How do you solve extremism? Photo: Andrew Lyons

How to de-radicalise an extremist

Adam converted to Islam at age 19. In 2014, he was taken on by a "de-radicalisation" program. What happened next raises questions about how we approach extremism—and what we can really do for angry young men
June 20, 2018

When I met Adam in early 2016, he told me that he wanted to join the “Muslim army.” He had been watching videos of jihadists training and said that if he didn’t find a job he might sign up. “If I go fight at least I have a life,” he said. “What am I gonna do here?”

Adam had gained notoriety in 2015, when he went on the BBC2 Victoria Derbyshire programme. A young Polish convert to Islam, he appeared with his former mentor, Hanif Qadir, head of the Active Change Foundation (ACF), one of several organisations the government has used to de-radicalise suspected extremists.

Qadir told the show that Adam was “on a path to terror,” until he got involved. He said he had taught Adam that he was following the wrong kind of Islam. “We’ve pulled him back from the edge, let’s say,” claimed Qadir, in what was a broadcast-ready advertisement for the government’s approach.

The ACF was employed by the government as part of its Channel programme. Channel is paired with the controversial Prevent strategy, which requires teachers, doctors and social workers to report anyone showing signs of radicalisation.

But while Prevent casts a wide speculative net, Channel is supposed to stop genuinely threatening individuals from wanting to commit violence in the first place.

This is crucial: time and again the perpetrators of terrorist attacks are later found to have been on such watch-lists. Channel’s task is to intervene before it’s too late.

The government is confident it’s on the right track. Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary, published a report in June that reaffirmed his commitment to providing “theological and ideological advice” to anyone drawn to terrorism—a form of faith-based reprogramming Qadir specialised in at the ACF, designed to challenge what Theresa May calls “non-violent extremism.”

No one doubts it’s a serious problem: last year, the UK suffered four terrorist attacks, three jihadist and one far-right, which between them killed dozens. A proper de-radicalisation programme could make a real difference. But as I discovered over a year with Adam and Qadir, the BBC show didn’t tell the full story.

In person, Adam was difficult to dislike. He gelled his hair into spikes, as though he were in a 1990s boy band, and beamed at the slightest praise. He often asserted that he was “smart.” But even after going through the ACF’s programme, he still had the makings of a violent extremist. “You’re not scared of me, are you?” he often asked me.

Rather than a textbook success, as Qadir claimed, Adam’s story is of a flawed approach to de-radicalisation, which often does much more harm than good.

*** Adam had converted to Islam when he first came to the UK from Poland aged 19 to work in construction. For him revelation bordered on hallucination. At a party, he blacked out after his drink was spiked with methadone and dreamt a Muslim man was helping him up. Adam’s Muslim workmates gave him some books. “I was young, I wanna try new things,” Adam recalled. So he tried Islam. He found it helpful to be part of a community—there was usually someone at a mosque who could give him a bed for a few nights.

He went to Paris in 2014, where in a mosque he met some Tunisians with militant sympathies. They showed him jihadist videos of “training” and “fighting” in Syria. He stayed with them for a few months but struggled to find work and returned to London.

The videos were still on his mind when, after falling on hard times, he met someone who said he wanted to help: Hanif Qadir, of the ACF.

Based in Waltham Forest, a relatively poor borough in north-west London, the ACF’s youth centre is filled with sofas, pool tables and an enormous television; the walls are graffitied with words like “patience” and “peace.” Qadir’s nephews run the gym upstairs. Copies of the ACF magazine are prominently displayed; their headlines range from “How much ya benching?” to “10 Points Refuting ISIS.”

The ACF became well known in 2014 when Barack Obama praised an anti-Islamic State Twitter campaign—#NotInMyName—started by Qadir’s daughter, who also works at the organisation.

Qadir relishes his work. His glasses and salt-and-pepper beard are suggestive of a mosque uncle—but he also has a dash of Alan Partridge. His anecdotes take the form of sermonising tales in which he is ultimately proven right. He told the Home Office there would be an uprising in Syria in 2011. “People were laughing at me,” he said. Not any more, his expression implied.

The ACF began receiving government funding in 2007, and in 2015 May visited as Home Secretary. The ACF was soon lauded in a Downing Street press release. It became, said Qadir, “the showpiece for the government.”

Qadir first encountered Adam in August 2014 as a simple charity case. After a few days, Adam was put on a construction job, but when Qadir discovered that he had been sleeping at the building site, he said he could temporarily stay in the prayer room next to the family gym.

Adam caught the attention of the ACF’s counter-extremism effort when he was heard praising the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people. Qadir was worried: “I said, this guy—if he’s not careful he won’t end up in prison, he’ll end up in Guantanamo Bay.” But Adam was firm in his views.

Qadir offered Adam a deal. Adam had to delete the jihadist videos from his phone and, more importantly, he had to “go through the process of understanding Islam a lot better.” Qadir would become his religious instructor, teaching him the good, peaceful Islam that he—and the government—believed was the answer to his problems. In exchange, Qadir would find Adam proper housing and work. He would even get him circumcised—on Adam’s persistent request.

“I’ll help you,” Qadir promised.

*** Qadir referred Adam to the local Channel panel. Each panel includes representatives from the police, local government and social services. The panel agreed that Qadir should spend time with Adam, trying to correct his religious ideology. He would stay in the prayer room while the local authority searched for permanent housing and helped with job training.

For Qadir, faith is paramount in de-radicalisation—a process in which he was the active subject, and his mentees were the passive object. De-radicalisation was something he was doing to them.

And Qadir’s methods are government-blessed. The official line is that radicalisation occurs when vulnerable people come into contact with an infectious extremist ideology. De-radicalisation is the same process—but with a different ideology. Those succumbing to the extremist infection are inoculated with “true Islam” before any harm can be done.

Qadir is dedicated to the faith-based approach even though his own past flirtation with violence wasn’t ended by a religious change of heart. During the US invasion of Afghanistan in the early 2000s, he got involved with a group who told stories of noble martyrs fighting the US. In December 2002, he made his way to a camp run by Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader. But he was quickly disillusioned when he saw children being groomed for suicide bombings, and left after a week.

By Qadir’s own account it was disillusionment—not combative religious counselling—that saved him. Yet he grew frustrated as Adam failed to respond to his faith-based approach. He was baffled by Adam’s patchy religiosity—he didn’t join Friday prayers or fast in Ramadan. But Adam was uninterested in the parts of the faith that did not give a pious frame for his emotionally-charged opinions.

Adam was becoming an uncomfortable presence at the ACF. No housing materialised from the local authority, and no one on the Channel panel ever asked whether it was appropriate to house an extremist in a gym privately owned by their official de-radicalisation provider. Qadir began to resent Adam’s constant requests for money. Tensions rose after the BBC interview, which Adam claims Qadir forced him into. (On the other hand, Qadir claims Adam badgered him to go on television.)

Things came to a head in August 2015 after Qadir’s nephews said they had caught Adam masturbating in the prayer room. (Adam denies this.) Qadir finally snapped. “Get your stuff and get out now!’”

*** Adam’s account of his time at the ACF differs in crucial details. He says that the £10 per day he received was not charity but in exchange for odd jobs. The ACF says it encouraged Adam to be enterprising. But Adam allegedly took to urinating on the bathroom floor and then requesting money to clean it up. Qadir acknowledges that his nephews did give Adam a cleaning job for five hours a day, for which he was paid “about £200 or £300 every month,” which on either account works out less than the minimum wage.

Both Qadir and Adam were dishonest at times. What is clear is that Qadir’s de-radicalisation did Adam little good and possibly made things worse.

When I met Adam, he still had the same troubling extremist views he had declared to Qadir two years earlier. He told me that he still thought the Charlie Hebdo attack had been justified. I offered a few words on the history of figurative art in Islamic traditions. Adam brushed this aside. He wasn’t interested in religious history—only in seizing on ideas that helped give his anger political expression.

Whenever he reached for religion, politics was bubbling under the surface: “this life cannot hold you too much, even if you have everything, because it is temporary life innit? The people who drive Ferrari they fucked, you know what I mean?” I’d heard similar sentiments while interviewing girls who supported IS.

Adam was upset at his lack of money, stability and respect. He was tempted by utopian promises of a better life and black-and-white narratives that framed him as a victim and, potentially, a martyr. He was searching for something to give voice to his anger, and found jihadism.

He isn’t alone: less than 4 per cent of UK Muslims are converts, but they make up 12 per cent of domestic jihadis.

Ideologies, religious or not, are like plants that need the right soil to flourish. Weeding them out is only a short-term fix. In Adam’s case a violent religious ideology took root in his mind because of its extremism—and the promise of belonging and redemption it offered. Islam for its own sake did not hold his attention—and so the peaceful interpretations Qadir offered held no appeal.

The path away from violence didn’t lie in “correcting” his religious views. He needed someone to pay attention to his everyday problems.

*** John Horgan is a psychologist at Georgia State University who has spent decades interviewing former terrorists. He points out that there is no conclusive evidence that “ideological training” can make a reliable difference to de-radicalisation. After all, the paths to becoming a terrorist are diverse.

Personal ties often play a stronger role than ideology: the three girls from Bethnal Green who joined IS in early 2015 were following a schoolfriend who had left a few months earlier.

Horgan’s argument is backed up by other significant voices. Monica Lloyd is a former principal psychologist at the National Offender Management Service, who worked with convicted terrorists in the years after 7/7.

“The danger now,” says Lloyd, “with the government shifting to focus on the presence of extremist beliefs, is that… you could end up intervening in a way which actually provokes radicalisation rather than counters it.”

Lloyd says her work focused not on ideology but on urging terrorists to take responsibility for their choices. She notes that many are motivated by a sense of injustice. It was this sort of anger that spurred Qadir to Afghanistan in 2002. Lloyd encouraged terrorists to see how their actions undermined their own values.

Adam himself is an example of how a change in circumstances can also change someone’s mind. Over the course of a year, our conversations shifted in tone. He found permanent housing in late 2016, and then a job over Christmas. He had stable work and a place to live. He formulated plans for the future—some far-fetched but some sensible. He has gradually stopped asking whether I am scared of him.

As for Qadir, he no longer works for the government. His gender-segregated counter-extremism events received critical press coverage and the Home Office were not pleased. “They said to me: ‘At this point in time Mrs May doesn’t need any negative attention.’” Qadir’s religious approach had become too conservative for government-backed Islam.

Our clumsy approaches to de-radicalisation are plainly not working. Which leaves us with one question: how can we get it right?

*** Jama was 21 years old when he told his classmates they deserved to be stoned. He was in a religious studies class at his college in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city. Jama comes from a Somali family, and was one of the few non-white students in the class. Islam was on the agenda that week. Several students began trash-talking: “your religion is violent, it’s not human. You stone people, your religion is barbaric.”

Jama, a gangly teenager with cropped black hair, had never been good at biting his tongue: “You’re talking about stoning?” he shot back. “You deserve it. Your country is bombing our countries. That is barbaric.”

The next day the police visited his home. His classmates were worried he might be planning something dangerous and had reported him to the principal, who called the authorities. They also said he had bullied a classmate into wearing a headscarf. Jama denied this, but the allegation was taken as a troubling sign by police, who also noted he had recently gone on Hajj. Was he “ready to fight”? Jama panicked. “Oh shit,” he thought, “I’m going to Guantanamo now.”

The police went through his clothes, bedding and electronics. It was humiliating, but Jama was learning to stay silent. The police told him they might decide to press charges. He was too upset to attend college, and struggled to study for his exams. His mother was unwell and he stayed at home with her, brooding.

When the call came it was good news: he was no longer a suspect. But he had missed his exams—and wasn’t allowed to retake them. A few days later, his mother died of a heart attack.

“I was actually so angry,” Jama told me, “that I just wanted to die with her.” In a few short weeks, his life had dissolved.

Jama’s personal loss and his encounters with bigoted classmates were part of the soil in which an extreme ideology was able to take root. He began to feel that his individual troubles were part of a wider story: an eternal struggle between white Danes and non-white Muslims.

A few days after his mother died, Jama bumped into an old friend, also of Somali origins. Yusuf invited him to a flat where he and three Arab men held regular meetings. They listened sympathetically to Jama’s story and told him they felt “exactly the same way as you do.” Jama wondered if the group could be the “firm ground I needed.”

Some in the group were religiously conservative and others more liberal. But all disliked western democracy. “We believed that democracy was good for the white male elite but not good for the poor person and the Muslim, because we were treated badly,” Jama explained.

The group’s religious ideology was shaped by their political anger. They watched videos of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American ideologue popular among IS supporters. One video spoke to Jama “like a prophecy”: Awlaki cautioned his viewers that “the west will turn on the Muslims living in the west, therefore you must go to Muslim countries and defend them.”

*** Extremism expert Daniel Koehler describes radicalisation as a process of ideological “de-pluralisation”—a single narrative establishing a monopoly. This narrative need not be complex.

“Many people tend to misunderstand ‘ideology’ as ‘theology’ or as an intellectual system of thought. That’s rarely the case.” All problems are reduced to one problem. For a white extremist that problem might be immigration; for a jihadist, Muslim suffering in Syria.

Still, radicalisation does not necessarily lead to violence. A person might choose to become a vegan after undergoing much the same process. Alternative animal welfare ideas are crowded out. Alternative solutions seem inadequate, prompting the individual to take action on their diet. Only at the absolute fringes of the animal rights movement, however, does violence become an option.

Similarly, it is possible to believe strongly in extreme narratives of white decline or of a western conspiracy against Muslims without being tempted to violence. A vote for Ukip or Trump might let off sufficient steam for a white nationalist, as might emigration to a Muslim country for an Islamist.

With someone like Jama, the touchpaper question is whether they still feel non-violent solutions are viable. He sympathised with al-Awlaki’s ideas, but still felt a non-violent solution was best: to leave Denmark for Pakistan.

There is no way of knowing for certain which angry young person is going to commit violence: the vast majority will not. And wrongly accusing those who are innocent—as in Jama’s case—will often only make things worse.

*** But Jama was luckier than Adam. He was taken on by a counter-extremism programme with a very different philosophy to the UK’s. “The Aarhus model” is partly the work of Natascha Mannemar Jensen, Head of Social Services in the city. Jensen echoes de-radicalisation expert Daniel Koehler’s ideas.

“We encourage people to have strong political minds, strong religious minds,” she said. “The problem is when they want to use violence to solve a problem.” Jensen says their focus is on preventing violent acts—not extremist thoughts.

The Aarhus programme is built on a partnership between the city’s social services and police. For decades, the two have worked together to deal with troubled families and young people. They decide how to reach out to those they encounter by offering a mentor, or counselling, or help with housing. The programme’s first volunteer mentor was a lawyer named Hussein—and Jama became his first mentee.

Jama agreed to take part in the programme out of fear that he would get into more trouble if he didn’t. The first time he met Hussein, Jama insisted on searching him “for hidden microphones, hidden cameras.” Hussein waited patiently as Jama patted him down. He understood his wariness: “Why should he trust me?” Hussein asked himself.

Hussein, a middle-class professional in his thirties, had an ability Jama lacked—he knew how to approach people who didn’t want to listen to him. “He wasn’t aggressive, you know,” Jama remembers. “He was cool. He was kind. He didn’t give up—always called me, picked me up from my home to hang out with me.”

Hussein had an air of quiet confidence that made him easy to confide in. Most of the time he and Jama just ate and talked. Three months passed like this. Hussein allowed Jama to guide their conversations without pushing his own views. Hussein described these months as the “trust period.” The approach is common, according to other Aarhus mentors I interviewed.

As Jama became comfortable, he began to talk about why he disliked Danish democracy. “He didn’t talk about halal food or praying,” says Hussein—but he used religious ideas and rhetoric to make sense of his struggle to belong.

Jama presented Hussein with the idea that Islam was incompatible with Danish democracy and society—as a way of describing his feeling that he had no place in Denmark.

“The only reason people reject a society is if the society is not working for them like it is working for other people,” Jama told me. In return, Hussein tried to empathise. He did not deny Jama’s feelings, or belittle his religious ideas.

Hussein agreed that his mentee was not wrong to feel marginalised. But he tried to present Jama with alternative ways of viewing his difficulties. The challenge of being a practising Muslim in Denmark, Hussein suggested, was part of its appeal. “When you are in the west things are harder—you don’t hear the call to prayer, you have to remember by yourself. That’s more valuable to Allah.”

It was the same when it came to social marginalisation, Hussein argued. Jama had a responsibility to show the world there is a place for Muslims in Denmark.

Hussein talked about religion with Jama; but he didn’t try to correct his religious beliefs. Instead, he focused on the sense of alienation underpinning Jama’s religious convictions. When Jama said he could not picture himself finishing his education or finding a good job in Denmark, Hussein assisted him with his studies, helped him to plan his career and find work.

Six months after they had first met, Jama cut off contact with the angry young men who wanted to leave for Pakistan. Two years on, he found work as a financial controller for the local municipality. Hussein was there when Jama got married. Only then—after several years of support—was Jama finally able to envision a successful future in Denmark.

The mentors are trained by a professor of psychology at the University of Aarhus, Preben Bertelsen. The training provides a loose structure from which the mentors can improvise. One mentor told me that it was important to focus on positive aspirations. The idea is to encourage the mentees to set goals and help them fulfil them.

The result, ideally, is a young person who feels like there is a valuable place for him or her in Danish society.

*** It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of such programmes. It is, for example, impossible to know whether Jama would have engaged in violence without Hussein’s help—although three of the men from his group he hung out with at the flat did eventually travel to Syria to defend, in their minds, Muslims under attack from Bashar al-Assad.

But we can extract a few lessons. Every single psychologist and practitioner I spoke to argued that each case needs to be dealt with on its own terms. Adam’s unstable personal life and financial difficulties stoked his anger; but in Jama’s case racism played a bigger role.

The other key lesson is that programmes that are well built—with well-trained staff, good resources and strong oversight—have a better chance of making a difference. Long-term programmes are more effective as building trust takes time.

The small-scale Aarhus model has the kind of flexibility and professionalism that is lacking in the UK’s Channel programme. Jama certainly thinks it has changed his life for the better.

“I’m happy today that I left that group,” he says. “I’m grateful for what Hussein did for me.”

Jama was drawn to extreme ideas in part because of “problems with assimilation, integration, identity,” as Hussein put it. Jensen agrees that feelings of ethnic-minority marginalisation often play a part. This is not the same thing as poor integration.

“A lot of the people we deal with… go to school or university, speak fluent Danish, are involved in Danish culture. But then, when we talk to them, they have this feeling of being excluded.”

A great deal of Hussein’s time with Jama was spent coaching him in diplomatic ways to deal calmly with anti-Muslim prejudice or racism. “I say: ‘I have been here for 20 years. I live here, I work here. Please. You can’t piss me off.’” He has learned to take responsibility for other people’s reactions towards him. “I need to… show them that Muslims—coloured people—can have a nice life too.”

Hussein explains that rejecting a sense of victimhood is what has enabled him to thrive in Danish society. And his approach has done plenty for Jama. But I wonder whether it was fair to put all the onus on Jama to change.

No doubt from the bureaucrat’s desk that looks like the easier solution, in comparison with asking the dominant majority to change their attitudes to minorities. But it means the political problem of discrimination is being reframed as a personal problem—of individual kids from disadvantaged communities who just need to learn to take a deep breath and count to 10.

I asked Hussein about the kids who had turned on Jama at school. Had the programme worked with them? Hussein shook his head. “You cannot come to another country and say: ‘this is how I want it to be, we are equal now.’ You have to struggle.”

I pointed out to Hussein that Jama had been raised in Denmark, just as I had been raised in Britain. Why shouldn’t we feel entitled to equal respect?

“That’s because you think that you already are part of these countries,” Hussein said. “Your parents and grandparents who came here did their best but their limit was to get a salary, come home with food. We have to get one step higher.”

Part of the problem with Jama was that he expected to belong in Denmark in the same way his white peers did. He was well integrated, spoke the language and wore the garb of his home comfortably. The problem was not that he did not belong enough—but that he assumed he belonged already.

Like many other young extremists, he did not initially recognise himself as an alien in the west—rather he expected to find respect, equality and acceptance without having to struggle for it, or to prove himself to be as worthy of it as native Danes.

Only by teaching his mentees to feel a little less like they belonged in Denmark, could Hussein teach Jama to act as an “ambassador” to those who looked down on him. Jama’s sense of already belonging needed to be unpicked.

Hussein was right. One reason why IS was so effective in luring young westerners was that its propaganda made the same point—Muslims are not entirely welcome in the west, and do not entirely belong. Jama described how liberal affirmations of equality only frustrated him more.

“Every time we turned on the television it confirmed the hypocrisy, you know: ‘we are against racists—but we hate Muslims.’” (Denmark has recently legislated to ban face veils, and its immigration minister claimed Muslims shouldn’t work during Ramadan, as fasting made them “a danger to all of us.”) Hussein didn’t deny Jama faced problems, but tried to teach him how to cope with them.

Even the best programmes, such as the Aarhus model, can only do so much by weeding out dangerous individuals on a case-by-case basis. While the UK would be well advised to draw some lessons from Denmark to correct its own dysfunctional programmes, this isn’t enough.

Until we look at the deeper causes of alienation, cases such as Adam’s and Jama’s will keep coming up. This will involve the difficult task of appraising how our society has allowed some of its citizens to get so far off track. Javid’s report speaks of the problem of “isolated communities.”

But most of those drawn to extremism have been well integrated into mainstream society; yet their sense of exclusion persists and they find ready-made answers in extremism.

For as long as the soil remains the same, it will continue to produce more weeds until something fundamental changes, deep down in the earth.

Some names have been changed.