Former terrorists' experiences could sway potential recruits

June 30, 2010

University Park, Pa. -- A better understanding of why people leave terrorism could be more important than why they became a terrorist, according to a Penn State terrorism expert. The information could also help counterterrorist agencies discredit militant outfits and prevent them from attracting fresh recruits.

"The key issue here is that we need to pay more attention to the disengagement process because former terrorists are willing to speak about their experiences," said John Horgan, director of Penn State's International Center for the Study of Terrorism. "We need to identify those lessons, showcase them, and use them to combat the imagery, myths and credibility of the terrorist movements."

In his book "Walking Away From Terrorism" (Routledge, 2009) Horgan argues that understanding how a terrorist becomes gradually disillusioned and ultimately abandons terrorism could be crucial to stemming recruitment to terrorism.

"Just as there is a flow of recruits into a terrorist organization, there is also a number of recruits who leave or disengage," said Horgan. "But there is practically no academic research on this process of disengagement from terrorism."

With the help of interviews with former terrorists from around the world, Horgan is trying to deconstruct how, why and when a person disengages from terrorism.

"I really wanted to understand the process of disengagement, not deradicalization," explained Horgan. "Disengagement is the process where people move away from the terrorist group, but they may or may not necessarily be deradicalized."

"Walking Away From Terrorism" makes clear that while many people become radicalized for one reason or another, they do not necessarily become terrorists. Instead, the book focuses on people who become radicalized and then join a terrorist organization. Horgan believes that despite the complexities involved in studying terrorism, there are clear patterns that could help devise a strategy for intervention.

For instance, many people join terrorist groups sensing a higher social status, camaraderie and excitement at being part of a particular movement. But after joining, they realize they do not call the shots and do not necessarily get to do what they want.

"They may realize that it is a lot more stressful than they originally thought," said Horgan. "Or they may realize that it is a lot more boring than they originally thought. Remember, nobody is a full-time terrorist."

Disillusionment may also set in when a terrorist realizes, for instance, that superiors have unattractive personal qualities, indulge in petty thievery or knowingly target innocent civilians.

Because terrorist groups rely on "street cred" and imagery to lure young kids, publicizing these disillusionments could have enormous preventive implications.

"We are not trying to say it is wrong to have radical views; we are more interested in blocking off that attraction of one particular avenue for people who are radicalized," Horgan added.

Currently, there are a number of fledgling programs around the world trying to get terrorists to disengage, but Horgan cautions that it could be a mistake to lump them all together because each program is specific to a certain region. What works in one area is not necessarily going to succeed elsewhere.

In Colombia, for instance, the government has launched an innovative initiative to create an exit pathway from the FARC paramilitary group. When individuals lay down their arms, they receive reduced prison sentences, and are helped in finding a job and becoming a part of society.

Such initiatives could be as slow and idiosyncratic as the initial move toward terrorism but Horgan cautiously believes at least some of them may offer opportunities for checking terrorism.

"There is potential for tension in the promotion of disengagement initiatives, given renewed arguments that terrorism is not a problem that has a military solution," explained Horgan. "But greater knowledge of the disengagement process could play a critical first step in future solutions."

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(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017