The Challenge of Deradicalization: What Happens After?

As of early 2018, international efforts have erased the Islamic State’s territory in eastern Syria. In December 2018, President Trump ordered the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces in Syria, declaring “the Islamic State has been defeated.” While Islamic State fighters are still a problem in the region, the caliphate, as it has been known, is no longer. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia, are said to have captured 800 or more foreign fighters, 400–500 women, and more than 1,000 children. Earlier this year, President Trump called on European leaders to take back citizens who have been captured, or he will have them released.

Some countries, such as the Netherlands, have already decided they will not repatriate citizens who left to fight with the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq. The United Kingdom has gone so far as to strip the fighters of their citizenship; one example of this is Shamima Begum, a 19 year old who left Britain at age 15 with two schoolmates.

Shamima Begum left her home in the UK in February 2015, when she was 15, to join Islamic State in Syria. (The Defense Post)

France was preparing for the return of its citizens, but has also bristled against Trump’s demands, citing security concerns. A recent announcement by the Interior Minister claimed that France was not repatriating its citizens; instead France had accepted some family members, and would look at others on a case-by-case basis. Currently, Canada is somewhat willing to take back their citizens, but there are differing opinions within the government about how to deal with them. Germany will take back its citizens on strict conditions, including proving their identity. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said the fighters should not pose a threat to Germany by having committed serious offenses, or having outstanding warrants. Seehofer also said the families of the fighters would not receive a “blank check.”

There has been much discussion—from politicians to social media pundits—about whether countries should take back their foreign fighters. Beyond those public discussions, other questions have been asked: How would those countries prosecute the fighters? What should happen to the women and children who are presumably non-combatants? These are all valid and valuable questions.

What is missing from the discussion is what will happen to the fighters, and other supporters, once they go through the various state judicial systems. Of the numerous Western countries whose citizens have gone to fight for Islamic State, France, Canada, and Germany are three that have attempted to establish deradicalization programs. Other countries facing the possibility of dealing with returning foreign fighters should look at what existing programs offer, the criticisms of their efficacy, and the alternatives to deradicalization as points of reference for the development of their own plans.

What sort of deradicalization programs are in place, either as a social service or in the prison systems? What has been the effectiveness of these programs?


France has established multiple deradicalization programs. Prior to the 2015 terrorist attacks in France, the government developed a National Plan to Prevent Radicalisation with the aim of combating radicalization and terrorism. First unveiled in 2014, the French government has updated the plan several times, most recently in February 2018. The 60-point program is divided into five main themes: 1) shielding minds from radicalization, 2) widening the detection/prevention network, 3) understanding and preparing for developments in radicalization, 4) training local stakeholders and assessing practices, and 5) tailoring disengagement schemes. The plan also includes calls for partnering with other European programs in regards to best practices, an important step in validating deradicalization methodology. The plan addressed concepts and challenges of monitoring prisoners, and setting up prevention and deradicalization programs in prison and upon release from custody. In July 2018, the French Prime Minister released a similarly-themed terrorism prevention plan to the General Directorate for Internal Security aimed at preventing further attacks on French soil.

France’s previous deradicalization efforts have largely failed. Their first and only deradicalization center closed less than a year after opening. It had only nine participants, none of whom completed the program. One problem for the Centre for Prevention, Integration, and Citizenship was that the program was only open to volunteers. Additionally, having no terror convictions, never having traveled to Syria, and not being on France’s “S” (security threat) watch list were criteria for participants. Later, it was revealed that one participant had been on the “S” list, and yet another had been convicted of terrorism offenses.

From the beginning, the French approach was more reactionary than preventative. Criticisms of the French approach to deradicalization included seeing the deradicalization programs as a hasty reaction to the terror attacks, to show French citizens the government was addressing the problem. Others see the National Plan as overambitious and lacking any real way to measure success. Another criticism was France’s reluctance to address religion in government programs. How can one address the problem of Islamic terrorism without mentioning Islam.


Much of Canada’s focus is on preventing radicalization of those living in Canada, though the subject of returning foreign fighters is briefly addressed in the 2018 National Strategy on Countering Radicalization to Violence. In this strategy, the government states that their main priority is “[i]nvestigating, arresting, charging and prosecuting any Canadian involved in terrorism or violent extremism.” It goes on to say the Canada Centre may call upon practitioners who would assist in the deradicalization process.

In Canada, the story of Abu Huzaifa is offered as proof that foreign fighters can successfully be deradicalized. Upon his return from Syria, Mubin Shaikh, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Services operative and current expert on deradicalization, counselled Abu Huzaifa extensively for a year; but Shaikh has said it will take years before Huzaifa can be considered deradicalized.

Mubin Shaikh (NPR)

Canada is, however, seemingly failing on another front. A CBC report in November 2017 claims the Canadian government is not tracking the interventions of returning foreign fighters; therefore there is no way to determine the effectiveness of the programs.


The German model of deradicalization began with the focus of working with families. Family members and acquaintances are encouraged to call a helpline if they have concerns about a person suspected of radicalization, or in danger of being radicalized. Anonymous counselling is available, as well as counselling by one of four government-sponsored non-governmental organizations. These non-governmental organizations work alongside the Federal Office for Migration and Refugee Affairs. There is no single standard or set of guidelines among the groups, but this allows the groups to adapt plans on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, mandatory training in risk assessment and counter-radicalization is not required for the non-governmental organization counsellors.

Germany has since recognized the need to expand its approach, and has increased funding to prevent radicalization and extremism. One program in Hamburg, PräJus, was begun to prevent radicalization in prisons.

Since the conception of Germany’s approach in 2012, more than 1,100 individual cases have been seen, out of over 4,100 calls. Unfortunately, there is little to no information about the success of these cases. Germany’s lack of a national strategy regarding deradicalization has caused some concern. The predominant roles of police and intelligence agencies have also raised eyebrows, leading some to wonder how they are shaping the programs, and what their motives might be. 


From Sayyid Qutb to the 2015 Paris attackers, prisons have been incubators of radicalization.

If the efforts to deradicalize individuals are unproven, what are the alternatives? One option is simply leaving the returning foreign fighters in jail. Most countries involved have some kind of terrorism-related statutes with which to try the returnees. Once they are sentenced, the logic runs, let them serve their prison term. There are two problems with this scenario. First, radicalization in prisons is a problem in several Western countries, including France. This is a problem that predates the Islamic State, and even al Qaeda. From Sayyid Qutb to the 2015 Paris attackers, prisons have been incubators of radicalization. Islamic State founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi started out as a petty criminal, who was in and out of prison. It was in prison that he found his religious focus under the mentorship of fellow prisoner, and radical ideologue, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Zarqawi’s eventual radicalization followed. The second problem then comes when returnees, or others they have come in contact with in prison, are released. Most countries lack the resources to monitor every potential extremist, leaving recidivism to fate.

Sayyid Qutb in Prison (Foreign Policy)

Another alternative to attempted deradicalization of returnees is to simply not allow them to return. This option leaves their fate in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which, as a non-state actor, lacks both the jurisdiction and resources to effectively deal with the fighters. In an appeal for help, the Syrian Democratic Forces asked for the establishment of an international tribunal. Some fighters have been tried in Iraq, an experience usually resulting in a death sentence. Since the collapse of the physical caliphate, the Syrian Democratic Forces has found itself in charge of thousands of Islamic State fighters and their families. Makeshift prisons have been set up, but these prisoners cannot be held indefinitely. Many of these fighters and their family members may eventually be freed, with no monitoring and no accountability.

Neither of these alternatives is ideal. While far from perfect, some countries are at least addressing the issue of deradicalization.


Currently, there is no metric to determine the efficacy of deradicalization programs. Looking forward, it is clear that countries must deal with the issue of deradicalization as it is an issue not only for returning foreign fighters, but also for those radicalized domestically.

Governments can begin by compiling research about why terrorist leave terror organizations, and what happens after they leave. Subsequently, governments should communicate with one another to determine which elements of existing programs have had the most favorable results. This information could be used to develop tailorable deradicalization programs that can be modified to meet the needs of individuals. Those actively participating in deradicalization programs could see reduced or less-severe sentences as an incentive to participation. Programs should begin during incarceration, and be continued after release. These post-release programs should be run with cooperation from local religious leaders and social services and should also include regular psychological assessments and in-program evaluations. The aim of deradicalization programs should be a change in behavior rather than attempting to change ideology. While disengagement does not mean an individual is deradicalized, it is a step toward steering individuals away from violent activities. An alternative might be that while they may believe the cause to which they were attracted is still worthwhile, they may be convinced that that violence is not the means by which to achieve their ideological goals.

The aim of deradicalization programs should be a change in behavior rather than attempting to change ideology.

There is still much to be done in determining which methods are most effective in producing positive outcomes. It could take years before any definitive determination of success is made, but this should not prevent countries from implementing programs. One successful case of deradicalization, or disengagement, is preferable to ignoring the issue. Preventing violent extremism is important, and governments need to shift at least some focus from basic incarceration to deradicalization or disengagement. As countries continue to develop a policy on how, and if, they’ll accept returning citizens who lived and fought with Islamic State or other terrorist organizations, they need to be prepared for what happens after.

Brandee Leon is a social media manager for The Strategy Bridge and a freelance analyst of counter-terrorism and international relations, focusing on terror in Europe. She frequently covers women in terrorism and has been published in Business Insider, The Strategy Bridge, and The Eastern Project. She can be found on Twitter at @misscherryjones.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: ISIS Recruits (International Policy Digest)