Tuesday, September 30, 2014

De-radicalisation programmes: defeating the Islamic State at the UK grassroots level

In the wake of the UK Parliament’s decision on Friday to sanction air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, superficial comparisons with the 2003 Iraq War have invariably been drawn. In reality, the two wars could not be more different. Most importantly, from a legal standpoint, Iraq’s call for assistance from foreign nations validates lawful military intervention within its territory; the inclusion of regional players – Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar – supplements the legitimacy of operations.

There is also one further key difference between the two wars: in 2003, European citizens were not flocking to Iraq to join the ranks of local insurgents and terrorists. This unprecedented phenomenon requires fresh approaches to be tackled.

EU officials estimate between 3-4,000 European citizens to have travelled to fight alongside ISIS – around a quarter of whom are thought to be UK citizens – presenting the dual-pronged threat not only of UK citizens fighting against the interests of the UK abroad, but also the potential catastrophe that awaits when these citizens return to the UK with radicalised ideas and behaviour. Dozens of jihadi fighters have been arrested already upon their return to the UK; however, the desertion of ex-ISIS fighters may yet prove to be a silver lining.

Many UK fighters have reached out with requests to return, fearful of the repercussions should they do so, and mandatory de-radicalisation programmes – though not a panacea – could offer the solution to increased spread of extremism at home. These programmes – which have historically enjoyed success with former Al-Qaeda fighters in Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia – would allow the UK to rehabilitate existing fighters whilst simultaneously deterring more UK citizens from following the same path. Such use of cautionary tales and rehabilitation programmes already exists within government-endorsed schemes for the likes of ex-gang members leaving prison.

The existence of analogous schemes in European States such as Denmark could assist in dispelling any stigma accompanying the establishment of such a programme in a Western State. The programme’s success would depend primarily on popular and political support to enable the social underpinning necessary for de-radicalisation, but also on reaching out to the pool of the most vulnerable groups from which IS and other terrorist organisation recruiters traditionally draw – disenchanted and disenfranchised Muslim youths.

Extremist figures are able to garner support through silver-tongued rhetoric and mutilation of religious tenets, but also crucially by abusing a vacuum of uncertainty that exists amongst second-generation immigrants. As the son of Egyptian parents myself, I am familiar with the risks of identity crises that are created growing up in the UK to foreign parents; the clash between one cultural world at home and another outside can lead to sentiments of ostracism, solitude and isolation – ripe pickings for extremist ideologies.

Bespoke UK de-radicalisation programmes must therefore incorporate cultural awareness, ensuring that the rights and religious customs of the target audience are balanced with the principles that underscore modern Britain – democracy, equality and diversity. 

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