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Between Deradicalisation and Disengagement: The Re-engagement of the Radical Actor?

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Terrorism, Radicalisation & Countering Violent Extremism


Based on his experience working as a sociologist in the field of violent extremism, Conti argues that the terms “disengagement” and “deradicalisation” are limited in their meaning, as they consider the radicalised person “as an actor with no legitimacy and without any genuine political commitment”. Offering a new approach to reintegrating radicalised individuals into society, Conti describes a 2015 study which he conducted entitled engagements citoyens (“civic commitments”) in which 12 inmates were interviewed and encouraged to speak about their struggles inside and outside of prison, while also speaking with prison staff and other members of society. The primary aims of this programme were to enable inmates to engage in conversation with individuals having different perspectives and to continue instructing them in light of what they revealed in the last phase of the programme, during which they spoke about themselves and described “personal hardship related to their backgrounds”. Conti concludes that this programme revealed the necessity for inmates to be offered a safe space to verbalise their anger and feelings of injustice.

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  1. 1.

    Generally speaking, action research uses theoretical knowledge in order to produce practical tools. Its aim is to reinforce the capacity of action of concerned people, helping them to develop methods and tools to ameliorate their practice, as well their position and attitude, through thinking about themselves and their position in the society.

    The action research project was carried out by Association Dialogues Citoyens (ADC), a non-profit organisation created by a small group of sociologists, who adapted the method of sociological intervention and applied it to young people at odds with society (juvenile delinquency, school drop-out, violence, etc.) in view of empowering and favouring individual rather than collective awareness. This action research was carried out in two French prisons (Osny and Fleury-Mérogis), where around 50 detainees took part in four programmes that lasted for a year (February 2015–March 2016), with each programme involving around 12 inmates. This chapter is based mainly on the first programme, which took place in Osny prison, where 15 inmates took part for two months in a programme called “citizen commitments”. The theoretical framework of this approach exposed in this chapter was inspired also by similar initiatives implemented in other contexts that were not necessarily related to radicalisation.

  2. 2.

    Cfr. Farhad Khosrokhavar. 2016. Prisons de France: Violence, radicalisation, deshumanisation. Surveillants et détenus parlent, Robert Laffont.

  3. 3.

    A main divergence between countries, and also between initiatives implemented in the same country, is related to the balance between the need for security and the social reinsertion of the radicalised person. It becomes more and more clear, but also politically controversial, that if “deradicalisation” aims at getting the person out from ideological violence through its reinsertion into society, the political and social answer cannot just be done according to security.

  4. 4.

    Sedgwick Mark. 2010. The Concept of Radicalisation as a Source of Confusion. Terrorism and Political Violence 22:4: 479–494.

  5. 5.

    Farhad Khosrokhavar defined radicalisation as “the process through which an individual or a group adopts a form of violent action which is directly related to an extremist ideology of political, social or religious content, that questions the established political, social or cultural order”, Farhad Khosrokhavar 2014. Radicalisation: 7–8.

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    Schmid A.P. 2013. Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation and Counter-Radicalisation, The Hague: ICCT –

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    Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Tackling Extremism: De-Radicalisation and Disengagement (Copenhagen: Conference Report, 8–9 May 2012): 1–2.

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    Schmid A.P. 2013. Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation and Counter-Radicalisation, The Hague: ICCT –

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    Moghaddam F. 2005. The Staircase to Terrorism; A Psychological Exploration. American Psychologist 60:2: 161–169. Mccauley C. et Moskalenko S. 2008. Mechanisms of Political Radicalisation: Pathways. Toward Terrorism. Terrorism and Political Violence 20.3: 415–433.

  10. 10.

    Although having varied profiles and backgrounds, the participants nevertheless shared certain characteristics. Practically all holding French citizenship, they all were descendant from immigrant families, they were all Muslims, but only a part of them were actually practising. Generally very young, almost all inmates came from disadvantaged neighbourhoods of major French cities, where most have followed the “classic” career path, described in particular by Farhad Khosrokhavar (2014), which goes from delinquency to detention, then from the re-Islamisation to radicalisation. On the other hand, only a quarter of the detainees were in prison for terrorism-related offences, while the others were imprisoned for other offences, while at the same time displaying strong signs of radicalisation.

  11. 11.

    A useful type of counter-narrative did emerge, step by step, from this process. This emerged from the differences between inmates’ points of view. They ended up discovering that they did not necessarily agree. Their certitude was just apparent. The rational confrontation that had been engineered ended up making them recognise the complexity of the reality.

  12. 12.

    Michel Wieviorka thus describes the affirmation of the subject (individual or collective): the one who “wants to be recognised, respected, to control his experience, to make his own choices, to build his existence by building himself” (Wieviorka Michel. 2008. L’intégration: un concept en difficulté. Cahiers internationaux de sociologie 125 (2): 229).

  13. 13.

    The group was composed by young people with different backgrounds, but its relative homogeneity comes from the fact that in the group there were no converts or women and practically no middle-class youth, almost all of them coming from French banlieues.

  14. 14.

    Doosje, B., Loseman, A., Van Den Bos K. 2013. Determinants of radicalisation of Islamic youth in The Netherlands: Personal uncertainty, perceived injustice, and perceived group threat. Journal of Social Issues 69: 586–604.

  15. 15.

    The writer expresses his thanks to Romain Quivooij (Associate Research Fellow, Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore), for his assistance in the translation of this article into English.

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Correspondence to Bartolomeo Conti .

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Conti, B. (2019). Between Deradicalisation and Disengagement: The Re-engagement of the Radical Actor?. In: Jayakumar, S. (eds) Terrorism, Radicalisation & Countering Violent Extremism. Palgrave Pivot, Singapore.

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