PENN STATE (US)—Understanding why people leave terrorism may be more important than knowing why they became terrorists in the first place, according a new book.

The information could help counterterrorist agencies discredit militant outfits and prevent them from attracting fresh recruits.

“The key issue here is that we need to pay more attention to the disengagement process because former terrorists are willing to speak about their experiences,” explains John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State.

“We need to identify those lessons, showcase them, and use them to combat the imagery, myths, and credibility of the terrorist movements.”

In a new book, Walking Away From Terrorism, Horgan argues that understanding how a terrorist becomes gradually disillusioned and ultimately abandons terrorism could be crucial to stemming recruitment to terrorism.

“Just as there is a flow of recruits into a terrorist organization, there is also a number of recruits who leave or disengage,” he says. “But there is practically no academic research on this process of disengagement from terrorism.”

Horgan interviewed former terrorists from around the world to learn how, why, and when a person disengages from terrorism.

“I really wanted to understand the process of disengagement, not deradicalization,” explains Horgan. “Disengagement is the process where people move away from the terrorist group, but they may or may not necessarily be deradicalized.”

While many people become radicalized for one reason or another, they do not necessarily become terrorists, Horgan says.

His book focuses on people who become radicalized and then join a terrorist organization. Despite the complexities involved in studying terrorism, there are clear patterns that could help devise a strategy for intervention.

For instance, many people join terrorist groups sensing a higher social status, camaraderie, and excitement at being part of a particular movement. But after joining, they realize they don’t call the shots and don’t necessarily get to do what they want.

“They may realize that it is a lot more stressful than they originally thought,” says Horgan. “Or they may realize that it is a lot more boring than they originally thought. Remember, nobody is a full-time terrorist.”

Disillusionment may also set in when a terrorist realizes, for instance, that superiors have unattractive personal qualities, indulge in petty thievery, or knowingly target innocent civilians.

Because terrorist groups rely on “street cred” and imagery to lure young children, publicizing these disillusionments could have enormous preventive implications.

“We are not trying to say it is wrong to have radical views; we are more interested in blocking off that attraction of one particular avenue for people who are radicalized,” Horgan adds.

Currently, there are a number of fledgling programs around the world trying to get terrorists to disengage, but Horgan cautions that it could be a mistake to lump them all together because each program is specific to a certain region. What works in one area is not necessarily going to succeed elsewhere.

In Colombia, for instance, the government has launched an innovative initiative to create an exit pathway from the FARC paramilitary group. When individuals lay down their arms, they receive reduced prison sentences, and are helped in finding a job and becoming a part of society.

Such initiatives could be as slow and idiosyncratic as an initial move, but may offer opportunities for checking terrorism.

“There is potential for tension in the promotion of disengagement initiatives, given renewed arguments that terrorism is not a problem that has a military solution,” explains Horgan.

“But greater knowledge of the disengagement process could play a critical first step in future solutions.”

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