“Bin Laden Denounces Terrorism: New Fatwa Prohibits Attacks Against the West.”  This fictional news headline seems preposterous, but the persistence of de-radicalization by armed Islamist movements in recent years suggests otherwise. De-radicalization is a process by which a radical group or individual reverses behavior and ideology to abandon and de-legitimize the use of violence to achieve political goals. Since the late 1990s, several movements, factions, leading jihadists, and individual militants have undergone remarkable transformations towards non-violence, thereby removing tens of thousands of former militants from the ranks of al-Qaeda supporters. These processes have led to the transformation of entire organizations in Egypt and Algeria, and of a significant number of individual militants in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and other countries. 

In Egypt, al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group – IG) declared a unilateral ceasefire in July 1997 that evolved into a comprehensive de-radicalization process in 2002. The IG was a former ally of al-Qaeda that cooperated in the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 for signing the peace treaty with Israel. It organized at least five attempts on President Hosni Mubarak’s life, led an insurgency in Upper Egypt between 1992 and 1997, and was implicated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City. By 2007, the IG’s de-radicalization process had been consolidated, with some 25 volumes authored by IG leaders supporting their new non-violent ideology with theological and rational arguments. Two of the volumes were critiques of al-Qaeda’s behavior and a third was a critique of the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis, arguing instead for cultural dialogue. This process removed more than 15,000 IG militants from the salafi-jihadi camp currently led by al-Qaeda.

The Egyptian Jihad Organization, the movement that produced Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri as well as the two commanders of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq (Mustafa Abu al-Yazid and Yusuf al-Dardri respectively), also initiated a de-radicalization process. That process was led by the former leader of al-Jihad and al-Qaeda ideologue Dr. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (also known as ‘Abd al-Qadir Ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, or Dr. Fadl).  Recanting his previous views, al-Sharif authored two books entitled A Document for Guiding Jihad in Egypt and the World and The Uncovering. The books were alarming enough to produce a reaction from al-Qaeda’s leadership; al-Zawahri responded by writing The Vindication. Jihad’s de-radicalization process, however, has been only partially successful. Several factions within the group reject the process and therefore act as spoilers.

In Algeria, similar de-radicalizing transformations occurred between 1997 and 2009. As did the IG of Egypt, the self-declared armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), known as the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), declared a unilateral ceasefire in October 1997. The ceasefire led to disarmament and demilitarization processes that aimed at the reintegration of AIS members as well as other armed Islamist factions into Algerian society. The demilitarization process included subgroups from the notorious Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), whose major splinter group became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Unlike the Egyptian groups however, the Algerian movements did not produce any literature to constitute a new ideology. Despite that, the former commander of the AIS, Medani Mezraq, declared his intention to hold a conference with the objective of “uprooting Islamist armed activism in Algeria.” Hasan Hattab, the founder of the GSPC, also actively supports ending the remnants of the insurgency.

In Libya, the Fighting Islamic Group (FIG), another former ally of al-Qaeda, initiated a de-radicalization process in 2006-2007. Leading FIG figures in Afghanistan, such as Abu Layth al-Libi, refused to accept the process. With the death of Abu Layth in 2008, the process has been reactivated and is currently ongoing. The commander of the FIG, A. Hakim Belhaj, issued a statement confirming that there are talks with the Libyan regime and identifying some of the key issues that stalled the process in 2007 and 2008. On September 1, 2009, on the occasion of Muammar Qadhafi’s fortieth year in power, FIG prisoners in Abu Selim Prison issued a public apology to the Colonel, declaring that the FIG was abandoning political violence and dismantling its secret units.

In Saudi Arabia, the government-sponsored al-Munasaha (Advising) Program, as well as interventions from independent Islamic theologians, has had some success in de-radicalizing individuals and small groups who allegedly supported or were loosely linked to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The Saudi program, as well as sister programs in the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Iraq, Yemen, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia mainly target individual militants as opposed to organizations. When such programs succeed, the end result is usually individual de-radicalization as opposed to collective abandonment of political violence by a jihadist movement.

Research on de-radicalization processes shows that a combination of charismatic leadership, pressure from the government, interactions with non-jihadis as well as from within the organization, and selective inducements from the state and other actors are common causes of de-radicalization. Government pressure and interaction with  non-jihadis often cause jihadi leaders to rethink strategically, learn politically, and revise their worldview. Following this, the leadership initiates a de-radicalization process that is bolstered by selective inducements from the state as well as by internal interactions with the followers. De-radicalized groups often interact with violent ones and in some cases the former influences the latter, a sort of domino effect demonstrated in the cases of the IG and al-Jihad Organization in Egypt, the AIS and factions from the GIA, the GSPC and other militias in Algeria and de-radicalized Islamist figures and individual suspects in Saudi Arabia. 

Whether de-radicalization will continue and eventually have a serious impact on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other like-minded organizations depends on many factors, not the least of which is regime type in the countries in question. In dictatorships, de-radicalization processes and programs are a short to mid-term solution for the problem of Islamist political violence. Indeed, de-radicalization does not mean that the root causes of radicalism were properly addressed and resolved. The Egyptian Muslim Brothers abandoned political violence back in the 1970s, for example, but the much more violent IG and al-Jihad emerged as their successors in the same decade. Now the IG has also abandoned violence, but the repression from dictatorships, socioeconomic strains, and exclusionary dogmas can ultimately reproduce similar organizations. Successful democratization and religious reformation remain critical to a long-term, durable solution. 

Omar Ashour is a Lecturer in Politics at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK). He is the author of The De-Radicalization of the Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (London, New York: Routledge, 2009).