By Daniel Koehler, Director, German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies (GIRDS)
Family does matter far more in de-radicalization and counter-terrorism work than usually realized. Beyond the well known fact that stable social bonds and relationships are essential for desistance focussed probation and reintegration work (e.g. Gadd, 2006; Garfinkel, 2007; Laub & Sampson, 2001), effective treatment of PTSD (e.g. Grossman, 2009: 288), as well as the success of terrorist de-radicalization programs (e.g. Bjørgo & Horgan, 2009; Fink & Haerne, 2008; Horgan, 2009), the social environment – and within it more specifically close friends and family – is arguably one of the spaces in which violent radicalization takes place and becomes visible in early stages. Even in regard to phenomena usually considered highly inaccessible by definition – e.g. lone wolf terrorism – the social environment of the later perpetrators was far from unaware about the radicalization process:
“In 82.4% of the cases, other people were aware of the individual’s grievance that spurred the terrorist plot, and in 79%, other individuals were aware of the individual’s commitment to a specific extremist ideology. In 63.9% of the cases, family and friends were aware of the individual’s intent to engage in terrorism-related activities because the offender verbally told them.” (Gill, Horgan, & Deckert, 2014: 429)
This astonishing high percentage of family and friends knowing about terrorist intents (63.9%) does find support in other in depth studies of terrorist networks. Marc Sageman (2004) for example found in his seminal analysis of 172 jihadist terrorists that in 75% of the cases with reliable information pre-existing friendship bonds and kinship were essential for the individual’s radicalization process leading to joining the Jihad (Sageman, 2004: 111-113). In a similar study of 242 European jihadists Edwin Bakker (2006) found that “in more than 35 percent of the sample social affiliation may have played a role in recruitment” (Bakker, 2006: 42). In other words, the close social environment is most likely the place to recognize violent radicalization early and prevent a further involvement or intervene in advanced radicalization. In consequence family and friends – the social environment of radicalized individuals – is most important for early prevention and intervention work and this fact needs to be addressed with a specifically designed methodology focussing on the role of the family in radicalization processes and counter-terrorism work. This methodology needs to rely on strengthening the family as a counterforce against radicalization in an equal partnership with the support provider and not on using the family as source of information and intelligence for the authorities. During the last years several highly specialized family counselling programs were developed and started working around Europe – mostly motivated by the pressing need expressed by families affected by jihadist radicalization and the devastating impact of having seen their relatives leaving to join the violent jihadists Edwin Bakker (2006) found that “in more than 35 percent of the sample social affiliation may have played a role in recruitment” (Bakker, 2006: 42). In other words, the close social environment is most likely the place to recognize violent radicalization early and prevent a further involvement or intervene in advanced radicalization. In consequence family and friends – the social environment of radicalized individuals – is most important for early prevention and intervention work and this fact needs to be addressed with a specifically designed methodology focussing on the role of the family in radicalization processes and counter-terrorism work. This methodology needs to rely on strengthening the family as a counterforce against radicalization in an equal partnership with the support provider and not on using the family as source of information and intelligence for the authorities. During the last years several highly specialized family counselling programs were developed and started working around Europe – mostly motivated by the pressing need expressed by families affected by jihadist radicalization and the devastating impact of having seen their relatives leaving to join the violent jihad in Syria and Iraq. These family counselling programs are seen as highly effective at least in reaching a large proportion of the relevant target groups and approaching the problem of violent homegrown radicalization from a new and innovative perspective (cf. Gielen, 2014; Koehler, 2013; Ranstorp & Hyllengren, 2013; Vidino, 2014) However, more in depth evaluations and methodological development are necessary to ensure the durability and sustainability of these initiatives. Two models from Germany and Denmark have received a high level of international media attention and are widely seen as inspirations for other programs around the globe. This essay introduces and compares these two models and sets them in context with theoretical and practical implications for family counselling programs as de-radicalization and counter-terrorism tools.
The Theory of Family Counselling and De-radicalization
Previous comparative studies of various de-radicalization programs were able to identify several levels of impact, which de-radicalization strategies and programs need to address. These levels can be differentiated along three dimensions: affective, pragmatic and ideological (Rabasa, Pettyjohn, Ghez, & Boucek, 2010, 42 et seq.).
Regarding the ideological dimension, any de-radicalization (in contrast to 'disengagement' programs not focusing on ideology, cf. Horgan, 2008) program should emphasize the delegitimization and invalidation of an individual’s or group’s narratives and interpretations, as well as dismantle the previously adopted radical ideology during the de-radicalization process and reach a critical self assessment of the individual’s past (cf. Köhler, 2014a).
However another important aspect has to be addressed here: the different concepts of ‘violent’ and ‘non-violent’ radicalization. “Violent radicalization”, meaning the “radicalization that leads to violence” and “non-violent radicalization”, referring “to the process by which individuals come to hold radical views in relation to the status quo but do not undertake, aid, or abet terrorist activity” (see Bartlett & Miller, 2012, 2, italics in original) are usually used to describe legitimate and illegitimate (i.e. illegal) forms of radicalism and radicalization. In need for a sharper concept of the process of radicalization, which security agencies and de-radicalization programs are typically looking at, another approach is used here: radicalization can be understood as a process of individual depluralization of political concepts and values (e.g. justice, freedom, honour, violence, democracy) according with those concepts employed by a specific ideology (see for in detail: Koehler, 2014; Köhler, 2014b). The more individuals have internalized the notion that no other alternative interpretations of their (prioritized) political concepts exist (or are relevant), the more we can speak (and show) a degree of radicalization. This may happen with varying degrees of intellectual reflection (e.g. quoting a fascist thinker to explain certain behaviour or merely stating to do something because it seemed right within the cognitive framework or collective identity). However, this means that, in accordance with the international debate, a high level of radicalization does not necessarily equal a high level of violent behaviour or extraordinary brutality. Of course radicalization in this sense is a rather normal phenomenon in society e.g. in sports, animal rights movement or dietary preferences (veganism for example). The important link here is the fusion (and combination) with a certain type of ideology that inherently denies individual freedom (or equal rights) to persons not part of the radical person’s in-group and thusly the degree of ideological incompatibility with a political culture based on human rights and pluralism. Consequently it is possible to understand how individuals need to act and behave illegally according to the degree of internalized and monopolized political concepts of their ideology simply because at a certain point no other option is visible to them. This process in fact creates a kind of ticking time bomb: a rapidly decreasing amount of alternatives and options in combination with an increasing amount of ideological calls for action.
In consequence, to break with this ideologically inherent determination of behaviour constitutes a central task in every de-radicalization strategy and program.
At the pragmatic level, emphasis is placed on the discontinuance and/or prevention of courses of action that individuals or groups have established in order to achieve their goals. This pillar typically is comprised of what is usually called ‘disengagement’. Providing for example capacity building, job training, drug treatment, family therapy, and numerous other practical assistance necessary to discontinue the old and start a new life, the pragmatic level also includes matters of personal safety. Hence, this level focuses on the practical basis of a changed behaviour.
The affective level addresses the need for individuals to be emotionally supported and the requirement to establish an alternative reference group. In this regard, family counselling is considered a vital instrument. Family members or friends that are opposing the respective ideology are being empowered in their argumentation, their capacity to take action and alternative quotation. Family counselling is, thus, an important framework factor in de-radicalization processes and supporting attachment figures (in relation to emotions, values, opinions and interest of the radicalized person) massively increases the chances for a successful de-radicalization.
Family counselling programs – as individual de-radicalization programs – need to address all these three levels. Starting of course with the affective (i.e. the family) level, practical needs of the potentially radicalized individual need to be addressed and – through the family or close friends – ideological references can be countered. The aim of the counselling process is to determine the individual driving factors for the relative’s radicalization (if there is any) and to bring in targeted and highly specific intervention through the close affective social environment. This needs to be done with extreme caution and expertise. It should be noted however, that there are fundamental methodological differences between family counselling programs and individual de-radicalization programs. First of all most individual de-radicalization programs start with persons willing to leave radical milieus or at least being at some form of potential point of access (e.g. prison). In contrast family counselling programs typically get in touch with the family of a person right in the middle or in advanced stages of violent radicalization processes. In consequence the major goal of these counselling programs is to slow down and stop the relative’s radicalization and induce a potential de-radicalization process. Of course in this case a very different methodology focusing on the whole family as social unit needs to be deployed. Once the individual de-radicalization process starts another program focusing on the individual’s needs should step in ideally. Another important aspect is the fact that family counselling programs can be seen as hybrids – both working as prevention or counter-radicalization programs (when the program steps in during early phases of radicalization) and intervention programs (e.g. when the family contacts the program in an advanced stage of the relative’s radicalization process). If designed effectively these programs are highly flexible and dynamic being able to shift from an early prevention to intervention and counter-terrorism methodology.
The Danish Model
Dating back to the 1980s the Danish model builds upon the SSP (school, social services, police) model, which is especially well established in the small community in Aarhus. After 9/11 the model was extended to deal with religious radicalization while youth gang related problems were the main focus before. The Danish model is located in full within the Danish police (for an in depth explanation about the Aarhus model see: Agerschou, 2014). Mixed teams of police officers and social workers are located within ‘info houses’ which exchange information on potentially radicalizing individuals in all directions for examples with schools. This means that either teachers or parents can go to these info houses and report about their worries or the employed police officers and social workers can reach out to schools if they learn about problematic cases through police channels. The info houses are steered by a ‘task force’ comprised of representatives of all government agencies and mentors placed under the directorate of the police commissioner. This task force tries to provide potentially de-radicalizing help and contacts for individuals when necessary ranging from early prevention (e.g. problems to find a job, drug problems) to reintegration and de-radicalization after having returned from fighting in Syria (e.g. psychological help). Naturally these task forces are very well integrated into every aspect of social life within Aarhus and can rely on a very short and effective chain of communication with partners from government or civil society to provide the necessary support. The Danish model is not a family counselling program as such but includes a family support group as one of many possible intervention methods. This family support group provides counselling, social services and miscellaneous practical help for returnees or in the case of the relative’s death. As highly effective in terms of sorting out security relevant cases demanding judicial or police action from cases where social work methods need to be deployed the Danish model can be seen as a traditionally grown contact and communication hub within the police regarding youth radicalization. As the level of mistrust on the side of the population is very low police officers can freely approach and interact with civil society and other partners.
Being built on a very long tradition of cooperation between police, social services and civil society in a small community the Danish model is exceptionally effective but also very likely impossible to transfer to other contexts. Although many other countries would prefer the Danish model as it is effectively run by the police and ensures control through government authorities, a very high degree of mistrust and critique would be most likely the result if other police forces (e.g. in the United Kingdom or Germany) would try to exert this level of institutional control. Data protection and privacy concerns might also be very difficult issues in other contexts and as soon as the communities are so large that the employed officers or social workers can not any longer rely on their personal networks the program background as police run program might even become an obstacle for the work as such.