The Deradicalization Dilemma

Armed police at London Bridge responding to multiple stabbings by Usman Khan, a paroled and ‘deradicalized’ terrorist, on November 29, 2019. Photo Credit: Dominic Lipinski/AP.

London’s recent knife attacks highlight the challenges of current deradicalization programs. On November 29, 2019, Usman Khan stabbed to death two practitioners at an event near London Bridge that was celebrating his deradicalization. Just two months later, Sudesh Amman carried out a similar knife attack in London, having undergone a deradicalization program in prison as well. In response, the British Government has argued for longer prison sentences for extremists, suggesting that longer imprisonment will improve deradicalization outcomes. However, longer sentences will merely extend release dates and will likely make imprisoned individuals more frustrated, angry, and inclined to violence. Part of the problem is the way we conceptualize radicalization and deradicalization; we are using old models to confront new problems. It is vital to transcend this deradicalization dilemma with a humane strategy for convicted extremists that does not force them to embrace mainstream beliefs and instead encourages them to adopt a less dichotomous and more harmonious worldview.


In order to grasp what deradicalization is, we must first have a clearer picture of what radicalization means. Radicalization is difficult to define because of the mystical properties ascribed to it by governments. Frank Furedi, an eminent sociologist, argues that governments’ portrayal of the “r-word” usually has a “fantasy-like character,” which makes young Muslims’ isolation from society sound very much like a “psychological virus.”[1] In the UK, for instance, radicalization is understood in terms of “alienation” and “estrangement,” with the former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, stating that the young are particularly susceptible to being “targeted, groomed, radicalized and set on a path that frighteningly quickly could end…in [the] mass murder of…UK citizens.”[2]

Furedi argues that such “dramatic framing” makes radicalization seem like an illness, something vulnerable people fall prey to—when in fact there is much confidence involved in the process. Moreover, these individuals frequently are the ones who actively seek out radical online networks.[3] The media furthers the government’s narrative, labeling girls who join the Islamic State as “brainwashed jihadist brides,” preventing a clear definition of radicalization from emerging. Such labels oversimplify the process of radicalization and treat it like a form of brainwashing. Indeed, it is not dissimilar to the ways that leaders explained the communist threat during the Cold War.[4] This characterization is dangerous since it greatly undermines our ability to accurately define the process, as we are left with radically-inclined individuals being perceived as brainwashed victims or evil villains—further entangling our understanding.

Radicalization is thrown around a lot and used by many people without a clear definition or delineation of what it means. Indeed, Sageman, Borum, and Horgan all highlight the importance of explicating the “turn to violence,” as in order to define radicalization, extremist convictions with peaceful socio-political means need to be distinguished from darker, violent intent.[5] It is difficult to know where to draw the line between violent radicalization and a more peaceful radicalization or activism. Within Sageman’s “developmental” or “pathway” approach, both peaceful and violent agendas can be acknowledged, as radicalization is viewed not as “the product of a single decision but the end result of a dialectical process that gradually pushes an individual toward a commitment to violence over time.”[6]

Historical Pathologies of Counter-Radicalization

There is a historical pathology embedded within the ways we tend to conceptualize radicalization and responses to it that we must overcome. During the Cold War, the West equated radicalization with communist brainwashing, an illness that was spreading and needed to be contained. Indeed, George F. Kennan’s Containment Strategy (1947) framed communism as radicalization, spreading like a parasite: a dangerous and paranoid “other,” and an illness that could contaminate people.[7] A diagnosis to the problem of defining radicalization is, thus, halted by the variety and inconsistencies littered within historical conceptualizations.

These conceptual challenges extend to Prevent, the British Government’s counter-radicalization program, which is part of its wider CONTEST counterterrorism strategy. A major component of this effort is the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU). The unit was inspired by a Cold War propaganda program but, while the Cold War offensive targeted communism in developing countries, current operations are aimed at Muslims.[8] These “strategic communications” are meant to “effect behavioral and attitudinal change.”[9] RICU uses YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook as well as traditional propaganda methods, such as feeding specific stories to newspapers. It is said to have three divisions: a monitoring team to study digital as well as traditional media, an analysis team to research reactions of audiences, and a domestic and international campaigns team to deliver the covert propaganda. It also uses targeted ad campaigns that analyze people’s browsing history to determine whether they are Muslim. After strong backlash, RICU issued a statement saying it was simply working to counter the “twisted narrative” terrorists espouse. 

A re-run of the strategy of containment only serves to further isolate individuals and communities at large, making them more susceptible to extremism as a way to escape the suffocating image placed upon them by society. They want to discard Western society and hold onto a better worldview but, unlike communism, religious and cultural factors make it a very different problem. Simply targeting individuals online with counter-messaging techniques will arguably not have the best results. Countering radicalization should be understood as a human endeavor. Reaching out to people is useless if the perceived injustices remain ingrained within their everyday lives.

Is Deradicalization Radicalizing Individuals?

On November 29, 2019, the problems with deradicalization programs fully came to light. On that day, Usman Khan, a recently paroled terrorist, attended a conference in London on the rehabilitation of violent offenders. He was wearing a fake suicide vest and proceeded to stab conference attendees, killing two practitioners, before being shot dead by the police. During his time in custody, Khan had completed the Healthy Identity Intervention Program, which later became the UK’s principal rehabilitation scheme for terrorism convicts. Following his release, Khan participated in the Desistance and Disengagement Program, which is designed to address the causes of terrorism.[10] He was considered a “success story” for the Cambridge University rehabilitation program, Learning Together, and was ominously featured as a case study. The two individuals that Khan stabbed to death were the very Cambridge University program volunteers who had helped him and considered him a deradicalization success.

Tracing Usman Khan’s background is key to understanding his actions. Khan dropped out of school and became a community organizer, putting together a sharia law conference in 2009. He became a supporter of al-Muhajiroun and was inspired by al-Qaeda. He visited Pakistan and on his return was arrested in 2010 with eight other men, who all pleaded guilty to a string of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism offenses, which spanned plots to bomb the Houses of Parliament to the U.S. Embassy in London.[11] Khan received an indeterminate sentence in 2012. At sentencing, the judge said that Khan and his Stoke-on-Trent associates were “more serious jihadis: who operated “at a higher level of efficacy and commitment” than the other six convicts.[12] Under the indeterminate sentence, Khan would have remained in prison for as long as necessary. However, along with Nazam Hussain and Mohammed Shahjahan, Khan appealed against the sentences and had the indeterminate sentences dropped by the Court of Appeal in 2013.

Almost mirroring Khan’s attack, on February 2, 2020, a man wearing a fake explosive device stabbed two people before he was shot dead by police officers. The assailant, Sudesh Amman, 20, had been recently released from prison where he served a sentence for Islamist-related terrorism offenses. He had expressed support for Islamist terrorism and shared Islamic State and al-Qaeda propaganda with his family and on social media.[13] Amman pled guilty in 2018 to charges of possessing terrorist documents and disseminating terrorist publications. Armed officers, as part of a counterterrorism surveillance operation, were following Amman on foot when the attack began. The police shot him dead at the scene. “A Freed Terrorist Strikes Again,” was etched on the Daily Telegraph and “Terror attacker freed from jail and on police watchlist,” was splashed on the headline of the Guardian.[14] Just like Usman Khan, Sudesh Amman had also been a part of conventional deradicalization programs in prison. 

These stabbing sprees affirmed the challenges of deradicalization. The British Government, as a result, has proposed extending the prison terms for terrorism-related offenses. Instead of being released halfway through their sentences, as is customary for offenders in Britain, terrorism convicts would be forced to serve at least two-thirds of their terms.[15] Moreover, they would only be released with the agreement of a parole board. This would, however, not only erode human rights but more importantly would further radicalize offenders. Painting these individuals as crazed and sick individuals does not make them more inclined to embrace a more mainstream ideology.

Diluting the Deradicalization Dilemma

We must seek a way out of this semantic confusion and come up with new pathways to escape the radicalization spiral. A more humane approach is necessary to organically attract individuals rather than alienating them further with draconian measures. Sudesh Amman’s mother, Haleema Khan, reveals that her son’s extremism intensified at Belmarsh, a high-security prison that houses terrorist convicts and has been dubbed a “jihadi training camp.”[16] She stated that “he became more religious inside prison, that’s where I think he became radicalized.”[17] This suggests that within prisons young men are being groomed to carry out attacks. The two attacks by Amman and Khan may very well have been connected or Khan could have simply inspired Amman to carry out a strikingly similar attack. If the former is the case, then longer prison terms could make sense in the short-term until these internal issues are resolved but should not become the norm.

Draconian lengthening of sentences misses the point in the long-term, however, since it is the prison’s eco-system that sharpens extremist mindsets. This is particularly problematic since many individuals are imprisoned for only possession of terrorist material and are non-violent. Consequently, living amongst individuals with similar or more extremist mindsets enables non-violent offenders to share information, form criminal networks, and gain the motivation and courage to commit violent acts. Additionally, placing terrorism convicts in the same prisons as organized criminal gangs gives them ample access to an array of weapons after their release, which may even inspire them to use different tactics and techniques than they were previously privy to. Furthermore, release is inevitable in most cases—so keeping offenders locked up for longer is not the solution. This will only make their radical mindset more fervent and embolden them to commit violent acts on a larger-scale.

Recommendation #1: Pursue Disengagement not Deradicalization

Disengagement is the first vital step toward any ‘normalization’ of an individual’s world view. The first step to counter ideologically-driven violent acts is to have a more humane strategy that is not going to further alienate individuals that are on the fringes of society. Radicalization has to be framed differently: at the moment it is impersonal and too broad to have any concrete meaning. Moreover, it is clear that the prison system needs to be reformed, and this is not just a British problem. These individuals are not black boxes: they interact and share their feelings. Being locked up with nothing exciting or particularly productive to do, surrounded by extremists, will clearly fuel more resentment and in-group mentality which caters to anger and violence.

Within society at large in the UK, there needs to be an inherent effort to confront the geographical problem of Muslim ghettoization, preventing hub groups from forming—it is the isolation, that is maximized within the vacuum of a prison that further alienates the individual from society. Special programs not entitled deradicalization, but rather encompassing a variety of different individuals and normal activities—like yoga, board games, and art classes—should be promoted. Countering an ideology by forcing another is not going to be fruitful. Therefore, disengagement rather than deradicalization should be prioritized.

Recommendation #2: Reconceptualize (De)Radicalization as a Pathway, not an Illness

Individuals have to come to embrace the ‘norm’ without being pushed to do so. It is important to help bring about a more peaceful narrative not only online but also in the human terrain. The virtual world is important, but it is simply a window to a mirrored world—what happens in our actual world is arguably more significant. It is simply ineffective to counter-message or eradicate communication online, if in the concrete world an individual is reading books, journals and speaking to others who think just like them.

Rebranding the term ‘deradicalization’ to something more neutral and more interactive is essential to solve this growing security concern. Approaching radicalization as a path or journey of self-discovery can perhaps be more useful and cater to a better understanding of the normal ways an individual can intentionally or unintentionally embrace a greater ideology that makes them feel more whole and gives them hope. Shattering their dream-like narrative with ‘deradicalization’ programs is as counterproductive as telling a teenager not to go out and drink with friends. There is a need to create programs that bring everyone from all parts of the country together to create new opportunities, such as playing sports or watching movies—to form connections with different perspectives and embrace the ‘norm’ without being pushed overtly by governmental actors.

Teamwork and coordination are important, as this is a long-term problem that should be addressed accordingly. Reintegrating into society and forming a new identity are the most important aspects to focus on, as even though an individual is disengaged, they are never out of the loop until they have a stable environment, a job, and a new social network with which to interact. Radical ideology enables individuals to channel their grievance; finding something positive to replace it is the key to success.


[1] Frank Furedi, “Muslim Alienation in the UK? Blame the Israelis,” Spiked, February 9, 2009,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Barbara Ellen, “Pointless death of this brainwashed teenage bride,” The Guardian, August 13, 2016,

[5] Ibid, 883; see also John Horgan, “From Profiles to Pathways and Roots to Routes:  Perspectives from Psychology on Radicalization in to Terrorism,” Annals of the American Academy 618, no.1 (2008) and Randy Borum, “Radicalization into Violent Extremism II: A Review of Conceptual Models and Empirical Research,” Journal of Strategic Security 4, no.4 (2011). 

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] George Kennan, “Long Telegram,” GW National Security Archive, February 1946,

[8] Ian Cobain, Alice Ross, Rob Evans and Mona Mahmood, “Inside Ricu, the shadowy propaganda unit inspired by the cold war,” The Guardian, May 2, 2016, 2016/may/02/inside-ricu-the-shadowy-propaganda-unit-inspired-by-the-cold-war.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Danny Shaw, “London Bridge: Usama Khan completed untested rehabilitation scheme,” BBC News, December 4, 2019,

[11] Caroline Gammell, “Christmas bomb plot: nine men remanded over plan to ‘blow up Big Ben and Westminster Abbey,” The Telegraph, December 27, 2010, /uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/8227193/Christmas-bomb-plot-nine-men-remanded-over-plan-to-blow-up-Big-Ben-and-Westminster-Abbey.html.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Benjamin Mueller, “London Stabbing Prompts Questions on Policies for Terrorism Convictions,” The New York Times, February 3, 2020,

[14] William Booth and Karla Adam, “London stabbing suspect was recently released from prison, police say,” The Washington Post, February 2, 2020, /london-police-shoot-man-dead-in-terrorist-related-stabbing-attack/2020/02/02/c64e56fa-45db-11ea-ab15-b5df3261b710_story.html.

[15] Benjamin Mueller, “London Stabbing Prompts Questions.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

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