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The Importance of Psychology in Counterterrorism Efforts

Upon hearing the word counterterrorism, what likely comes to mind for the average American are soldiers fighting in Afghanistan or analysts combing through interview transcripts. This line of thinking is in no way unexpected, as those measures are at the forefront of the National Strategy for Counterterrorism. And while the defeat of international terrorist organizations by our military and the thwarting of terrorist plots by our intelligence community are no doubt effective, an additional way to combat terrorism should be prioritzed within the national security community: psychology. Policymakers can incorporate psychology, more specifically elements of disengagement and deradicalization research, into counterterrorism policy to tackle the issue at its root.

It is imperative to first explain the difference between the concepts of disengagement and deradicalization, as the two terms often are conflated. Disengagement refers to the cessation of in the behavior of terrorist activity, whether that be due to incarceration or a myriad of other reasons. Deradicalization goes a step further; it is the internal cognitive process of no longer committing oneself to an ideology. Just because an extremist may be incarcerated, and therefore disengaged from terrorist violence, does not mean they are deradicalized.

Recidivism of extremists is a concern across the globe and a counterterrorism concern that must be addressed. Unlike “everyday” crime, a deeply held ideology is inherent to terrorist violence.  is particularly challenging to break, as ideology is so intertwined with sense of self.  Through successful deradicalization programs for incarcerated terrorists, recidivism would become less of a concern. Deradicalization programs have been run before in countries such as Indonesia and Yemen, using recidivism rates as the primary measure of effectiveness. Recidivism rates, however, are solely a measure of disengagement rather than deradicalization; these rates do not capture individuals who continue to support terrorism but may do so in ways that are legal or have otherwise evaded capture. It is imperative, therefore, to empirically measure if and how deradicalization programs are effective in changing minds rather than behavior.

One study conducted by researchers at highly-regarded universities around the globe did just that. Dissatisfied by current research examining recidivism rates alone, they set out to measure change in beliefs and attitudes with former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. The LTTE detainees were provided with three forms of rehabilitation: educational, vocational, and psychosocial. To sum up their findings briefly, through these forms of rehabilitation, participants were given an alternative route of finding personal significance. After participation in rehabilitation, detainees reported lower feelings of insignificance, which subsequently, related to lower support for extremism and less nostalgia for their days in the terrorist group. This provides evidence that former terrorists were able to find a new source of personal significance disconnected from the ideology, successfully and effectively deradicalizing.

Although the program implemented in Sri Lanka is one, if not the only, empirical study assessing the true effectiveness of deradicalization programming, there are additional takeaways that can be applied to counterterrorism efforts more broadly. Touched upon in the LTTE report is the importance of family obligations. Along with personal significance, there exists a plethora of research examining “push factors” – the reasons why someone is compelled to leave a terrorist group. One push factor is the competition of loyalties between terrorist group and family obligations. When dedication to the family becomes more salient than dedication to the terrorist group, the likelihood that a person disengages is probable. In counterterrorism strategy, family can be highlighted as an alternative to the narrative that is posed in terrorist recruitment: financial stability, a sense of community, and support.

In a society that is increasingly embracing the validity of the social sciences, following this trend would be a wise decision for the counterterrorism community. It would be irresponsible to imply that military and intelligence initiatives are not effective; however, if the United States wants to continue to fight “the war on terror,” there is great utility in not only understanding push factors and the deradicalization process, but also incorporating elements of psychology into policy.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Julia Iacoviello, Preventing Targeted Violence Intern
Publish Date
December 13, 2022