Study on dropouts: How to get out of Salafism?

Status: 04.02.2022 06:00 a.m

A study has examined why once-radicalized individuals are turning away from Salafism. Their results should help to make dropout programs more effective.

They will probably be released from prison before the end of this year: around 30 Islamists who had to serve a prison sentence for membership in a terrorist organization, support for a terrorist group, planning attacks or carrying out assassinations. These included jihadists who had traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State (IS) terrorist militia. A spokeswoman for the Federal Ministry of Justice recently confirmed this to “Welt am Sonntag”.

Many imprisoned Islamists receive an offer to take part in a deradicalization program while they are still in prison. This often succeeds, but sometimes the people are not accessible for it. Some even relapse and commit acts of violence – such as a young Syrian man who attacked a gay couple with a knife in December 2020, killing a man. The Islamist had only recently been released from prison.

Study to find reasons for turning away

But why do some radicalized individuals ultimately turn their backs on Islamist ideology? When does this happen and for what reasons? The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has now investigated this together with the Bavarian State Criminal Police Office and the Technical University (TU) Berlin. This week, the results of Study “Practice-oriented analysis of deradicalization processes” (PrADera) released.

“We wanted to know: What gaps in life did Salafism fill? How did this extremism work and why did the person turn away after all?” says political scientist Corinna Emser, who works as a research assistant at the BAMF. “The study is intended to provide a better understanding of how distancing from Salafism progresses and what conclusions can be drawn from this for deradicalization work.”

Conversations with dropouts

The scientists evaluated the talks with sixteen formerly radicalized Salafists – more people had not agreed to take part. Among them were ten men and six women between the ages of 19 and 52, nine people have a migration background, three had come to Germany as refugees as adults.

Of the ex-Islamists interviewed, five had traveled to war zones such as Syria and Iraq and returned voluntarily. Six people who took part in the study had also been sentenced to prison for acts of terrorism. Almost all of the former extremists interviewed had taken part in state or civil society counseling and drop-out offers.

Different triggers

As a result, the study finds that the radicalization of Islamists can begin for various reasons. For example, through an active search for meaning in life, but also through a life crisis in which a disoriented person seeks support and approval in a group – and finally finds it in the Salafist scene. There are also people who turn to extremism out of a sense of belonging to a partner.

According to the scientists, it is striking that those who have internalized extremist ideology often rise to become actors within the scene and play a prominent role, for example as preachers or recruiters. Others, however, especially those who are primarily looking for group affiliation, tended to remain “followers”.

distancing for various reasons

According to the conclusion of the study, three factors are decisive for distancing yourself from Salafism and leaving the scene. On the one hand the repression, the imprisonment and the time in prison. Breaking off contact with the scene and dealing with oneself often leads to a process of orientation. According to the authors of the study, this phase is an opportunity for counseling centers and deradicalisation programs to get in touch with people and work with them to opt out.

Another trigger for breaking away from extremism is “negative experiences within the scene”. Some ex-Islamists interviewed reported that they had been disappointed by fellow believers. For example, after leaving for the IS terrorist militia in Syria, they were not allowed to fight as hoped, but were only assigned to guard duty.

As the third factor of distancing, the study names the change in the private life situation. If, for example, alternative life models suddenly appear more attractive, if people come into life who do not belong to the Islamist scene, or if family planning is pending, then this could ensure that a person turns away from extremism.

“We found, for example, that it is obviously important for radicalized people to opt out if they have an alternative life plan and can actually implement this idea,” says the scientist Emser. It is often helpful if such extremists are made aware of the chances of distancing themselves from the ideology.

What is striking is that experiences of war or atrocities experienced by Islamists who had left the country in Syria or Iraq were apparently not decisive for the study participants surveyed to turn away from the ideology. Just as little government surveillance measures, persecution pressure from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the police.

“The scientific analysis was able to confirm a lot of empirical values ​​in the deradicalization work. This allows us to provide the employees of the advice centers with more security,” says Florian Endres, head of the radicalization advice center of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. The study provides approaches on how to address radicalized people or what specific offers to leave the scene could look like.

Ten years ago, the counseling center was set up in the BAMF. It receives information about radicalized people via a hotline and forwards it to regional advisory and dropout organizations, a network of state or civil projects. Around 1,200 cases have been forwarded since 2012. In the past year alone, more than 220 calls were received, in 23 cases there was a need for further care, in around a fifth of the cases the BAMF also informed the security authorities.

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