U.S. Deradicalization Needs Trump Simplistic Approaches to Jihadi Dilemmas

Dorle Hellmuth

The Catholic University of America

Dr. Hellmuth is Associate Professor of Politics at The Catholic University of America and serves as the academic director of the politics department’s parliamentary internship programs in Europe. Her book, Counterterrorism and the State (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), analyzes post-911 counterterrorism decision-making and responses in the United States, Germany, Great Britain, and France. Professor Hellmuth has briefed members of parliament, law enforcement, and government representatives on counterterrorism, national security, and defense issues. She is a non-resident fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and serves as a fellow at the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS). Her research and teaching covers world politics, particularly the study of transatlantic security, counterterrorism, counterradicalization, homeland security, European and general comparative politics, and American foreign policy. Professor Hellmuth has held appointments as Assistant Professor at American University’s School of International Service and as a Research Fellow at the National War College, National Defense University. She has been awarded fellowships and grants from the Earhart Foundation, the Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy, the Embassy of France, and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

She is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

In mid-November 2016, Minnesota U.S. District Judge Mike Davis handed down sentences to nine defendants, all young Somali-Americans from Minneapolis, who earlier this year were convicted of supporting ISIL. Davis’ convictions were unprecedented in terms of their leniency: The sentences involved counseling and treatment, reduced prison time, and supervised release. Having evaluated the defendants’ potential to be deradicalized (and thus free themselves of violent Jihadi thoughts and/or behavior), Judge Davis formulated his opinions based on the advice of German deradicalization expert, Daniel Koehler. Trained in family counseling, Koehler leads the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies in Berlin and conducted risk and rehabilitation assessments of the Minnesotan defendants.

This extraordinary case of German-U.S. cooperation also led to the creation of a pioneering “Terrorism Disengagement and Deradicalization Program” in Minnesota.  While more of these types of measures are urgently needed in the United States, it seems unlikely that President-elect Donald Trump will embrace this path.

Judge Davis’ actions are all the more remarkable considering that Americans convicted of aiding ISIL have received harsh prison sentences of up to thrity-five years since 2013. This is in line with the security-centric approach to countering violent extremism in the United States, one that focuses on repressive and judicial measures and is facilitated by potent counterterrorism tools. Those suspected of lending material support to Jihadist causes are prosecuted or else put under surveillance and arrested at a later point, often by means of sting operations.

Moreover, there has been a tendency to attribute Jihadi radicalization to non-American factors: dangerous influences and people coming from outside the United States. There is a tremendous focus on online radicalization, shifting the focus on faraway offshore recruiters. In terms of policy responses, there has been a large emphasis on externalizing terrorist threats. In the aftermath of the November 2015 Paris attacks, the U.S. Congress thus voted to tighten the visa waiver program and considered ways to keep Syrian refugees, considered potential ISIL sleeper cells, out of the country. Likewise, the 9/11, Madrid, and London attacks served as justifications for stricter border security initiatives designed to keep out “bad” people and goods.

Against this backdrop, it’s not surprising that the United States got a late start to preventive counterradicalization. “Softer” deradicalization measures, intended to help and rehabilitate those who have become infected with the Jihadi virus, remain on the backburner. However, they play a prominent role in many European states, including Germany. Over the past seven years, the Federal Republic has made a concerted effort to prevent violent Jihadi radicalization in the first place and also deradicalize individuals who have started embracing violent ideas and/or actions. In addition to traditional security measures designed to monitor Jihadi extremists or put them behind bars, German authorities have been looking to assist and reintegrate individuals via family-assisted counseling, phone hotlines, targeted interventions, and exit programs.

The German response to Jihadi radicalization thus combines “hard” security and “soft” assistance measures as well as public and private institutions.  The distinctly balanced approach allows for a variety of options in dealing with Jihadi extremists, who are not alike and range from confused teenagers—in search of identity, belonging, and adventure—to devout and hardened Islamists.

Convinced that lengthy prison sentences do not address the problem of violent extremism (and arguably risk hardening extremist beliefs), Judge Davis tackled the deradicalization vacuum in Minnesota with the help of German practices. His path breaking approach is commendable and should be expanded, as young people inside the U.S. are not devoid of identity crises or the search for belonging and adventure, and equally vulnerable to Jihadi rhetoric. By contrast, President-elect Trump has emphasized a law and order approach and the need to register Muslim immigrants, or even ban them from entering the United States—going beyond existing security-centric methods and “external threat” narratives.

Islamist radicalization is not just about external factors. There are no silver bullets to the problem of violent extremism. The Trump administration would be well advised to adopt a more multifaceted focus, build on existing counterradicalization strategies, and consider deradicalization options of the kind started by Judge Davis in Minnesota.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.