacing the dead terrorists. When in the thick of terrorism, the implementation of de-radicalization efforts may not show immediate measurable results. Nevertheless, the effort must commence and gain critical mass to remain sustainable; this helps in choking supply of recruits to extremist and terrorist elements.

Counter radicalization Concept

A typical National De-radicalization Policy should be comprehensive, taking in to account all contributory factors. Such a policy should be easily convertible to ‘easy to do’ plans of action for each pocket of radicalized people. At the strategic tier, contemporary radicalism is a global phenomenon needing global effort to counter it. At operational and tactical levels it has a transnational texture requiring regional approach. Nevertheless, at the tactical level, there is sufficient space to develop and implement national level de-radicalization campaigns. This could help in choking fresh recruitments, and hence create a bottom up strategic effect in due course. Success of any counter-radicalization campaign requires broad international support, especially a commitment by immediate neighbours to refrain from any trans-border enabling support to radical/extremist elements. At domestic levels, it requires spearheading innovative thinking process in policy formulation.

Counter radicalization Strategy

With regard to counter radicalization strategy, there is an emerging consensus among counterterrorism analysts and practitioners that to defeat the threat posed by extremism and terrorism, there is a need to go beyond security and intelligence measures, take proactive measures to prevent vulnerable individuals and communities from radicalizing, and rehabilitating those who wish to renounce extremism.

Countering radicalism is like a game of chess but the international approach so far has been more akin to playing chequers, says Bruce Hoffman, an American scholar who has spent years studying the phenomenon. A chess-game approach means understanding the threat and enemy and being able to anticipate and thoughtfully respond to how it changes and adapts. This means a strategy that uses reason and astuteness, not just brute force. Chequers becomes a one-dimensional numbers game which measures gains more by how many leaders or militants are eliminated than how the flow of recruits is retarded. For a game changing strategy, fast attrition of terrorist leaders has to be accompanied by concerted counter-radicalisation efforts to choke fresh entrants.

A key dilemma is whether the objective of these programmes should be disengagement or deradicalization of militants. Disengagement entails a change in behavior, but not necessarily a change in beliefs. A person could exit a radical organization and refrain from violence, yet retain a radical worldview. Deradicalization is the process of changing the individual’s belief system, rejecting the extremist ideology, and embracing mainstream values. Deradicalization may be necessary to permanently defuse the threat posed by these individuals. There is also a point of view that deradicalization may not be a realistic objective and that the goal of terrorist rehabilitation programmes should be limited to disengagement.

If a militant disengages solely for instrumental reasons, when the circumstances change, he may once again take up arms. Conversely, when deradicalization accompanies disengagement, it creates further barriers to relapsing. Moreover, there may be a tipping point. When enough ex-militants renounce radical ideology, the organizations that adhere to it are fatally discredited. Even short of this tipping point, as greater numbers of militants renounce extremism, radical organizations experience greater hurdles in attracting adherents and sympathizers.

A government can take actions that make disengagement more attractive and continued extremist behavior less appealing by implementing counterterrorism measures that increase the costs of remaining in an extremist organization while strategically offering incentives that increase the benefits of exiting. It appears that a dual strategy—carefully blending both hard and soft line measures—is the best counter radicalization policy for inducing individuals to leave a militant group.

The probability that an individual will disengage or deradicalize is inversely related to the degree of commitment to the group or movement. Commitment can be measured in terms of affective, pragmatic, and ideological bonds.

  • Affective commitment is an emotional attachment to other members of the organization and to the group itself.
  • Pragmatic commitment refers to the practical factors that make it difficult to exit a radical organization, such as material rewards and punishments.
  • The ideological component justifies the actions that the militant is asked to take and the hardships that he or she must endure to achieve the group’s objectives.

A counter radicalization program should work to break the militant’s affective, pragmatic, and ideological commitment to the group. Individuals may vary in the level of each type of commitment, but because it is prohibitively costly to tailor a program to each person, rehabilitation efforts should include components to address each type of attachment. Deradicalization programmes appear more likely to succeed when all three components are implemented together so as to provide individuals with multiple reasons to abandon their commitment towards the radical group and ideology. Most Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian programs employ a form of theological dialogue in which mainstream scholars and, sometimes, former radicals engage extremists in discussions of theology in an effort to convince the militants that their interpretation of religion is wrong.

Collective deradicalization has occurred infrequently—only when a state has defeated an extremist organization by killing or imprisoning most of the group’s leaders. When a critical mass of a group’s key leaders and members are imprisoned with little chance of being released, this hopeless situation precipitates a strategic crisis that is often followed by an ideological crisis within such radical entities.

Collective deradicalization differs from the programmes established to rehabilitate individual extremists. Mostly, governments respond to overtures from radical group leaders who have already begun to reconsider their positions and then engaged these leaders to facilitate their process of disengagement.

Policymakers should encourage group deradicalization where it seems feasible and facilitate the public disclosure of the writings and arguments of militants who renounce extremism.

Demonstration effects are one of the least discussed but most important aspects of deradicalization. When an influential ideologue or operational leader renounces an extremist ideology—and, more importantly, explains his or her reasons for doing so —it raises doubts in the minds of radicals who subscribe to a similar worldview. Most programmes focus on reforming less committed radicals. Although it is extremely difficult to induce committed militants to renounced extremism, it may still be necessary to target the more devoted militants—the activists and the “hard-core”—because these individuals have more influence on the rank and file.

Collective deradicalization is the most efficient way to change the behavior and beliefs of a large number of militants at once and ultimately discredit the extremist ideology. Countering radicalization and de-radicalization are the essentials of cutting the recruitment for those who execute terrorist activities. This calls for a resource intensive effort. Political will is the core from which a typical national counter radicalization policy draws strength.

The Islamic State (IS), is now the largest and richest militant outfit in the world. It has a global appeal that attracts recruits from many countries. The US State Department said it knows of “dozens” of US citizens fighting with the Islamic State, the Canadian government claims there are at least 130 and the British government’s not so recent headcount is over 500. Following the Grand Mufti’s edict to fight against IS terrorists in 2014, Saudi Arabia has arrested numerous such terrorists. Iran has also arrested Afghan and Pakistani citizens crossing over its territory to join ISIS fighters.


Despite an unprecedented international effort to militarily subdue radicalism, the phenomenon appears only at the formulation stage. Scores of flawed studies and half-baked deradicalization and counter radicalization programmes have not been able to scratch the issue beyond skin-deep. Hence, radicalized societies/groups continue to churn-out militant extremists in scores. Even mammoth military interventions, in the name of countering terrorism, have only led to a messier environment with heightened radicalization. This calls for a paradigm shift in the global counter radicalization effort by addressing the underlying causes leading to radicalism.




[*] The author is a consultant on Policy and Strategic Response at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).  He is a retired Air Commodore and a former Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force.