The release from prison of a convicted violent extremist is often accompanied by social and political controversy when citizens, the media and politicians realize that these detainees have been released to live next door.
Currently in The Netherlands this is illustrated by the vivid debate on the upcoming release of Volkert van der G. who murdered Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in May 2002. A petition against his release was drafted and signed by more than 40,000 people. In September 2013, the release of Samir A., who was convicted for plotting terrorist acts, was heavily scrutinized by the media. In addition, public officials and jurists questioned his deradicalisation and pointed at the risk of recidivism.
These societal tensions can influence the process of reintegration. The famous Thomas theorem (1928) posits: ‘If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’. In other words, the (official) label of being a violent extremist, which is acquired after a prison sentence, can have a negative influence on reintegration. Examples are the stigmatization by the surrounding community, becoming socially isolated or having difficulties in finding a job as well as gaining more respect and status within specific (extremist) movements. Accepting such a status as hero or martyr decreases the likelihood of a successful reintegration into society.
Both nationally and internationally, the reintegration of former violent extremists has sparked the interest of politicians and policymakers. A variety of programs have been developed throughout the world, ranging from comprehensive reintegration and rehabilitation programs in the Middle East (e.g. Saudi Arabia) to tailor-made policies for specific individuals (e.g. in Western Europe). These programs aim to enable (former) violent extremists to accommodate to daily life after their release from prison. Through these programs, it is believed recidivism will be reduced.
However, despite the alleged importance and relevance of reintegration programs, the actual process of reintegration of former violent extremist prisoners has been subject to very few scientific studies. Many questions still remain unanswered. For example, what does being labeled a former extremist entail? What individual pathways can be distinguished after being convicted for these specific crimes? How do they differ from other prisoners reintegration experiences? Answers to these questions will provide new valuable insights in this complex phenomenon.
In January 2014 an article was published in Openbaar Bestuur (in Dutch) on this topic. For questions about his current research on the reintegration (the project ‘reintegration or recidivism?’) of former extremists please contact the author.