There is an emergent consensus among counterterrorism analysts and practitioners that to defeat the threat posed by Islamist extremism and terrorism, there is a need to go beyond security and intelligence measures, taking proactive measures to prevent vulnerable individuals from radicalizing and rehabilitating those who have already embraced extremism. This broader conception of counterterrorism is manifested in the counter- and deradicalization programs of a number of Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, and European countries.

A key question is whether the objective of these programs should be disengagement or deradicalization of militants. Disengagement entails a change in behavior (i.e., refraining from violence and withdrawing from a radical organization) but not necessarily a change in beliefs. A person could exit a radical organization and refrain from violence but nevertheless retain a radical worldview. Deradicalization is the process of changing an individual’s belief system, rejecting the extremist ideology, and embracing mainstream values.

There is a view in the scholarly community that deradicalization may not be a realistic objective and that the goal of terrorist rehabilitation programs should be disengagement. Deradicalization, in fact, may be particularly difficult for Islamist extremists because they are motivated by an ideology that is rooted in a major world religion. The tenets of the ideology, therefore, are regarded as religious obligations.

Nevertheless, deradicalization may be necessary to permanently defuse the threat posed by these individuals. If a militant disengages solely for instrumental reasons, when the circumstances change, the militant may once again take up arms. Conversely, when deradicalization accompanies disengagement, it creates further barriers to recidivism.

Moreover, there may be a tipping point. When enough exmilitants renounce radical Islamism, the ideology and the organizations that adhere to it are fatally discredited. Even short of this tipping point, as greater numbers of militants renounce extremism, radical Islamist organizations will experience greater hurdles in attracting adherents and sympathizers within the Muslim community.

Studies of those who leave gangs and criminal organizations, exit from cults and religious sects, and withdraw from terrorist organizations suggest that individuals follow a similar trajectory when leaving a criminal or extremist group. Certain lessons can be derived from this trajectory.