Daniel Koehler is the Director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS) and co-founder of Journal for Deradicalization, which he created together with GIRDS in 2014.
He worked as a de-radicalization and family counselor in multiple programs and developed several methodological approaches to de-radicalization, especially family counselling programs around the world.
S.B. What are the main activities of the German Institute for Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS)?
D.K. The German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS) is a non-partisan and non-profit network of practitioners and academic experts in the field of countering violent extremism and radicalization, including de-radicalization, rehabilitation and reintegration of extremists and terrorists.
Two of our main projects are publishing the open access and peer reviewed JD Journal for Deradicalization and hosting the only databases on extreme right wing and jihadist terrorism in Germany (DTG-RWX, DTJ-JI).
We have also created the international Mothers for Life network, which currently brings together parents of jihadists from 11 countries as a kind of self-help group and to assist parents and families around the world to fight violent radicalization.
We train experts in the fields of CVE and de-radicalization, for example probation officers in Minneapolis or through our martial arts project (DVKE), in which we equip martial arts trainers to become mentors against violent extremism. These are just a few of our activities.
S.B. What are your definitions of religious and right-wing radicalization?
D.K. Radicalization as such, for me, is the process of de-pluralization of political values and ideals (e.g. justice, honor, freedom) in combination with an increase of an ideologically defined urgency to act against a perceived enemy, grievance, injustice etc. In essence, if the ideological foundation of that de-pluralization is based on devaluing other humans, this process, if continued, will inevitably lead to the use of violence as the only perceived feasible option to solve that psychological tension.
In my perspective, the psychology behind right-wing and religious radicalization is the same. Of course, the specific contents and manifestations differ to some degree.
S.B. Personally, I agree with you when you explain that de-radicalization programs have to be extremely context-bound. However, there are a number of choices that every program is called to make, such as whether or not to include ideology, the degree of state involvement, and the characteristics of post-program monitoring. Are there other unavoidable decisions that authorities and CVE practitioners have to make?
D.K. There is no “one size fits all” CVE and deradicalization program and no silver bullet solution for each individual client. Many different types of programs exist, specifically designed for various actors (e.g. governmental, non-governmental) and clientele (e.g. prison-based working with convicted extremists and terrorists, families of people who radicalize, early intervention community based, prevention-based).
The first step is always to understand the typology of CVE and deradicalization programs and choosing the best program type for one’s own purposes. Next, program design, the theory of change, staff training etc. is all absolutely essential to prepare the program as best as possible. I call that structural integrity and have collected a checklist of quality standards for program developers and those who want to increase quality of existing programs.
There is a lot think about and clarify before a program can start working, such as for example data protection and privacy, how to reach your clientele, funding, criteria for starting and ending a counselling case, how to present the program, safety issues and so on. Everything needs to be discussed in relation to the basic goals and stakeholders’ perspectives.
If all the conceptual preparation is done, a high-quality program will always include mechanisms to identify individual push and pull factors involved in entering violent extremism and possibly the motives for leaving. Counselling can only be delivered as a hand tailored plan for every client.
However, there is a tool box of methods, out of which mentors and counsellors typically draw the pieces of the puzzle that in the end make the intervention. Those are usually methods from the educational, social work, creative arts and sports, psychological and ideological fields. It is critical to understand that the mixture of methods and tools from each field varies from client to client and must be adapted to individual needs and risks. Program personnel can be trained to a certain degree, but a lot of it has to come with experience. To build a creative and fitting intervention plan for a client is the art of CVE.
Finally, every program should include quality control, monitoring and evaluation from the very first day. This field is notoriously under-evaluated and will only have a sustainable future if we include rigorous quality standards and scientific evaluation. After all, ill-designed CVE and deradicalization programs are not just a waste of resources, but can actually increase the risks posed by their clients.
S.B. On the contrary, what are the major areas of improvement in European de-radicalization and CVE programs?
D.K. Clearly the lack of scientific evaluations and quality standards. This is not only the case for European programs, though. We know far too little about the effects and mechanisms of “good” CVE and de-radicalization programs. The practical proliferation of such programs has by far outpaced the conceptual and theoretical evidence-based development within academia. This creates a risk of doing something “just for the sake of it”.
S.B. In your research on radicalization – with a particular reference to prison radicalization – you underline that, if inmates are not given spiritual assistance, they will look for it by themselves, thus becoming more vulnerable to the actions and influence of radicalizing actors. What does a good strategy have to do to provide some form of spiritual assistance?
D.K. On spiritual assistance, our counselling is especially relevant in prison to curb internal radicalization or the spread of certain extremist interpretations of religious texts. If there are no spiritual services available for all faiths, extremist inmates will portray themselves as religious authorities and take matters into their own hands. So, spiritual services are very important for preventing the spread of violent extremism in prisons. It rarely actually helps to start a de-radicalization process of highly radicalized inmates.
S.B. What is the major radical threat that Europe will have to address in the next few years? Will it be the same threat in every European country?
D.K. It is impossible to predict that but based on the current events in Europe and the overall increase in all forms of violent extremism, it is fair to say that one major issue will be reciprocal radicalization (extremist groups pushing each other towards violence). In some countries, we also see an increase of “ordinary citizens” (i.e. without previous involvement in extremist groups) who radicalize to the point of plotting or committing terrorist acts.