Deradicalization -- a buzzword but above all a big challenge  

In counter-terrorism strategy “deradicalisation” is a key term. But what does it actually mean? How do we disengage ISIS fighters? No country has the perfect solution. Yet the story of Omar shows it can be done.

Marjan Justaert
Marjan Justaert De Standaard, Belgium
Source: De Standaard
Deradicalization -- a buzzword but above all a big challenge   - NewsMavens
Islamists. Wikimedia commons

Why this story matters:

ISIS is losing ground in key areas such as Syria's Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor or the Iraqi city of Mosul which means thousands of European terrorists will most likely try to return to their home country. This phenomena is not huge in Belgium, but the challenge it poses remains difficult.

We have no other choice but to deradicalize the prodigal Islamists before they leave Belgium. The term has become a buzzword but what does it actually mean? How do we transform Daesh terrorists into normal, decent citizens? Our newspaper has investigated the topic.

As a brand new niche, deradicalization may easily turn into a business attracting gold diggers and conmen. Hence, the government has two options -- to launch a “national”, public deradicalization project that (dangerous) extremists will be forced to undergo, or to let private entrepreneurs run the show.

Many countries in Europe struggle with this but at this stage trial and error are the only best practice.

In a series of articles, we intend to show that a one-size-fits-all deradicalization program does not exist. Only tailor-made approach can work.

We spoke to high security officers and experts in counter-terrorism. We visited jails. We looked into the Belgian “deradicalization market” and spoke with deradicalization experts about their methods. But we begin with a human story.

We met 19-year-old Omar (an alias) who spoke with us about his own process of radicalization and deradicalization. He was leaving for Syria, but was captured at the airport.

His story is a real eye-opener. He describes in detail how he was brainwashed by ISIS, via the internet; how he changed his clothes and behavior; how he got caught and, finally, how he deradicalized.

His story reminds us that not all of “our” terrorist fighters are lost. We have to give them a second chance and support competent people who work in the field. What Omar’s experience also teaches us is that we should not underestimate the role of ideology in the (de)radicalization process.

Not all of "our" foreign terrorist fighters are lost, we have to give them a second chance

  • 413 Belgians left for Syria or Iraq to fight with ISIS.
  • Since ISIS lost key cities, such as Raqqa, Mosul and Deir-ez-Zor, and the caliphate implodes, many foreign terrorist fighters are returning home or intend to do so.
  • Most European governments, also in Belgium, struggle with the question of how to deradicalize the Islamists.
  • Combating radical Islamic fundamentalism is a brand new field.
  • There's a need for competent, liable Islamic theologists with the right religious background, who can convince extremists that the Quran is a peace-loving text.
  • The problem is especially prevalent in prisons. 450 inmates in Belgian prison cells (or 1 in 23) have possibly adopted extremist ideas.
  • According to the Belgian Minister of Justice, the deradicalization process is a complex one. “You could compare them to football fans”, he always says. “Try changing an ardent supporter of a football team into someone who doesn't care.”
  • Despite this, the story of Omar, a young guy from Antwerp shows that it is possible.
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