Reality Check: Do deradicalization centres work?

Islamic State militants stand with a captured Iraqi Army Humvee at a checkpoint outside Beiji refinery, some 250 kilometers north of Baghdad, Iraq. AP Photo

The Canadian Council of Imams announced earlier this week it intends to open “deradicalization clinics” in Toronto to help community members at risk of being attracted to violent extremism, and eventually terrorism.

But do they work? Experts say while deradicalization programs have taken a number of different forms around the world there hasn’t been enough research done to say one way or the other.

The planned Toronto clinics will be a grass-roots approach combined with mental health professionals.

“The idea is to get experts from every field stationed at these specific clinics and address the issues faced by these youth or the general community,” said Toronto Imam Yusuf Badat. “We have a panel of trained Islamic theologians, who are clerics and scholars in Islam, who would be able to decipher if a person has misunderstanding of the source texts.”

Badat said the council is planning three clinics in the Toronto area; one in the city’s west, another in the east end and one central location. He hopes the centres can open within six months.

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Canada, like Europe and the U.S., has grappled with a growing problem of individuals who have fallen under the influence of extremist ideology.

READ MORE: More Canadians joining ISIS, according to public safety minister

A February report from Canada’s spy agencies found 180 Canadians who are engaged with terrorist organizations overseas. Another 60 have returned home.

Badat said the centre would identify at risk individuals by relying on reports from Imams in the community and concerned family members.

To combat the threat of homegrown terrorism the council has also partnered with mental health workers and psychologist in a proactive approach.

“Where they need to intervene we would get them in to assist us in the process of deradicalization,” he said. “It’s about counseling.”

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But do these so-called deradicalization centres work?

The experts don’t know.

“The honest answer to that is we don’t know,” said University of Waterloo terrorism expert Lorne Dawson, co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society.

There just hasn’t been enough research done looking at the success rates of these programs.

“There hasn’t been any overarching evaluation,” he said.

Dawson points to two well-known deradicalization programs in Aarhus, Denmark and Saudi Arabia which have a long running problem with jihadist militants.

In Denmark, for example, deprogrammers focus on the reintegration of young people who want to join extremist groups or those returning from fighting abroad. Rather than threatening arrest Danish authorities provide the would-be fighters with finding work, housing, or help finishing school.

De-radicalization centres around the world

An image of Somali-Canadian Farah Mohamed Shirdon of Calgary pictured in an ISIS video taken in April 2014 (YouTube). Islamic State propaganda/Via YouTube

Deradicalization programs are part of a growing trend in cities around the world that aim to combat the seeds of violent ideologies, particularly radical Islam, from taking hold in their communities.

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Countries like Denmark, the U.K., and Saudi Arabia already have well-established programs said Dawson, who studies the issue of foreign fighters.

Some Canadian cities too have programs, including Calgary and Montreal. The latter has been held up as a model for other cities, and includes a 24/7 hotline for anyone concerned that a family member, a peer at school or colleague may be displaying radical sympathies.

Rehabilitating militants

Click to play video 'More Canadians joining ISIS: Goodale' More Canadians joining ISIS: Goodale
More Canadians joining ISIS: Goodale – Mar 13, 2016

The program Saudi Arabia created in 2004 aims to rehabilitate jihadis forcing them into a program that focuses on religious re-education, said Dawson

“It’s a program that is the least likely to be emulated,” he said. “It’s like a spa or a ranch facility. It’s very comfortable and nice. They provide counseling and therapy. They force the individual to go through a program, like you would an alcoholic or drug addict.”

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READ MORE: Canadians reportedly listed in trove of Islamic State ID files

Saudi deprogrammers attempt to convice extremists they have misinterpreted the true teachings of Islam and reach out to their families to build a support network.

“Once you graduate they supply with money for a house, they try and get you a job, they supply you with an income,” said Lorne. “It’s only something Saudi Arabia could afford to do, and even with all of that there is one catch. They have never publicly announced or allowed anyone to access any reliable figures about the success rates.”

Dawson acknowledged that while the Saudi program has had some success – but there has been some “spectacular failures.”

“What we do know is that a number of their more celebrated graduates have gone on to become members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” he said.

However, Dawson says while the success of deradicalization is hard to measure the best way to combat it is to confront young people as soon as they begin flirting with radical thought.

“Make them aware of the seriousness of the situation they are entertaining,” he said. “Bring into play as early as possible someone that will find credible that they can debate with, talk with, go through the ideas that are stimulating them.

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“The ideal would be for them to talk with someone who has been there, some other person who has radicalized saw the error of their ways and then deradicalized.”