Globally, Nations Grapple With Deradicalization

Terrorist attacks in the U.S. have long been considered an outside job by radical groups operating in countries such as Pakistan or Afghanistan. But in the past year, several incidents have proven Muslim-Americans are not as immune to radicalization as previously believed. From the Forth Hood shootings to the recent detention of U.S. college students in Pakistan, to the involvement of several Somali men from Minnesota in a terrorist group, the list continues to grow. Host Michel Martin talks to anti-terrorism experts Lorenzo Vidino, a fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University's Kennedy School and Jessica Stern, from the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law about deradicalization.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The question of why some people are attracted to radical movements has become more urgent for Americans, especially given recent events: From the detention of five Washington-area students in Pakistan, to the tragic shootings at Fort Hood, to the recruitment of several young men from Minnesota into a Somali terrorist group. Countries around the world are trying to figure out who is most susceptible to the appeal of radical movements, and if those messages can be reversed.

To understand more about this, weve called two people who've devoted themselves to figuring that out. Jessica Stern is a lecturer at Harvard Law School. She also serves on the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, and is the author of the book "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill." She recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled "Five Myths about Who Becomes a Terrorist."

Also joining us is Lorenzo Vidino. He's a fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He's also author of the book "Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of Global Jihad."

I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. JESSICA STERN (Lecturer; Author, "Terror in the name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill"): Thank you.

Mr. LORENZO VIDINO (Author, "Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of Global Jihad"): Thank you.

MARTIN: Jessica, if I could start with this question of who becomes a terrorist - being mindful, of course, of the fact that Americans, I think, are very suspicious of sort of profiling and generalizing in general, as I think perfectly reasonable. But in your reporting, are there some clues about who is most susceptible to these messages?

Ms. STERN: Well, we see terrorists coming from all walks of life, and every religion is susceptible. But, obviously, the religion that has been misused to attract militants today is a version of Islam that many Muslims dont recognize. And I think the reason for that is that terrorists leaders have been very good at describing the change in the position of Islam relative to other civilizations as a source of humiliation and that the way to overcome that sense humiliation is to pick up a gun.

MARTIN: Lorenzo, what about you? Whats your take on this?

Mr. VIDINO: Well, it really depends. If we look at the people involved, just for example, in the United States in some of the plots you mentioned, their profile are so diverse. Some of them come from very well-to-do families. Some come from very disenfranchised backgrounds. We have first and second-generation immigrants. We have people with PhD's. We have people with grade school education. Researchers and governments are really struggling to find the common profile. I think we are sort of coming to the conclusion that its impossible to profile at this point in time. There's what I think is the common denominator for a lot of people, is buying into this narrative that, as Jessica was saying, has been brought forward by some terrorist organizations and leaders of this victimization and humiliation narrative. And for very different reasons, very different people buy into this sort of narrative.

MARTIN: Well, if that's the case, then, how would de-radicalization work? Is there a way to create a counter-narrative, if people come to this narrative for all different reasons?

Mr. VIDINO: At the macro level, trying to frame a counter-narrative in general terms, you know, its a much abused term in the war of ideas, trying to form a counter-message. At the micro level, when some of the programs that some governments both in the Muslim world and in the West are trying to implement is work on the personal reasons - the factors - that influence that determined individual to embrace that ideology and that world view. And again, the reasons might be very different. In some cases, it's just the person happened to be sort of hanging out with the world crowd.

In some of the cases, we have a very sophisticated individual that studied and believed that after a very deep analysis that that narrative is correct. So they're sort of different tactics that the governments are trying to use to de-radicalize, and its a very much in an individualized process, as radicalization itself is.

MARTIN: Youve studied several such programs in Europe, if you could just tell us briefly how they work.

Mr. VIDINO: Yeah. Many European governments are really putting a lot of money -we're talking about hundreds of millions - on these counter-radicalization programs, that have two sort of sides. There's a de-radicalization, so intervening on people who are already radicalized and some of them even involved in terrorism. And then there's the radicalization prevention, which targets the population at large, generally targeting segments that are considered to be particular at risk. And the programs, as you can imagine, are as diverse as they come. They go from simply having interfaith meetings to sponsoring lectures of clerics that challenge the interpretation of Islam as espoused by al-Qaida.

There's visits to places like Auschwitz or Anne Franks' home in Amsterdam, trying to challenge some of the stereotypes and the mindset that lead some young people in particular to radicalize.

MARTIN: Jessica, what about you? What is your sense of which of these programs may be more successful?

Ms. STERN: I think the programs on terrorism prevention that are underway in a number of European countries are really very interesting, and actually not that different from some of the anti-gang programs that we see in some cities in the United States. There's also a very comprehensive, kind of holistic experiment underway in Saudi Arabia to de-radicalize terrorists who have been convicted of crimes, and when they finish their sentence, the Saudi government - the Interior Ministry - wants to help reduce the chance that they will return to terrorism. And they have a very comprehensive effort, which interestingly involves career counseling and, believe it or not, finding the terrorists wives, if they're unmarried.

MARTIN: When you say that some of these programs resembled gang intervention programs in the U.S. what do you mean?

Ms. STERN: Well, there's a, I think, an understanding that it isn't just a problem of ideology. The Saudis begin with the belief that the terrorists are often quite alienated from Saudi society and even from their families, and they make a major effort to help bring them back into mainstream society. I mean, it's - there are many commonalities with gangs. They're youths who get their identities from being part of this exciting, illegal, immoral, violent group. Obviously, there's many differences between terrorists and what we - I guess we could call ordinary criminals. But it's still a surprise that the Saudis, for example, are having what they claim to be a very impressive success rate, and we need to understand a lot more about why it works, and when it doesnt work, why it doesnt work.

MARTIN: And Lorenzo, if you would tell us what you know about the Riyadh's Care Rehabilitation Program in Saudi Arabia. There have been reports that some of the program graduates have rejoined al-Qaida. But what is your sense of, overall, how successful these programs are? And do you have any sense of why some succeed and others don't?

Mr. VIDINO: Well, it's very difficult to simply assess how these programs are going, because there's not a lot of transparency. We have to really rely on what the Saudi government is telling us. We know, of course, of some very high profile cases of individuals who are supposed to have graduated these programs and - so, in theory - successfully de-radicalized and then have joined al-Qaida either in Iraq, or some of them are now leading al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. Of course, if these are one, two percent of the whole prison population that has undergone these programs, we can still talk about a success rate. I mean, this is a very important issue. If you successfully de-radicalize 99 people, but then person of the 100 you worked on goes back to terrorism, is your program successful or not?

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jessica Stern who serves on the Hoover Institution Taskforce on National Security and Law, and Lorenzo Vidino. He's a fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. We're talking about programs that aim to de-radicalize people who have been attracted to radical movements.

I would like to ask each of you, given recent circumstances here in the U.S., do you think such a concept is needed here? And if so, what might it look like? I think it's worth noting that on average, American Muslims - according to recent data that weve seen - have higher income, are generally language proficient, in contrast to their peers in other parts of the world, particularly in other parts of Europe. But what do you think about that?

Ms. STERN: Well, youre exactly right about Muslim immigrants in the United States tend to be quite well educated. Muslim-Americans are more likely to vote. They are wealthier than the average American, and, at least until now, they have been pretty hard to radicalize. But things are definitely changing in the last year or two. And that's pretty much what I know the New York City Police Department was predicting, that we were behind Europe in terms of homegrown radicals emerging in the United States, but that eventually it would happen here, as well. And we're seeing that.

And one group where we're seeing quite a bit of is the Somali immigrants. And interestingly, when I published a piece in Foreign Affairs about de-radicalization, a Somali-American who was a youth worker contacted me, wanting to know: What can I do? I see this terrible problem. I see kids being radicalized and I want to help them, but I need assistance. And the problem is that the minute somebody like that gets assistance from the FBI or some kind of organization like that, his credibility could rapidly be reduced. So its tricky to get it right.

MARTIN: Lorenzo, what is your thought about this?

Mr. VIDINO: Yeah. I think these programs are, in all likelihood, going to come to the United States. There's a lot of interest in Washington with what's going on. The programs we're going to be seeing in the States, if we're going to see them, will have to focus more on ideology. Only in a few cases, I think, its about material goods.

And that's where I see the big challenge. Are we going to have the U.S. government sort of espousing a certain interpretation of Islam, saying this is good Islam and al-Qaida's bad Islam? We all agree that al-Qaida's is bad Islam. But what is the good Islam that, in a way, the United States will endorse? That's a huge problem for European governments. You can imagine in a country like the States with the separation of church and state like we have it here, what kind of issues - constitutional, legal, political - that will present, and I think that'll be very challenging. At the same time, I dont really see any other solution.

MARTIN: Lorenzo Vidino is a fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He's a Peace Scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He's the author of the forthcoming book, "The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West," and he joined us from the campus at Harvard University.

Jessica Stern is a lecturer at Harvard Law School. She also serves on the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, and she is the author of "Terror in the name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill." We'll have a link to the piece that she recently wrote for the Washington Post called "Five Myths about Who Becomes a Terrorist," and she joined us from her home office in Boston.

I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. VIDINO: Thank you.

Ms. STERN: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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