Think tanks in the United States are researching on measures to contain Islamic radicalisation within the country and to engage with more humane deradicalization processes as part of a process to explore “soft” law enforcement interventions.

 Foremost among such exercises is the one by Rand Corporation’s 2021 research brief titled, “What Do Former Extremists and Their Families Say About Radicalization and Deradicalization in America?”.

Researchers interviewed former extremists, as well as their families and friends, to gather and then analyze first-hand accounts of extremist radicalization and deradicalization.

The report says the results offer insights to policymakers and members of community organizations who are working to develop “anti-extremist policies and practices”.

The research is sourced from Rand realising that “violent extremism has become a serious and complex threat in the United States”. For the first time, it sought to find answers to questions that resonate among all intelligence and security agencies in the United States: “Who is at risk of joining violent extremist organizations? How do they find groups of like-minded people to join with? Can families and friends recognize whether someone is becoming radicalized? How do individuals change their minds and walk away from extremism? What can communities do to stop the growth of extremism in their areas?”

The analysis of the interviews gives insights into why individuals get radicalised, how is it possible to get them deradicalized and what role law and enforcement agencies should play to come to terms with a menace that has been dogging the United States for over two decades.

“Family dynamics and social backgrounds” were the foremost reasons that forced people on to the path of radicalisation. Somem individuals noted that “financial challenges pushed them into extremist beliefs”. Some of them, facing unemployment, intentionally joined extremist organisations to find some paying work, and got indoctrinated in the process.  Some interviewees “identified overwhelming anger and other symptoms as drivers of joining an extremist organization”. Trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder, substance use, and physical health issues were among the lesser-mentioned triggers.

“Victimization, stigmatization, marginalization” when growing up left bitter experiences that contributed to radicalization. The report says: “Most often, individuals mentioned feeling isolated and lonely in institutions (e.g., schools) or communities in which they were the minority race. Former white supremacists cited this factor, as did one former Islamic extremist. Only a few interviewees noted that their families held radical beliefs.”

The report quotes a former Islamic extremist as saying: “I  always think that a lot of racism, and even discrimination not even from some white people but from other, other minority groups for being [South Asian], for being Muslim. Things that I didn’t even choose but I was, you know, and things I didn’t even like. But I was still hated for those things.”

For the first time, the Rand report throws light on how exactly individuals are recruited into Islamic extremist groups. “Online propaganda and recruitment are key pathways to joining extremist groups. Interviewees participating in this project cited these and other paths that led them in.Most interviewees described a dramatic or traumatic event that prompted them into reconsidering previously held views and considering alternative perspectives. These included a gun possession charge, rejection by the military, a friend’s suicide, and an extended period of unemployment.”

The report throws up a dangerous trend of “top-down recruitment”, that is, “recruiters from extremist organizations formally and proactively recruited them”. The report lists specific cases of three Islamic extremists who “radicalized on their own and then sought membership in an extremist group”.

What are the signs of Islamic radicalisation in the United States? The report comes up with startling information: “Many interviewees cited instances of an observable behavior change in the early stages of radicalization. Two Islamic extremists showed outward signs of religious conversion; two others did not convert, but one became ‘extremely quiet’ and the other started ‘voicing more-extreme ideas to family’.”

The Rand research sought to understand how deradicalization takes root in the minds of radicalised individuals or proven Islamic extremists. It found no stand rule that works the process. “Disillusionment and burnout were noted in cases concerning one Islamic extremist” while “hypocrisy or other negative behaviors were cited as reasons for these feelings and, ultimately, for leaving”.

Some deradicalized individuals also told Rand that those “who helped people exit extremist groups were acquaintances, life partners, other former radicals, friends, journalists, children, other family members, religious authorities, current radicals, therapists, and school officials”.

At the same time, the research threw up instances where interventions to deradicalize failed. “Punitive interventions by law enforcement also often led to increased extremism. Upon leaving extremist organizations, six cases described feeling drawn back to organizations or ideologies. These interviewees discussed how they or their family members and friends missed the thrill and feelings of belonging, as well as other psychological benefits experienced by being part of an extremist group.”

The Rand study comes up with a set of recommendations to the government and security agencies to adopt new approaches to tackle the problem of radicalization. The prominent suggestion: “Consider the trade-offs between punitive and “soft” law enforcement interventions. The interviews and other studies suggest that heavy-handed attempts by formal institutions to deradicalize individuals often fail. Although interdiction of ongoing violent plots is an obvious target for traditional law enforcement responses, notification regarding the ongoing radicalization of individuals may warrant a different response.”

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