New U.S. Deradicalization Effort Shows Promise, Expert Says

By Joseph Straw

A new multifaceted, U.S.-led deradicalization program in Afghanistan shows anecdotal evidence of effectiveness, due in part to detainees’ perceptions that they are being treated better than their counterparts who were held in prior years, a leading researcher said Friday.

Marisa L. Porges, a former advisor to the secretary of defense’s Office of Detainee Affairs and now an international affairs fellow in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, shared some early findings at a Washington, D.C. panel discussion hosted by the Heritage Foundation. The discussion addressed the enormous challenge of assessing deradicalization programs’ effectiveness.

In the new program, less than a year old and run out of the U.S. detention facility in Bagram, Afghanistan, captured al Qaeda and Taliban combatants receive a combination of vocational training and art therapy, and are subject to meetings with clerics who challenge the radical interpretation of the Koran. While far too young to be labeled a success, Porges shared the positive reactions she’s heard in interviews with detainees released from the facility after participating in the program.

Porges emphasized the importance of how detainees are treated, sharing a comment made to her by an Arab royal. He said his primary concern is the one detainee who is mistreated and released, who with his story is able to radicalize 1,000 more people, she said.

Porges's fellow speaker Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies discussed the various approaches to deradicalization, ranging from idealogical deradicalization to a push for disengagement—in which the subject rejects violence or involvement in a movement.

Gartenstein-Ross noted that the proper approach varies by case and location. A fighter in Afghanistan may be motivated by religious ideology, local tribal animosity, geopolitical issues, or simply the need for food, shelter, or a salary.  In these cases a mixed approach like the new U.S. one may be advisable.  But for a hardcore member of a transnational terror group like al Qaeda, the effort would require an idealogical focus.

Assessing the effectiveness of existing deradicalization programs to academic standards is effectively impossible in most cases, Gartenstein-Ross said. The governments conducting the programs do not disclose all information about their programs, while it is extremely difficult to track those released unless they revert and are captured or killed. One exception, he noted, is Singapore, where the government publicly releases status updates on captured radicals including when they are released, changes in status, and renewal of charges.

An attorney and radicalism expert, in early adulthood Gartenstein-Ross converted to Islam and adopted a radical interpretation for the faith, working for an Oregon charity that funded terrorism organizations, before rejecting the ideology and assisting U.S. terrorism investigators.


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