Guest Article: Terrorist Disengagement, Part 1: Some Unresolved Questions

Hadelin Feront
Head of the Countering Violent Extremism Unit,
City of Brussels


Hadelin Feront heads the City of Brussels’ Unit for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE Unit), a position he has held since 2013.

Read More

This article was first published on the author’s LinkedIn page and is part of a series produced by the author. You can read it here.

As someone who is responsible for the monitoring and disengagement of Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Homegrown Terrorist Fighters for the City of Brussels, one of the most complex challenge I have faced over the last few years has been to develop a clear methodology to support their rehabilitation and reintegration. Disengagement is a complex – and contested – concept. Yet, the sheer number of people now on terrorist watchlists all over Europe, and the multiplication of attacks by lone actors, even after they have been assessed as effectively “disengaged”, poses the question of how we should go about managing their rehabilitation process. I do not propose here a scholarly investigation of the matter, but rather to draw attention to this delicate problem and, based on my experience, to highlight some of the key issues that policy-makers and professionals handling disengagement cases face on a day to day basis. Starting with some basic but unresolved questions

Voluntary or mandatory?

Should disengagement processes be a mandatory requirement for individuals who are either suspected or convicted of terrorism offenses? The two approaches in fact tend to co-exist, with some programs being court-mandated and others, particularly within European civil society, being voluntary. Though compulsory programmes tend to be the norm in many countries, this reflects the dominant criminal justice approach to dealing with terrorist reintegration rather than the actual efficacy of the constraint itself. On the other hand, many voluntary programs exist where the risk of extremist violence is believed to exist but no offenses have been proved, making impossible to impose measures judicially. How could the two approaches be effectively compared and their respective merits and flaws more clearly assessed?

Specialized care or just another criminal?

One of the other big debates around disengagement is whether the concept has in fact any legs at all. Indeed, many civil society organizations specialized in criminal rehabilitation work dispute the assertion that terrorist offenders are any different from ordinary criminals. They contend that adopting a specialized approach contributes to reinforce the social stigma associated with terrorist offending and thereby increase obstacles to successful reintegration. On the other hand, such an approach fails to recognize the judicial exceptionalism with which terrorism offenders are often treated, the political nature of the offense for which they have been convicted and the special needs they may have in terms of being able to explore the burning questions they may still have around theology, history and geopolitics.

To know or not to know

Should frontline professionals be given access to confidential security information on the individuals they support in disengaging from violent extremism and terrorism? Whilst there has been a constant emphasis on the need for cooperation and information exchange in this area, it is questionable whether disengagement workers derive any benefit from having access to individual threat assessments and intelligence regarding their clients. Although some argue disengagement professionals have a “need to know” and that such information can help adopt the most appropriate disengagement strategy, it can also be argued that intelligence products are not designed to support this kind of decision-making and may in fact bias the approach of social workers, thus undermining the integrity of their mission.

“Disengagement is a complex – and contested – concept. Yet, the sheer number of people now on terrorist watchlists all over Europe, and the multiplication of attacks by lone actors, even after they have been assessed as effectively “disengaged”, poses the question of how we should go about managing their rehabilitation process.”

Adopting the “right” professional posture

What is the right professional posture to adopt when dealing with terrorist offenders? Should disengagement professionals aim to maintain personal distance and objectivity, or on the contrary seek to empathize and personalize the relationship to maximize trust? Whilst the first approach implicitly emphasizes the risks involved in dealing with terrorist offenders and the need to keep a healthy “security distance” with them, the second believes that meaningful change can only be achieved through trust-building and the re-humanization of terrorist offenders, at the risk that such trust may be abused by a deceptive party.

Assessment and accountability

And finally, does any of it actually work? In other words, should and can disengagement processes be assessed and if so how and by whom? Importantly, who should take final responsibility for such an assessment? As the recent attack in Austria has showed once again, the question of assessment is critical. Yet, practitioners are also very much divided on the subject. Whilst some advocate for a structured professional judgment approach based on tools such as VERA-2R, or generalist psychometric tools, some civil society organization prefer to rely on psycho-social evaluations looking at how offenders have implemented their personal reintegration goals. While both approaches have been used with some success, neither is foolproof in terms of accounting for an individual’s progress towards disengagement – or lack thereof. They also do not necessarily take adequately into account mental health conditions that can undermine individual stability and increase the risk of violent acts. Beyond these technical questions, how should the heavy responsibility that assessment implies be shared between the various stakeholders of the disengagement process (exit workers, court-appointed psychiatrists, prosecutors, judges)?

In Part 2…

I hope these few highlights are useful reminders of the difficult structural questions that remain outstanding in devising effective disengagement programs for terrorist offenders. Next week, I will be flagging some of the very practical, yet very real problems that frontline practitioners who facilitate disengagement processes are faced with on a daily basis: how to approach the possibility of deception, threats to personal safety, fear and fascination and feelings of powerlessness. In Part 3, we ill examine some of the key difficulties experienced by terrorist offenders themselves…

For those who would like to engage further on the subject and exchange, feel free to reach out by messaging me on LinkedIn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *