Thursday 17 October 2019

We need to talk about how radicals are made

If Syrian returnees are to be properly reintegrated in society, criminologist Emma Kelly advises caution as harsh exit programmes can be harmful

Final enclave: women and children evacuated from Isis's embattled holdout of Baghouz arrive at a screening area held by Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syrian
Final enclave: women and children evacuated from Isis's embattled holdout of Baghouz arrive at a screening area held by Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syrian
Homeward bound: Lisa Smith wants to return to Ireland from Syria. Picture by Tom Conachy
Emma Kelly

The case of Lisa Smith, the former Irish soldier and 37-year-old mother who has been living in Syria and who is - it would seem - returning to her home country of Ireland has been well documented.

What is less clear is what should happen to her next. For now, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has taken the compassionate and, more importantly, legally sound stance and has indicated that she will be allowed to return to her home country with her citizenship intact, and with her young child. It is important to stress here that this decision is in line with Smith's constitutional rights. It is also important to remember that if or when Smith does return to Ireland, she will certainly face significant investigation by An Garda Síochána and perhaps face some kind of charges.

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Across the water, the case of Shamima Begum, the teen who left the UK for Syria and has since asked to return home, has attracted similar public interest.

Sajid Javid - the British Home Secretary - has taken the controversial step of revoking Begum's British passport, thus rendering her stateless. This is a bold move as it goes against international law. It is debatable whether Begum's comments condoning attacks on her home soil such as the Manchester bombing of 2017 have supported the conditions in which such an action could be carried out.

It may come as a surprise to many that statistics suggest that the level of violent crime and/or terrorist activities undertaken by returnees from conflict zones like Syria is low. In general terms, it would appear that upon returning to their home countries, returnees largely either remain under the radar, or cease causing concern.

But the questions and concerns facing a returnee are far from simple or straightforward. With this in mind, the Irish public quite rightly needs to know what happens next.

In attempting to provide some answers, it is useful to consider what other countries faced with similar dilemmas have implemented and how deradicalisation can be approached.

In 2016, the then French Prime Minister Manuel Valls revealed plans for a $114m deradicalisation initiative. The project, which included a strict regime of uniform-wearing participants reciting the French national anthem every morning, came to an end after less than six months.

Not only are projects such as this disturbing ethically and morally, they are also at risk of causing more harm than good.

Saudi Arabia has taken a more dialogue-orientated approach that has produced positive results. For example, camps are set up as schools - not as prisons. They are also designed not to segregate and label returnees but aimed at a gradual reintroduction of people to their community through a more collaborative discourse between the state and those returning.

Voluntary programme

There is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach to this issue. From a criminological perspective, in a similar way that there is no 'one' reason a person commits a crime, individuals will find themselves in situations similar to Smith and Shamima for a variety of reasons, involving factors and circumstances that are both within and outside their control, influence and awareness.

What is clear is that there needs to be a careful consideration of the nature of exit programmes for returnees that pays careful attention to the role of counselling.

There is a difference between luring someone away from ideas of acts of violence and altering their entire belief system; the latter being far more complex.

The UK established an approach called Channel in 2015 under the Counter-terrorism and Security Act as a part of the government's Prevent strategy.

This is a voluntary referral programme aimed at all ages who are identified as being potentially radicalised or at risk of being radicalised. In 2015, over 4,000 people were referred to a deradicalisation scheme - including children as young as nine.

Another just as controversial method that has been tested and produced dismal results is the British government's emphasis on the internet and online content aimed at tackling radicalisation.

Despite bleak results, this approach remains popular in the eyes of politicians who fail to acknowledge that what is required is one-to- one and more importantly face-to-face interaction.

Perhaps what is also needed is a more psychology-based framework such as, for example, SQT 'significance quest theory'. This terminology suggests that individuals engage in and support acts of political violence in an effort to feel a sense of belonging - at its crux, we all want to matter.

We must also not forget the integral role of the community in this process. If we are to believe the mantra that communities defeat terrorism, then it is not unfathomable to believe that communities can also play a part in the deradicalisation process.

We also need to consider the manner in which we interpret and present these women in the mainstream media. The latest data in security studies indicates that there is an alarming number of women such as Lisa Smith from across the Western world who are hoping to return to their home nations. A conversation is required in order to assess how these women are dealt with - do we continue to use emotive and unhelpful rhetoric such as 'brides' or do we formalise our narrative and use gender-neutral language?

Intelligence goldmine

It may be easier for society to categorise extremists and those who become radicalised as lost or beyond help, but this simply is not the case.

It is important to remember that they are human and so will still respond in a human fashion (in all the good and the bad). Perhaps what they need is humanity.

If Smith was radicalised in Ireland, this needs to be the focus of our efforts to discover how such actions took place.

Ireland has a lot to learn about cases such as these and who better to learn from than the individuals themselves? Alongside this possible fruitful data mine into the intricacies and process of radicalisation, such conversations may also provide meaningful and accurate data related to other terrorist activity in combat zones.

Such an approach could lead to an intelligence goldmine.

At a time when Al-Qaeda (now posing as Al Nusra) is gaining prominence in the Middle East, perhaps we should even see the re-integration of women like Smith as a secondary issue and the story she will have to tell as the primary one.

Emma Kelly is a criminologist at Leeds Trinity University, England

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