Ex-terrorists may be key to reducing militancy

December 17, 2008

The scourge of modern terrorism can be tackled more effectively by understanding how and why certain individuals give up their violent ways, according to a counter-terrorism expert who says information gleaned from ex-terrorists could provide clues to checking the growth of militant organizations.

"Individuals do not necessarily join extremist groups because they hold extremist views," said John Horgan, director of Penn State's International Center for the Study of Terrorism. "Instead, they acquire extremist views after joining a militant group for other reasons."

Horgan is using his training in applied psychology to discover how people become involved in and disengage from terrorist movements. He is also interested in how terrorist networks learn, adapt and evolve, both in response to societal responses to those movements as well as in response to technological innovation.

In a new collection with his colleague Tore Bjorgo, "Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement" (Routledge, 2009), Horgan argues that research into factors that make a person disengage from terrorism could provide greater insight on how the seed of terrorism takes root, and how it can potentially be stopped.

"Individuals who once shrouded every detail of their lives in secrecy are willing to engage researchers on some of the thorniest questions relating to their former terrorist lives," explained Horgan, who is also associate professor of science, technology, and society at Penn State.

According to the Penn State researcher, disengagement involves a change in behavior by breaking off participation in violent groups or changing the way in which they engage in political violence.

When such individuals leave or disengage from the extremist ideals of the group, the reasons can range from disillusionment with the tactics being pursued by the group, social tensions within it, to the lure of economic support and amnesty for the terrorist.

However, attempts to accurately pin down the factors that trigger withdrawal from terrorism remains elusive. That is because researchers have been preoccupied with discovering how and why individuals become involved in terrorism, and very little attention has been paid to those who have given up terrorism or terrorist movements that have become inactive.

"Addressing these gaping holes in our understanding could in the long term better equip us to meet the challenges of terrorism and will also equip us with a strategy for counter-radicalization," said Horgan.

In one chapter, Horgan outlines some of the issues relevant to constructing a psychological perspective on disengagement from terrorism. "We have provided a series of starting points in trying to understand why certain individuals give up terrorism, and the various ways in which they reach that decision."

For starters, he seeks to narrow the discussion on individual disengagement to a few core questions: whether disengagement means leaving a group or simply assuming a new role; whether individuals leave voluntarily or involuntarily; where do individuals go after leaving terrorism and what do they do; and finally how to be sure that a person has become disengaged from terrorism and will not return to violent ways.

In addition to interviews with former terrorists of the IRA and al-Qaeda, Horgan studies autobiographies by former terrorists, communiqués, statements by movements, and discussions on Internet bulletin board to answer some of these questions.

The Penn State researcher argues that for disengagement to be successful, it will have to be tailor-made to not only the specific terrorist movement but also to the specific role or individual being targeted by the security forces.

The book is a collection of articles on counter-terrorism by leading world experts on terrorist disengagement. The authors analyze case studies of disengagement programmes in places such as Columbia, northern Europe, Italy, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

The insight gained from the strengths and weaknesses of these case studies will be an invaluable guide to students, researchers and policy makers in the field of counter-terrorism.

Penn State

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