Taking the Off-Ramp: A Path to Preventing Terrorism


In the face of near weekly terrorist attacks and heightened threat levels around the globe, political leaders and security professionals are struggling with how to demonstrate toughness and resolve, while at the same time searching for new strategies to deal with a threat that continues to grow. Military leaders are becoming increasingly outspoken about how we can’t kill or arrest our way out of the problem. There are increasing calls for complementary approaches that don’t rely on force or jail but focus on community-led interventions to steer individuals away from violence and reintegrate them into society — so called “off ramps.”

The strategic and practical needs for such approaches are clear. With over 30,000 people having travelled from more than 100 countries to fight in Syria and Iraq, countries are struggling with what to do with the estimated 30 percent now returning. Governments in Africa are faced with the challenge of managing a growing number of young people who are rejecting violent ideologies and defecting from terrorist groups such as Boko Haram or al-Shabaab.

Many returnees or defectors cannot be prosecuted, whether due to lack of legislation or evidence. In some cases, even if they’re prosecuted and convicted, they may only serve short prison sentences. Prisons, from Iraq to Egypt to France, have been found to be central vectors of radicalization — and some governments may not wish to imprison “misguided” youth who run the risk of being (further) radicalized in jail. More broadly,   a recent study shows that disillusioned young people can harden their worldviews to become irreconcilable when exposed to punitive measures, whereas alternative rehabilitation can help them re-enter society. Even more importantly, alternatives to criminal prosecution and incarceration can help facilitate the cooperation of family, friends, and other members of vulnerable communities which may be reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement if they know that any outreach might put their loved one in a prison cell. Although they may not produce the headlines that killing or capturing terrorists do, off-ramp programs are essential to reducing the threat over the long-term, and it’s critical to build public support and mobilize resources for such efforts.

A small but growing number of such programs are now in place. Montreal’s new de-radicalization center is attracting a lot of attention, but Europe continues to be at the vanguard of this kind of approach —  drawing on its experience dealing with far-right and far-left terrorism — with programs in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and the United Kingdom attracting attention. The E.U. Radicalization Awareness Network’s “Exit” Working Group — that connects those involved in “off-ramp” programs across Europe — continues to push out recommendations for E.U. members looking to develop new or fine-tune existing programs in this space. Yet, a recent report highlighted the small numbers, scale, and resources available for such programs across Europe.

In the United States, in the absence of any federal guidelines in this area, a federal judge in Minneapolis has taken it upon himself to explore the possibility of designing a de-radicalization program — in lieu of jail time — for some young defendants in a trial related to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Seeking to move beyond this  ad hoc approach, the Justice Department has an “Alternative Dispositions Working Group” looking to develop policy guidance for prosecutors and judges around the United States seeking alternatives (e.g., disengagement programs) to prosecution and prison for young, disillusioned defendants who travelled or were trying to get to Syria, but are judged not to pose a security threat and for whom a 10 to 20 year jail sentence might risk further radicalization. The FBI is soon expected to roll-out its, somewhat controversial, Shared Responsibility Committees — designed to provide FBI alternatives to simply arresting individuals on the path to violence.

Many of these programs pursue multidisciplinary approaches that move beyond security actors to include psychologists, health professionals, social workers, faith leaders, family members, peers, and former-extremists who are best placed to design and deliver interventions to address the individual motivational factors that drive youth and adults to consider violent extremism. In some cases, these programs limit or exclude government involvement entirely.

Challenges to scaling up disengagement and reintegration efforts?

Despite some signs of progress, the challenges to scaling up existing, and developing new, “off ramp” programs are significant. In the current threat environment, it can be an unpopular position to argue for “soft” approaches that stop short of prosecution and incarceration. Second, successful disengagement and reintegration requires the cooperation of vulnerable communities where trust of the government is often most lacking and can only be built up over time. Third, in many countries legal and policy frameworks are inadequate for “off ramp” programs to develop and be sustained. Despite the provision in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2178 (2014), which called on countries to develop and implement rehabilitation and reintegration strategies for returning foreign fighters, few if any comprehensive strategies have been developed.

Finally, in some cases, existing counter-terrorism legislation (sometimes unintentionally) makes it very difficult for nongovernmental groups to support “off-ramp” programs for fear of being accused of supporting terrorism. For example, the long reach and broad scope of U.S. “material support” provisions make it difficult for nongovernmental groups to engage individuals associated with terrorist groups even if the purpose is to support disengagement and reintegration.

What can be done?

First, governments should put in place frameworks that create space for the development of off-ramp programs and provide participants in them with a clear understanding of how they work and legal guarantees of fair treatment. They should delineate a role in such programs for civil society and local communities on the one side and, where appropriate, government on the other. In particular, the role, if any, of law enforcement and the security services should be clearly spelled-out — including, for example, when a social service professional in an off-ramp program must report an individual to them (e.g., only in cases of imminent violence). In higher risk environments like Kenya and Nigeria, frameworks should ensure necessary security and aftercare to mitigate the chance of retribution from members of the violent group from which the individual is seeking to separate.

Second, awareness needs to be raised among criminal justice officials and practitioners, as well as the wider public, to make clear that “off-ramp” programs for those who have come to the attention of law enforcement, or have been arrested and even charged with a terrorism offense, is not being “soft” on security but rather a successful outcome of the criminal process — and one that, if implemented properly, will lead to a reduction of the threat. Lessons can be learned from work with gangs that have led to lowering recidivism rates.

Third, the scope of material support and other relevant counter-terrorism legislation should be reviewed carefully to reverse the chilling effect they are having on civil society’s ability to support “off-ramp” programs and countering violent extremism efforts more broadly.

While public support for expanding the “off ramp” tool kit remains limited, the consequences of not doing so are likely to exacerbate the threat over the long-term. These include the potential of radicalization in prison of disillusioned youth who could have become productive and peaceful members of their community; alienating family members who may have helped the authorities convince the individual to leave a terrorist group or return home with the hope that he could be reintegrated into society, but now feel betrayed; and losing the opportunity to leverage the unique voice and experience of a “former” in the campaign to counter terrorist propaganda. Thus, politicians and security professionals would be wise to invest more resources in, and attention on, developing and sharpening the “off-ramp” tools in the broader counter-terrorist toolkit.


Eric Rosand is the Director of the Prevention Project: Organizing Against Violent Extremism and a Non Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He previously served in the Obama Administration as the Department of State’s International Policy Coordinator for the White House CVE Summit and its follow-on process, and as Senior Advisor to the Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Counsellor to the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights.