The endless terrorism debate: To de-radicalise or disengage?

The endless terrorism debate: To de-radicalise or disengage?
Sep 24, 2018

A look at approaches to terrorist prevention in Europe.

In the wake of recent terrorist attacks across Europe, experts in the counterterrorism field and leaders of Member States have debated on the best approach to deal with the process of radicalisation: should we de-radicalise or disengage individuals who pose a public risk?

It’s a complex question – one that holds global security implications beyond a semantical argument. And yet, there is power in words. Let’s revisit the key terms:

Definition of Disengagement
Intended as the reverse process that leads an individual to abandon the use of violence to achieve his/her goals (which are guided by the radical ideology he/she adopted).

Experts are divided in their support of de-radicalisation versus disengagement.

Those who favour disengagement maintain that de-radicalisation – aside from its impracticality – is unnecessary: radical ideas are inevitable. They drive societal progression.

However, citizens must use lawful means to support them, in respect of human life and fundamental rights.

Supporters of de-radicalisation claim that disengagement is not enough. Some radical ideas run inherently against key values of our democracies and, even when they are not violent, perpetrate discrimination (for example, against women or a religion) and behaviours which are against fundamental rights.

So who is right?

National policy-makers and politicians tend to favour de-radicalisation, since no margin of error is allowed in the public, and the phenomenon of terrorism far outweighs the level of risk-acceptance. Meanwhile, investing public money in disengagement efforts that do not guarantee success in the long run is difficult to sell to the public.

However, policy-makers, politicians, and practitioners alike tend to erroneously conflate de-radicalisation with disengagement efforts.

International organisations, including the European Commission and the United Nations, contend that radical ideas do not constitute a problem for society from a security point of view. Therefore, terrorism prevention should focus only on actions that combine two elements: violence and extremist ideas.

According to the Rome Memorandum on Good Practices for Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders, the first step towards designing rehabilitation programmes is to define their goals: is the goal de-radicalisation or disengagement? It’s important to understand the desired outcome of the rehabilitation.

According to the Memorandum, the likelihood of success of de-radicalisation or disengagement programmes also differs: disengagement programmes are more likely to be successful, since changing someone’s mind is more difficult to achieve. However, disengagement does not guarantee success in the long run, as particularly stressful events over the course of one's life might rekindle one’s harboured violent attitudes.

On the other side, de-radicalisation may be a stronger insurance on the future – however, it is rarely achieved. While these positions can meet criticism, they are not entirely new. If we look at our past, we might find out that counter-terrorism approaches used by some Member States during the emergency situations created by national terrorist groups in the previous century, are indeed closer to the definition of disengagement, rather than de-radicalisation. Similarly, they were not spared by criticism.

What are the steps ahead? Firstly, the ambiguity of the terms should be clarified, and politicians and practitioners should make sure they use the right terminology for the appropriate concept they have in mind. This would avoid misunderstandings among themselves and with the public.

Secondly, we should be brave enough to focus our resources on successful disengagement efforts, working towards what has the best chances to succeed. Regardless of the success of the programme they are involved in, radicalised individuals will continue to live in society unless they commit a criminal offence. Even when an offence is committed, most terrorism-related sentences are relatively short and inmates will be back in society after a few years.

Definition of Radicalisation

The process of adopting radical and extreme positions that ultimately might lead to justify the use of violence on the basis of those radical beliefs and achieve its goals.


If radicalisation leads to terrorism, then the logical approach would be to stop the process (or prevent it from starting altogether). But how do we reverse radicalisation once it has begun? Should we de-radicalise a suspect… or is sufficient to disengage him?

De-radicalising someone implies a sincere change in mindset and worldview; disengaging someone, instead, only indicates a behavioural change (i.e. renouncing violence while maintaining radical ideas on specific issues).

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