PARIS, France (AFP) — Countries around the globe are experimenting with de-radicalization programs to deal with the threat of jihadists returning from the wars of the Middle East, but experts remain skeptical about their prospects.
With thousands of mostly young Muslim men flooding into Syria and Iraq to take part in the jihad, governments across the world are struggling with how best to deal with those who come home battle-hardened and indoctrinated.
Denmark has been at the forefront of EU experiments in rehabilitating young people seduced by militant Islam since it began a pilot scheme in 2009.
Rather than being thrown in jail, Muslim fighters returning from the jihad, or holy war, are offered counseling and jobs or university places. Danish authorities have brought together teachers, police, social services and religious leaders to help identify and target problem cases.
Other countries — from Indonesia to India to Britain — have set up similar de-radicalization programs in recent years, hoping a soft approach will yield better long-term results in tackling violent extremism.
One of the first was in Saudi Arabia. Set up in 2007, it offered generous benefits to those who renounced jihad, including monthly pensions, an apartment, a car and $20,000 in cash if they got married. Religious instruction with respected imams was a key part of the program.
But counterterrorism experts have expressed doubt that such programs can ever be truly successful, or worth the billions lavished on them.
“Let’s be clear, for the moment de-radicalization does not work,” a senior French counterterrorism official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The Saudis say it works, but I can assure you they only have a success rate of 80 percent. Guys follow the course, take the money and then go off to join al-Qaeda in Yemen.”
He said France and its main Western allies were watching closely the rehabilitation efforts in other countries, “but they are not encouraging. “
That skepticism is pushing some countries to take a tougher approach.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced plans to block British jihadists from returning to the UK for at least two years unless they agree to strict conditions.
In France, a 24-year-old man on Thursday became the first person to be convicted of joining the jihad overseas. Flavien Moreau was given the maximum sentence of seven years in prison, despite saying he had only been in Syria for 12 days.
While France and Britain take a hard line on those who have actually traveled to the conflict zone, they still try to catch people before they make the leap.
The French counterterrorism official described these efforts as “de-indoctrination” — breaking the fascination with jihad picked up from online propaganda before it turns into active engagement.
“That works better,” he said, especially a hotline set up for parents who worry their children may be heading down the path to radicalization.
John Horgan, a specialist on terrorist psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, has studied the different programs worldwide.
“I share the skepticism,” he told AFP. “It requires changing the way people think, and that is no easy task. There is this naive notion that we can sit down and re-wire their brains. It doesn’t work.”
He said the Danish experiment was “interesting and creative”, but added he still had “reservations” about its prospects.
“As is often the case, it will only work for those who are already on the path to de-radicalization.”
Horgan said the biggest problem with the Saudi program was the “lack of transparency” and their reluctance to share the results.
A bigger problem might be just trying to keep on top of the numbers.
That was the problem in Indonesia, where the military recently released a report on its own efforts to wean people off jihad.
Commenting on the results, General Tito Karnavian of the country’s counter-terrorism agency said “our de-radicalization program isn’t working as fast as the extremist ideologues can radicalize new members.”