Imagine this scenario: A young Muslim leaves home to travel to Syria to join ISIS. Thousands of young men from Europe have done exactly that in the past two years.
But here’s the twist: Imagine that just weeks after arriving, the young man realizes he’s made a terrible mistake. What does he do now?
If he’s American, his options are few. Even attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS is considered providing support to a terrorist organization, a federal offense that carries a sentence of 10 to 15 years in prison.
But if the young Muslim is German, he might be in luck. The German government is looking at new ways to work with what are essentially ISIS dropouts, and it is drawing from its previous work with right-wing extremists. It appears many of the same methods used to reform neo-Nazis are directly applicable to young people who are taken in by violent Salafist groups like ISIS.
“We got a phone call from a family who told us their son had gone to ISIS, and after two weeks, he realized, ‘OK, that’s not for me, that is not what I expected, that is not what I wanted to do. I want to come home,’ ” says Julia Berczyk, a counselor at a Berlin-based rehabilitation program called Hayat-Germany.
Hayat means “life” in Arabic, and in many ways, counselors at this program are trying to provide a new lease on life for young Muslims who radicalize and then regret it.
The process usually begins with a phone call. In the case Berczyk cites of a young man who wanted to return, Hayat advised his family to contact German authorities. Parents are typically reluctant to do that, Bercyzk says, because reporting on their children could send them to jail. But given the alternative — the possible death of a relative on the battlefield — parents tend to follow Hayat’s counsel.
“We’ve found that calling the authorities early can be quite an advantage in the court later on,” says Berczyk. “Because the authorities see, OK, this guy was really trying to get out of there, and the family was willing to cooperate with us and they were open about it. That can actually have a very positive effect on sentencing later on.”
According to official tallies, some 700 Germans have traveled to Syria to join groups like ISIS since 2012; hundreds are believed to have returned. So it isn’t surprising that German authorities are eager to use all means available — whether it is parents or hotline calls or friends and friends of friends — to identify ISIS followers in Germany and possibly de-radicalize them before they turn violent. Hayat-Germany is part of that official effort; it is funded by Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
Just this spring, an ISIS defector returned to Europe and turned over a thumb drive that contained thousands of the group’s job applications. German authorities have the documents, and officials there tell NPR that the information has been very helpful in their effort to locate returnees in Germany.
Similarly, an American ISIS defector from Virginia turned himself in to Iraqi Kurdish forces back in March. Officials expect such defections will only increase. Hayat says there could be more cases for leniency. If someone who traveled to Syria didn’t fight, for example, but instead helped ISIS with IT or translated for the group, German authorities take that into account. (So far, U.S. authorities haven’t made those kinds of distinctions.).
Hayat-Germany grew out of a program called Exit-Deutschland, which targeted neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists, groups that German authorities have been working to de-radicalize and fold back into German society for years. Berczyk says the Hayat program is premised on the belief that the lessons from working with right-wing extremist programs can be applied to radical Islamists as well.
“There is a commonality between extremist ideologies,” she says. “But also, if we are talking about sects and cults, there are certain things that all these groups have in common.”
That’s good news because it means authorities can mine their long experience with neo-Nazis and apply it to the relatively new problem they face with ISIS now. Of course, each case is different, which is what makes de-radicalization complicated.
But in a general way, Hayat-Germany says, the key component in these programs is family. Studies have shown that by strengthening family ties, parents and siblings end up providing the support young people were missing and subsequently sought and found in extremist groups.
Among other things, Hayat counsels the families to avoid confrontation when they are trying to convince relatives to come back from Syria. Recruiters in the jihadist camps tell new arrivals that conflict with their families is inevitable. They warn them that if they reach out to those they have left at home, they’ll be chastised and ordered to return.
The problem with their families, the recruiters say, is they just don’t understand ISIS followers and the depth of their faith. If families get angry — even if it comes from worry — this plays right into the recruiters’ hands.
That’s why Hayat tells parents not to demand a return, but instead to suggest their relatives leave Syria and settle in a third country, far away from the battlefield, and start a family and a new life. Once the young people are out from under ISIS’ spell, families have a better chance of convincing them eventually to come home. Strategies to make this happen come from counselors at Hayat.
Quintan Wiktorowicz, an academic who did field studies on radicalization in Jordan and the U.K., now runs Affinis Labs, which tries to use innovation and entrepreneurship to solve community problems like radicalization. He was responsible for engagement programs at the White House and developed counter-radicalization initiatives for the State Department. He says Hayat’s remedies — from hotlines people can call to engaging the families of radicalized youth in counseling sessions — are strategies that have been effective across ideologies.
“Although there are different pathways to radicalization and the ideologies vary across extremists groups, the underlying drivers are very similar,” he said.
The drivers usually come in three parts: an extreme level of frustration, a sense of powerlessness, and exposure to an ideology that not only resonates emotionally, but also offers a solution to the frustration.
“The mechanics, whether you are a right-wing extremist or embracing ISIS, are very similar,” he says.
Wiktorowicz says the one constant in successful programs is that they are very individualized in order to address the grievances that drove someone to extremist groups in the first place.
“It is incredibly labor intensive to do rehabilitation and de-radicalization because you have to take into account what experiences and psychological needs lead them down the path to extremism in the first place,” he says.
The bright spot in this is that not all of ISIS’ followers are such hard cases.
“For individuals who join for social reasons or because of an identity crisis, then you have a better chance of customizing the rehabilitation intervention,” he says.
When it comes to ISIS followers, particularly those from the U.S., there’s a general sense that young men and women have traveled to Syria as part of a group of friends. Or they think traveling to Syria will help them bear witness to history and be part of what ISIS has called a homeland for Muslims.
Setting them straight on that is possible with counseling. Hayat’s hotline for families and would-be returnees has become so popular, its reach has gone beyond Germany. Denmark has a hotline. The U.K. and France have been setting up something similar too. Hayat-Germany says it has counseled some 200 extremists from all over the world. Berczyk wouldn’t say if any calls had come in from America.
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