Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement
by Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan eds.
(London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 308 pp.

Reviewed by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Ph.D. Candidate at the Catholic University of America

Though its chapters are somewhat uneven, Leaving Terrorism Behind makes a valuable contribution to the study of terrorist deradicalization and disengagement. The volume’s most significant contribution is providing a comparative review of disengagement programs and processes related to a variety of movements, including the racialist right, left-wing and nationalist terror groups, and jihadi groups. This broad approach helps to overcome one of the field’s major shortcomings. As Audrey Kurth Cronin observes in her chapter, “a crippling aspect to research on terrorism is the applied nature of much of it; analysts willing to examine more than one group or broader, non-contemporary, conceptual questions are rare.” (p. 50) Indeed, researchers grappling with the question of jihadi disengagement will find it useful to study the demobilization of Colombia’s Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) as a point of comparison.

There are, however, inherent limitations to the scope of research that can be undertaken into efforts at encouraging terrorist disengagement, due to a limited data set. The book frankly acknowledges this: in the conclusion, Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan write that “we lack the necessary data to test whether the various programmes are actually effective (and if so, why?) as most governments and organizations running such programmes are only releasing the data they consider convenient to make public.” (p. 245) They thus state that the volume should be viewed primarily “as a starting point to gain systematic and comparative knowledge about the process of disengagement and the various programmes to facilitate these processes.” (p. 245)

Despite the volume’s overall merit, some of the chapters on Islamist terrorist rehabilitation are hampered by a common weakness that pervades much of the research related to terrorist disengagement: an inability or refusal to seriously incorporate terrorist ideology into scholarly analysis. The chapter on Yemen, co-authored by Christopher Boucek, Shazadi Beg, and John Horgan, does acknowledge that “jihadis have a value system and all terrorist operations are founded on an ideology.” (p. 192) For this reason they see the Yemeni program, based around religious dialogue with imprisoned militants, as a valuable step. (In contrast, most researchers regard it as a failure). Yemeni Supreme Court Justice Hamoud al-Hitar, a member of Yemen’s Committee on Religious Dialogue, explained the method of dialogue with militants: “We tell them, if you are right we will follow you, but if what we are saying is right, you have to admit it and follow us.” (p. 185) But having established the importance of religious ideology, the chapter uncritically repeats a false theological claim: “Judge al-Hitar has made it clear that there is only one verse in the Qur’an that permits Muslims to fight non-believers as an act of self-defence against oppression.” (p. 191) Those with even a cursory knowledge of the Qur’an will know that there is more than just a single verse dealing with warfare against nonbelievers.[1]

Likewise, Christopher Boucek’s chapter on Saudi Arabia leaves some deep ideological questions unanswered. The Saudi program is more comprehensive than Yemen’s, drawing in prisoners’ families and providing post-release support “in locating jobs and other benefits, including additional government stipends, cars and apartments.” (p. 216) However, changing participants’ religious ideology is still central to this program: its assumption is that participants were misled by extremists and thus strayed from “true Islam.” (p. 215) A critical part of the Saudi project is a Counseling Program that tries to “correct” misunderstandings of the faith “by reintroducing and reinforcing the official state version of Islam.”

Those familiar with the Saudi version of Islam, Wahhabism, will understand why this explanation of the program raises more questions than it answers. Wahhabism is known, in general, for its militancy and its intolerance of other religious practices. This raises the question of whether the ideological component of the Saudi program will have the effect that Westerners hope, or whether it is more likely to produce a high rate of recidivism.

In light of a number of prominent cases of recidivism from the Saudi program, it is now viewed more critically by many analysts than when Leaving Terrorism Behind was published. The point, though, is not that Saudi Arabia’s program should be either condemned or lauded. Rather, it is that when terrorist disengagement programs possess a heavy ideological component, analyses that ignore terrorist ideology or give it only a superficial treatment will miss out on a large part of the picture.

Leaving Terrorism Behind is thus what its editors hoped it would be: a strong starting point for examining the process of terrorism disengagement. That starting point reflects both the strengths and also some of the blind spots of current work in the field.

[1] See, for example, verses 2:190, 9:29, 22:39, 47:4.