Once a Jihadist, Always a Jihadist? – A Deradicalization Program Seen From the Inside

Written by | Sunday, February 14th, 2021

France has traditionally taken a security-based approach to the fight against terror. It was a latecomer to the field of radicalization prevention and the establishment of disengagement programs aimed at jihadists. It only started to think seriously about the issue in 2013 and its first attempts involved certain irregularities. For that reason, deradicalization suffers from a persistent bad reputation in France. The disengagement and reintegration programs established since 2016 – RIVE from 2016 until 2018 and PAIRS, which started in 2018 and is still running – have operated behind closed doors. Discreetness was preferred to overcommunication.
“Once a jihadist, always a jihadist!” was how one counterterrorism police officer reacted to the mention of deradicalization programs during an interview for this study. Skepticism toward such programs is widespread in the key ministries of state. A senior official in the Ministry of the Interior in Paris told the author of this study, “I do not believe in deradicalization”, and described disengagement initiatives as a waste of public money. Also many researchers and journalists working in the field are wary of such initiatives. In his book Le jihadisme franc?ais, for example, Hugo Micheron talks about “the pipe dream of targeted ‘deradicalization’ methods”. David Thomson, author of two acclaimed books on French jihadists in Syria, claimed, in an interview with Le Figaro, that “there is no such thing as state deradicalization. Many people have pretended otherwise for political or mercenary reasons. Hundreds of thousands of euros of public subsidies have been poured in secret into the pockets of out- and-out swindlers”.
The “prisoner’s dilemma” is a classic problem in game theory, well-known among mathematicians but also, since Thomas Schelling’s work, among geopolitics experts. In the context of the fight against terrorism, one could say there is an “ex-prisoner’s dilemma”. Keeping people in custody after the end of their sentence is seen as highly problematic – not to say impossible – in a legal system where, having “paid their debt to society”, detainees are supposed to be able to live among their fellow citizens again. Nevertheless, releasing an individual deemed to be dangerous is seen as a bad option because of the potential danger to society.
This “ex-prisoner’s dilemma” skews the debate about reintegration programs for people convicted of terrorist acts. In reality, the choice is not between keeping them in custody and monitoring them through a reintegration program, but between the program and a ‚sortie se?che‘, where they are released with no further support. It is true that there is a risk involved in releasing an individual whose potential dangerousness can never be known for certain, and that participation in a disengagement program is a sort of “bet on human nature”. If the bet pays off, everyone gains: a former terrorist will have been reintegrated and will be able to be useful to society, the reintegration program staff will have the satisfaction of a job well done, and the security services will have one less person to monitor. But the consequences of an unsuccessful bet can be tragic, as shown by the attack carried out by a former prisoner in London on 29 November 2019, in which two people who worked for a recidivism prevention program were killed. More recently, after the Vienna terrorist attack on 2 November 2020, the Austrian Minister of the Interior declared that the gunman had “managed to fool the justice system’s deradicalization program”.
So, has the PAIRS bet paid off? The answer to this question, more commonly expressed as “does it work?”, is ‚yes‘ – there have been many success stories of participants who seem to have reintegrated successfully and who attribute their progress to the help they received – but there have also been failures. After analyzing all the instances where the program had been interrupted by the participant’s incarceration, two conclusions can be drawn. The first is that only one TIS (Islamist Terrorist) out of sixty-four convicted TISs in PAIRS had gone back to prison, and his offense was an ordinary crime. In other words, there are no recorded cases of terrorist recidivism among PAIRS participants. It is important to note that there were also no cases of recidivism among RIVE participants. The second conclusion concerns the DCSRs (Ordinary Detainees Suspected of Being Radicalized). Unsurprisingly, these individuals have deeply ingrained criminal habits and can struggle to stabilize themselves. They are generally reincarcerated for crimes related to their criminal history rather than their radicalization. The reincarceration of these DCSRs should not, therefore, be seen as an indication that PAIRS has failed, especially as most of them were reincarcerated after only a short time on the program.
In summary, this study’s conclusions are encouraging. It suggests that disengagement initiatives in France should be continued, with an expansion into the main “dead zones” where PAIRS is not yet in operation while paying particular attention to some challenges. Some of these – such as problems with staff turnover or training – could undoubtedly be resolved by a moderate increase in the funds allotted to disengagement. Others are more to do with differences in professional or bureaucratic culture and will be harder to rectify. Although this study is reassuring overall, the risk of recidivism can never be ruled out, even among individuals who are not a priori considered to be the most dangerous. Just as this report was going to press, two municipal police officers were injured in a knife attack carried out on the morning of 9 December 2020 in Bolle?ne, southeast France. At the time of writing, it appears that the attacker was a former DCSR who had been released from prison six months early and was participating voluntarily in PAIRS. His brother is a returnee from Syria who is currently in prison and under investigation for attempting to carry out a terrorist attack on prison guards.
If a PAIRS participant did commit a lethal attack, many people would undoubtedly decry the naivety of the initiative and demand the program be shut down and participants be placed in detention. The reaction is likely to be especially strong given that the French have already had direct experience of terrorist recidivism: Che?rif Kouachi, co-perpetrator of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Larossi Abballa, the Magnanville killer, both had prior convictions for terrorism-related offenses. We will never know whether these two men would have taken a different path if they had been assigned to a disengagement program after their first term in prison. In any event, there is no use rewriting history. But abruptly abandoning disengagement programs would be counter-productive, with potentially severe consequences for the future. The fight against radicalization and terrorism requires a calm head, courage, reflection, and cohesion. The spirit of the age seems to be rather trending toward controversy and polarization. Let us hope that this study will at least help to make snap judgments more nuanced.

‚Once a Jihadist, Always a Jihadist? – A Deradicalization Program Seen From the Inside‘ – Study by Marc Hecker – Institut français des relations internationales / IFRI.

The Study can be downloaded here

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