Counter-Terrorism: Is Disengagement an Effective Approach?

Monk by the Sea - Caspar David Friedrich 

Some scholars and public figures defend a more holistic approach to Counter-Terrorism (CT). They defend that military efforts (i.e. hard approaches) alone will not solve the problem and therefore soft measures should be applied to the fight against terrorism. There are three most common soft measures in CT: deradicalisation, counter-radicalisation and disengagement.
All of them will be discussed, however this week we'll address the latter - disengagement.

Disengagement is a process aiming at disrupting the mobilisation (towards violence) of a radicalised individual.

The basic idea behind disengagement (or demobilisation) is that the radical element having committed - or about to commit - terrorist acts will be led to change his behaviour even though he may keep his radical beliefs/ideology.
Before proceeding, we need to briefly look at the process of radicalisation itself.

According to Bill Braniff, the radicalisation process (based on Peter Neumann's model of radicalisation) has four components:
Grievances: the idea that there is lack of equity or justice.
Cognitive opening: the idea that an individual is vulnerable or open to suggestion and persuasion.
Ideology: an agenda inscribed in a set of beliefs that provide guidelines to action.
Mobilisation: the idea that one not only produces certain thoughts but also takes actions towards a specific violent outcome.
This process is not linear nor deterministic, meaning that it may not be a step-by-step process; instead it can be a combination of some or all elements.
But it is assumed that it would work in the following manner: recognition of a sense of injustice or victimisation (grievance) that creates a cognitive opening that is filled by ideology, that once socialised will result in mobilisation (terrorist acts) that will raise awareness to the grievance afflicting the individual/group, making thus the process start all over again. It is a vicious cycle and, therefore, scholars suggest a way to interrupt the cycle at mobilisation.

Now, back to disengagement. On paper it seems perfect since you capture a terrorist, then subject him to a social and psychological process at the end of which he won't actually kill people [or kill any longer] - despite retaining his extremist ideas.
The theory sounds good, but then a few questions come to mind:
- How can CT units ensure that the disengaged violent extremists won't feed susceptible individuals with their radical ideology?
- If disengaged violent extremists express their ideas to individuals who are cognitively opened to their radical ideas and later on are mobilised to act upon the set of beliefs earlier expressed: aren't those disengaged extremists in fact still engaged in terrorism by incitement?
- Who will be considered disengaged from terror: anyone who changes his/her behaviour by itself, or only those who earn a certificate of accomplishment from holistic terror-disruption programmes?
- It has been established that mobilisation needs to be disrupted but, thus far, there's scarce information on how to do that. We have heard of deradicalisation programmes (in Indonesia, in Saudi Arabia, in Scandinavian countries) where the subjects allegedly undergo a change in their beliefs (and by consequence a change in their behaviour); however, how is the rupture between the socialisation of ideology and mobilisation to terror supposed to occur exactly?

Jessica Stern wrote (in Deradicalization or Disengagement of Terrorists: is it possible?):
"Said Ali al-Shihri, who was repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2007, graduated from the Saudi deradicalization program. After al-Shihri’s release, he became the deputy leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen"
If subjecting radicalised elements to programmes to change their beliefs may not produce the desired outcome; we can't really be sure that disengagement measures will, even if the reason to mobilise towards violence is of social nature (suppose the radicalised individual joined terrorism because his friends, or a relative, did - emotional bonds are much harder to break than ideological ones, so we must wonder how disruption is supposed to be done).

Until we receive more information on this matter, we can't be certain that demobilisation is truly an effective CT approach.



[This Blog would like to thank Cristina Caravaggio Giancchini for her valuable contribution]


Comments

  1. I cannot think of India ever being able to disengage. As long as we have a volatile Pakistan as our neighbour, we have no hope.

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    1. Hey Rummy :D!

      I understand what you mean very well. It is hard to disengage when you have a neighbour constantly planting evil seeds in your mind...and if your mind is fertile ground for those seeds, how can you disengage?
      It is one more complex issue to analyse.

      Rummy, thank you ever so much for your input, my friend :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  2. Wow, Cristina contributed to this article? I wonder when you're going to start posting her work, Max!
    I don't believe in disengagement either. You can for some reason quit killing people but if you keep your radical ideas nothing stops you from pushing others towards violence. Like that guy in Kenya who "inspires" the youth to join Al-Shabaab but he himself doesn't engage in violence...
    Great job, as usual. Congratulations to you both!

    Tchau

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    1. Hi Celeste :D!

      Yes, she did. Well, whenever she feels like it (I have already invited her a long time ago).
      Exactly. Ah, I used to know that man's name by heart...wait...Abubakar Shariff Ahmed, right? I am not sure he doesn't engage in terror though.

      Thanks, dear.

      Celeste, thanks for your input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  3. I am wondering how it is that a society that doesn't believe anything, other than that belief systems are wrong and destructive, should be able to convince a terrorist to accept belief system B instead of belief system A.

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    1. Hi Looney :D!

      Good question! Especially because those involved in such programmes (or similar ones) belong to that category you describe here - especially in the West. So, I wonder how they intend to do it exactly?

      Looney, thank you so much for your input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  4. Disengagement is possible by showing terrorists that killing is wrong! We talk to them and reach their conscience by asking if he thinks it is fair to kill innocent people for politics, it is doable! It is a question of reverting his cognitive opening,

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    1. Celia, you want to show terrorists that killing is wrong? HAHAHAHAHAHa you are so damn funny! Let me see if I get it right, we sit with people who kill indiscriminately in the name of Allah, or in the name of any other so-called grievance, and explain them that killing is not good, it is not fair...you have got to be kidding me! And you expect to revert "the cognitive opening" by telling them they are not being fair...wow that must be effective, how come we didn't think of it before? I suppose you also believe gays can be cured!

      Delete
    2. Hi Celia :D!

      Terrorists kill people to advance a political agenda and because they obey to the collective rationality (if I don't do it, no one will) backed up by ideology they think their killing is justified; so here's my question: how do you tell a person like this (that has probably killed more than 10 people) that it is "not fair" to kill innocent people? Especially when he is convinced that those people are not that innocent at all...

      Celia, thank you so much for your input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  5. It would seem to me that this is simply another poor intellectual attempt to disengage from military action. It is interesting how scholars always come up with terms such as "hard approaches" when it comes to military operations, when those operations keep us safe and provide us the proper freedom to come up with these "humanist" concepts. Moreover, I must agree with Mr Looney: if these humanists do not believe in anything, but humanity, how will they convince terrorists, especially those with a religion, that they mustn't believe in Allah but believe in humanity, in common sense, in peace? Bloody pacifists.

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    1. Hi Bernie :D!

      It could be, yes. That is also a good question.
      What is fascinating about this sort of themes is that it starts interesting debates.

      Bernie, thank you so much for your input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  6. I say this is a load of c*** (I am keeping my dirty words credit for more pressing moments). I bet some leftist, one of those who keep pushing for cuts in the defense budget, came up with this nonsense! And then they don't even explain how this romantic act is supposed to be done? Anyway, Jessica Stern appears to suggest that deradicalization and disengagement are the same thing...when I think it is not, but even she seems to be skeptical of the success of such programs. Romanticism has no place in counterterrorism!

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    1. Hi Ana :D!

      LOL LOL dirty word credit? LOL LOL you kill me.
      You are right, deradicalisation differs from disengagement: the first implies a change in beliefs and consequently in behaviour; the second implies a change in behaviour only (while keeping his radical ideas). But this differentiation was reached based on her work, I think; so it was important that she wrote it (and what a fine piece it is).
      I agree with you: romanticism has no place in CT.

      Ana, thank you so much for your input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  7. The problem here is that it is not explained how this disengagement is supposed to be done, as the author pointed out. How are we to proceed exactly? Deradicalization programs as it is don't always work and terrorists or extremists end up terrorising and killing people at the same. It is a beautiful term, with a humane perspective but when transferred to reality it may only be a waste of money and resources.

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    1. Hi Anonymous :D!

      Indeed, how do we proceed?
      Like you, I am a bit sceptical.

      Anon, thank you so much for your input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  8. 1. Disengaging terrorists is almost the same as disengaging pedophiles: it doesn't work. The pedophile can do therapy, take drugs whatever, but the ideas are still in his head and although he may resist for a while he will eventually attack children again in any way he can. It's a fact.
    2. Ukraine: the situation there is chaotic and ran by kids with the support of Angela Merkel. I'm all for kicking Putin's butt but those kids should've been more organized. Just saying. Great thought of the week, Max.

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    1. Hi Joseph :D!

      1. I had never thought of that. Interesting comparison. There are some who claim to have abandoned the life of terror and now are abiding citizens, like that guy Walid Shoebat - what do you think of him?

      2. Good point. Thanks *bowing*.

      Joe, thank you ever so much for your input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  9. "Said Ali al-Shihri, who was repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2007, graduated from the Saudi deradicalization program. After al-Shihri’s release, he became the deputy leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen" - why aren't I surprised at this? And we are talking about deradicalization now imagine a situation when a a terrorist is allowed to keep his ideology but encouraged to change his demeanor...will he do it? Not forever, he won't.

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    1. Hey Adam :D!

      Then you accept the notion that disengagement would work for a while only?

      Adam, thank you so much for your input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  10. Terrorists, before they become one, have these ideologies that they think are superior to law and therefore, right. Until they feed these ideologies to their children, to the young ones, and then they get hold of guns; then they become terrorists. We call them the extremists, the Al-Qaeda, the this and that - different names, same means - violence.

    Hello there, Max! Long time, no hear ;o)

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    1. Hey Abelle :D!

      I understand where you are coming from and that is why many are critical of these holistic approaches to counter-terrorism: children and the youth are being fed from inception, making it hard to stop them from engaging in violence. You have a point, yes.

      My darling, I will be over your place today (hopefully). Thank you so much for your great input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete
  11. Human mind is a altogether complex world. Alas only if we would have been able to predict it, perhaps life would have become dull and boring. Well coming to the topic I agree with the thoughts, you can never be sure of the fragile human mind and its thoughts. Behaviors can be changed to a certain extent with change in atmosphere and the place you live in but hats not a permanent phenomenon. When you move into a new or old environment you adapt to that and the human mind is trained that way.

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    1. Hi Kalyan :D!

      lol lol we can predict many things but not all of them, no. Which is very well, because like you said...it would be boring to anticipate every single step.

      So, you are suggesting that for this holistic approach to result we would have to move the subjects from their natural environment? Like many drug addicts do...it sounds good but we would encounter a problem: the emotional connection to family and perceived friends.
      The human mind is a very complex universe and, thus, unpredictable; especially when emotional come into play.

      Kalyan, thank you so much for your outstanding comment :D. Great idea.

      Cheers

      Delete
  12. Disengagement is a myth! All the commentators here presented valid arguments to why it will never work. Even if you do not engage in violence yourself you can still encourage others to do it. For example, we have coward guys like the Kenyan one recruiting for Al-Shabab and we have Tarik Ramadan who pretends to be moderate yet incites and justifies the use of violent jihad! Have these guys disengaged from terrorism? No, they are simply too coward to act but what they do is still terrorism by incitement and support.

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    1. Hi Mike :D!

      I apologise for the tardy reply, my friend *bowing*.
      Tarik Ramadan...interesting that you would mention him...
      Anyway, you have introduced some valid points and I will think about it (and encourage others to do the same).

      Thank you, Mike, for your input :D.

      Cheers

      Delete

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