Lessons from domestically rehabilitating a former extremist in the US

22nd March 2019

Earlier this month I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark engaging with government, academia, media and civil society organizations to shed light on several robust approaches to combat extremism from a range of initiatives at a domestic and global level.

Denmark is not alone as many other states, including the UK, Saudi Arabia and Singapore have all been experimenting with various approaches to aid individuals in their transition from extremism. These myriad strategies and approaches range from utilizing cognitive development, community re-integration, ideological reform and mental health counseling to name a few.

Having spent a decade working as a counter-terrorism officer for the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, DC, I too saw this as a model of success. However, during my time in Denmark, I pondered on the actual intricacies of the model and subsequently, I started to contemplate about what is being done in the US.

Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, findings by the FBI and social science research now substantiate the view that domestic terrorists – specifically acts of violence carried out by white males – are a greater threat than actions carried out by Islamist extremists like al-Qa’ida or ISIS. The horrific white nationalist terror attack in New Zealand which left 49 Muslim worshippers dead is the most recent example of this. Domestically, in the United States, the most salient example of this can be found in the case of the Coast Guard Lieutenant, Christopher Hasson, who stockpiled weapons, hoping to eventually use them  to establish a “white homeland”, and created a digital spreadsheet identifying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as other high ranking Democrats, as targets.

All of this raises the question of how we should respond to the threat posed by terrorists both at home and abroad. What are the common threats that these groups pose and how does the US, as a nation, come up with appropriate measures in prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration?

The historical record shows that the US has relied on strategies to prevent radicalization but has rarely taken stock of, let alone utilize, the unique skills of individuals who are or have been involved in extremist activity to deradicalize others, opting to quickly prosecute such individuals instead. Furthermore, partisan politics represents a formidable obstacle to the formation of organized off-ramping programs, such as those seen in the UK.

In October last year, the Trump administration released their national strategy for counter-terrorism, demonstrating cautious optimism regarding its views on rehabilitation. In particular, the section titled “Counter Terrorist Radicalization and Recruitment,” lays out the administration’s list of priorities, but the following statements stood out the most: 1) “institutionalize a prevention architecture to thwart terrorism”; 2) “combat violent extremist ideologies”; 3) “increase civil society’s role in terrorism prevention”; 4) support intervention, reintegration, and counter recidivism”. The administration’s acknowledgement of the importance of prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration is a promising sign that the US is at least taking steps to move in the right direction, but as a former government analyst now working outside of government, I see the need for more holistic approaches working with all of society.

Let’s be clear, at present, there does not exist a uniformed and comprehensive deradicalization program, but there are organizations who have engaged with this issue. Organizations like Free Radicals and Take Charge work with providing opportunities for individuals in and out of extremism and aid in diverting individuals from violent actions. In the case of Take Charge, it follows a decades-long effort of re-entry for juveniles, offering a comprehensive diversion for individuals susceptible to the influence of drugs and gangs.

As the US seeks to come up with the best approach for deradicalization programs, we should learn from what efforts are working, primarily in urban communities in America—some of which have been engaging in close to 50 years of deradicalization efforts in various forms. Quilliam, the organization which I work for, has developed multifaceted strategies on rehabilitation based on the insights we have gleaned from many years on a whole host of strategies implemented by various extremist groups and individuals. Our VICE news documentary published this month follows the deradicalization process of the youngest person in US history, Mohammed Hassan Khalid. Extrapolating from the knowledge and experience of our UK offices, we produced a unique and tailored approach toward Khalid’s journey out of extremism, while simultaneously taking into account what we have learned from other rehabilitation programs that have been effective in the US.

Any long term and sustainable deradicalization program in the US must draw upon existing efforts and experiences from across various spectrums of society to develop a multidisciplinary approach which includes civil society as well as religious, governmental and laymen communities alike.