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Deradicalizing Terrorists Can Work

New research finds one key is providing former fighters with an alternative source of meaning.
Tamil Tiger guerrillas in training camp.

Tamil Tiger guerrillas in training camp.

Viktor Frankl famously emerged from a Nazi concentration camp with a breakthrough psychological insight. Perhaps the strongest human drive, he wrote, is the search for meaning. Given our awareness of our own mortality, comfort is not enough: We seek significance.

Unfortunately, in today's world, terrorist organizations provide a potent source of meaning for marginalized young men. Floundering people with few prospects are prime picking for organizations such as ISIS. Give them a gun and a cause, and their lives suddenly have a purpose.

Understanding that psychological appeal—and countering it—plays a key role in successfully deradicalizing former fighters. That’s the conclusion of newly published research, which focused on a program aimed at reforming former fighters with the infamous Tamil Tigers.

From 1983 until their defeat in 2009, the Tigers waged a violent campaign on the island nation of Sri Lanka with the goal of creating an independent state for the ethnic Tamil minority. After the surrender, fighters were detained in government-run facilities, where many enrolled in a sophisticated rehabilitation program.

"Beneficiaries receiving full rehabilitation reported increasingly lower extremism across one year."

The former fighters were offered classes in a variety of subjects, ranging from mathematics to motor mechanics. They also received psychological counseling, and—perhaps most important—were mentored by "successful individuals form the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, including businesspeople, athletes, and regional movie stars." They both discussed and embodied various ways Tamils could "succeed in life without resorting to terrorism."

The researchers studied 490 former Tigers who participated in the full program, and 111 who only had access to a minimal version. At the beginning and end of the year-long effort, they answered a series of questions, including five that measured their support for violent extremism, and 11 that measured feelings of shame, humiliation, and insignificance.

"Beneficiaries receiving full rehabilitation reported increasingly lower extremism across one year, and showed greater reduction than those only receiving minimal treatment," the research team, led by David Webber of Virginia Commonwealth University, writes in the journal Political Psychology.

The program provided participants with "alternative mechanisms" for finding meaning, and thereby "appeared to buffer beneficiaries' need to rely on the extreme ideology of (the Tigers) as their root to significance," the researchers write.

They are quick to add that a variety of factors determine whether a terrorist is truly rehabilitated. Study participants who "retained social connections" to other former fighters "expressed significantly higher levels of extremism," they note, "and are thus likely at greater risk of re-radicalization should the call for a separate state be reignited." It's also entirely possible that they would be less open to pursuing other paths to personal significance if the fight was still ongoing, as it is with ISIS today.

That said, a second study featuring 179 reformed radicals and 144 Tamils who did not participate in the uprising produced additional good news. It found the former fighters "were significantly less extreme than matched community members." This suggests the program shifted their perspective in a lasting way.

These results provide important lessons for European (and other) nations dealing with ISIS recruits who return home. While such men can easily turn into domestic terrorists, it is possible to change their mindsets. Just remember you can't take away the thing that gives their life meaning without offering some suitable substitute.