Assessing the Effectiveness of Current De-Radicalization Initiatives and Identifying Implications for the Development of U.S.-Based Initiatives in Multiple Settings

Other START Researchers:

Project Details


In recent years, substantial attention has been paid to how and why terrorism ends. The welcome development of an increase in research on a hitherto neglected area has occurred in parallel with the increasing prevalence of a series of innovative, ambitious yet under-examined approaches to counterterrorism. These are collectively referred to as 'de-radicalization programs.'

However, despite the popular media coverage of these programs, basic information surrounding even the most basic of facts pertaining to these programs remains limited. This report presents the results of a one-year study of select de-radicalization programs and investigates a series of critical issues surrounding assessment of the effectiveness and outcomes of these programs. Five open-source case studies of country-specific programs (Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Northern Ireland, Colombia and Indonesia) illustrate not only the unique, context-specific circumstances in which these programs originated and developed, but also reveal the challenges inherent in attempts at generalization from one or more programs, including, but not exclusive to, efforts to assess the success of these initiatives.

While the overarching purpose of this project was to identify policy-relevant issues regarding assessing the effectiveness of these programs, the report seeks to identify which assessment issues are: a) specific to individual countries or cases; b) generalizable to other cases in order to identify those lessons that will help provide a foundation of policy-relevant knowledge from which similar local initiatives might develop, and not be limited to any one context both for de-radicalization and anti-radicalization strategies.

Primary Findings:

The principal conclusions of this research are:

  • Programs collectively referred to as de-radicalization programs are, in practice, rarely focused on achieving 'de-radicalization' as a requisite or even desired outcome; instead they are more commonly focused primarily on reducing the risk of re-engagement in terrorism and other illicit activity; 
  • For this reason, we suggest that these initiatives be collectively characterized not as 'de-radicalization' programs, but as 'risk reduction' efforts; closely related to this, these risk reduction efforts are sometimes expressed through formal programs of activity, but it appears that the use of the term 'program' refers to a variety of formal and informal initiatives; for this reason, we suggest the further collective characterization of these efforts as "risk reduction initiatives";
  • These risk reduction initiatives do not represent a 'silver bullet' for counterterrorism efforts, rather they should be viewed as one of several possible tools for aspiring to successfully achieving a series of diverse objectives, characterized primarily through efforts to reduce the risk for engagement (and/or re-engagement) in terrorism and illicit activity;
  • With respect to existing initiatives, including those examined more closely in this report, there remains intense secrecy surrounding all but the most superficial of details; despite, in some cases, highly publicized claims for success, there is no evidence of transparent or valid internal or external evaluation of the claimed success of these programs; furthermore, none of the programs under examination displayed any clear criteria for establishing effective measurement of success or otherwise;
  • Looking beyond individual initiatives, there has been no attempt to arrive at a collective evaluative framework for determining what constitutes effectiveness or success -- in other words, what a successful risk reduction initiative in general might look like and how it might be assessed;
  • We argue that Multi Attribute Utility Technology may offer a productive means for providing a comprehensive evaluative model for empirical assessment of these risk reduction initiatives (whether broadly or narrowly conceptualized and/or developed); in addition, MAUT may also provide a conceptual basis for planning, evaluating and refining the development of future initiatives in a variety of settings;
  • While much groundwork research has been done on the areas of disengagement from terrorism, significant gaps remain on the issues of recidivism and risk assessment in the context of terrorism;
  • Related to this, unless these research gaps are redressed, it will be virtually impossible to provide any meaningful and valid evaluation of the claimed successes of any attempt to promote or facilitate disengagement and/or de-radicalization and/or effective and sustainable recidivism risk reduction from terrorism; detailed suggestions are made for how this research agenda may be developed;
  • Further related to this, some current work on de-radicalization suggests that any initiative aimed at promoting effective desistance from terrorism requires a change in attitudes to precede a change in behavior; we refute this belief and describe a mechanism from behavioral psychology (building on the work of behavioral psychologists such as Bryan Roche and others) as a means of working towards achieving de-radicalization in the laboratory as a first step towards greater conceptual development on this issue on the one hand, but greater operational capabilities on the other.

This project was conducted by examining open source data on existing de-radicalization initiatives and developing five case studies on the basis of that data (Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Northern Ireland, Colombia and Indonesia). Multi Attribute Evaluation Technology is one major framework outlined for possible use in the evaluation and future design of risk reduction initiatives.


Project Period: