What does it take to get a violent extremist to put down their gun and walk away?

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With the Society for Terrorism Research (STR) 8th Annual International Conference fast approaching, STR, partnered with the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies (CTSS), is launching a series of guest blog posts, written by those who will be presenting their research at STR14. In the second installment of this series Kate Barrelle, a consultant clinical and forensic psychologist, discusses her recently completed PhD research (from Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre, GTReC) on disengagement from, and life after extremism, and outlines a new conceptual model of disengagement called the Pro-Integration Model.

Despite the enormous investment in counter-terrorism over recent decades, there are still gaps in our knowledge, one of which is a good understanding of disengagement. Although we know the vast majority of violent extremists ‘naturally’ disengage without any help or coercion at all, we rarely ask them directly about leaving and what happens in their life afterwards. These are the questions I’ve spent the last five years pondering.

In my recent PhD study, I interviewed 22 former members of extreme political groups about their experiences of leaving and life after extremism. Most were from violent groups: jihadi Islamists, Tamil Tiger fighters, right wing extremists; and some from non-violent radical direct-action environmentalist groups. Here is a snapshot of what I found:

  • Social identity – When involved in extremism, people become highly committed. My participants self-rated their identification with their respective groups to be between 70% and 100% at the time of involvement.
  • Disillusionment – Of those who leave voluntarily, the main reason is disillusionment. Disillusionment with the lack of actual leadership in the group/movement, with hypocritical behaviour of leaders and other group members, and/or with in-fighting and lack of focus on political change. Once disillusioned with the people or the methods, people tend to question how well they fit and whether they belong to the group after all. In social identity terms they are reducing their identification and commitment to the group.
  • Violence – A close second reason for leaving is the violence itself. Many cited the ineffectiveness of violence as the reason they began to doubt their commitment to the group. For some the violence itself became too much.
  • Push and pull factors – Once an extremist feels they do not really belong, two things happen. Push factors such as physical hardship and living a covert life become harder to deal with. And pull factors such as relationships and career options outside the group become more attractive and viable. For many these options would not have been contemplated before the disillusionment set in.
  • Barriers – It’s not easy to leave. There are high barriers to exit, sometimes lethal from the group itself. And generally the rest of society isn’t waiting to welcome you with open arms. Which means delays, and when they finally do exit, unless they have good social support and personal coping skills, they can exist on the fringe of society, in a social vacuum rejected from both directions, open to radicalising again or joining anti-social groups.
  • Beliefs vs. behaviour – It turns out there’s a big distinction between a change in behaviour and a change in beliefs. Whilst every single one of the 22 I interviewed have changed their behaviour and stopped their involvement in political violence, one third still held tight to their radical beliefs or had only conditionally changed their views. Should government and prison programs be aiming for a change in ideology, or is stopping the violence enough? It may be a more realistic goal.

Sustained disengagement relates directly to the level of proactive, holistic and harmonious engagement a person has with their wider society afterwards; a concept I’ve termed pro-integration. What I’ll be also sharing at the conference is an overview of my new conceptual model called the Pro-Integration Model (or PIM for short). From my 22 interviews, 15 themes clearly emerged. I’ve clustered these into the following five ‘domains’ and sub-themes of PIM:

  • Social Relations: Disillusionment with Leaders; Disillusionment with Group Members; Relations with ‘Others’.
  • Coping: Physical and Psychological Issues; Social Support; Resilience, Skills and Coping.
  • Identity: Reduction in Group Identity; Emergence of Personal Identity; Alternate Social Identity.
  • Ideology: Disillusionment with Radical Ideas; Modify own Ideas; Plurality and Acceptance of Difference.
  • Action Orientation: Disillusionment with Radical Methods; Stop or Reduce Radical Methods; Prosocial Engagement in Society.

A violent extremist doesn’t successfully put down their gun and walk away unless they can find somewhere else to belong. But when they do find that belonging elsewhere, naturally it’s not only good for them as individuals, but also for their communities. I look forward to sharing more at the conference.

Kate will be presenting a paper on her research and the Pro-Integration Model at the Society for Terrorism Research Conference on Communication and Collaboration for Counter-Terrorism, September 17-19th, in Boston, MA. Kate will also present another paper about the evaluation of CVE programs with co-author and colleague Shandon Harris-Hogan.

Kate is based in Melbourne, Australia, and works as a consultant clinical and forensic psychologist with 18yrs experience in community mental health, private practice, expert court evidence and counter-terrorism work at both the government and grass-roots level. Her recently completed PhD research at Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC) in Melbourne is about disengagement from, and life after extremism, and she has developed a new conceptual model of disengagement called the Pro-Integration Model. As a freelance Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) specialist she has a wide range of interests in applied research, evaluation work, and consultancy projects related to preventing violent extremism and other operational topics that draw on her specialist forensic and clinical psychology experience. Kate can be contacted via: kate.barrelle@pro-integration.net

If you are also presenting at STR14 and would like the opportunity to write a blog post for this series please contact strconference@uml.edu

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