De-radicalization and Jihadism: informing policy makers and informing public debate and understanding
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Exeter
Unit of AssessmentArea Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Political Science
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Religion and Religious Studies
Summary of the impact
The rise in Islamist armed activism has led to de-radicalization being
seen as a major means of preventing terrorism, alongside classic security
and counter-terrorism tactics. Since 2008, Dr Omar Ashour, from the
University of Exeter, has emerged as a leading expert on de-radicalization
and transitions from armed to unarmed activism, advising governments (e.g.
UK, Canada. Netherlands), intergovernmental organisations (e.g. UN and EU)
and NGOs. His research has informed policy-makers and debate, and
contributed to developing initiatives in de-radicalization. both inside
and outside of the Muslim world. His extensive media involvement has raised
the level of public debate and public understanding both within the
UK and internationally.
Ideological de-radicalization is a process within Islamist movements in
which the ideology is transformed, in the sense of de-legitimizing the use
of armed tactics to achieve revolutionary political goals. Following his
appointment as Lecturer in the Politics of the Modern Arab World at the
University of Exeter in 2008, Dr Omar Ashour continued his research in
this area, resulting in his major monograph, "The De-Radicalization of
Jihadists", in 2009, published by ORutledge in their prestigious
series Critical Studies in Terrorism. It was the first study of
its kind. It was based on frontline fieldwork, including interviews with
jihadist leaders, mid-ranking commanders, and young sympathizers, as well
as former security and intelligence officers and state officials in Egypt.
Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Canada and the United Kingdom. In it, Ashour
delineated the factors which cause armed Islamist movements to
de-radicalize, ideologically, behaviourally and organizationally. Chris
Mcmillan summarizes the book in his review in International Affairs: "Ashour
manages to provide a highly detailed, very well-presented analysis of how
and why several of the most important armed Islamist movements over the
last 70 years have successfully sought to fundamentally alter their
ideology, behaviour and structure and why this has been unattainable for
others." The book provided the first analysis of the de-radicalization
processes of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers (1951-1973), subsequent former
allies of al-Qa'ida (including al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya and al-Jihad
Organization) and more recent Algerian Islamist groups (1997-2008). Ashour
used mainly social movement theory to analyse how state policies (the main
focus was on security bureaucracies), charismatic leadership, and social
interaction with secular groups can all interact to shape the prospects
for de-radicalization and participation in pluralist, democratic politics.
The book received excellent reviews by renowned experts in the field
published in prestigious journals such as World Politics (reviewed
by Professor Jillian Schwedler) and Perspectives on Politics
(reviewed by Dr Thomas Hegghammer). Ashour's analysis of the practical
mechanisms of de-radicalization, investigating both individual cases and
collective movement shifts to non-violence, was presented in "Post-Jihadism:
Libya and the Global Transformation of Armed Islamist Movements"
Ashour expanded his research to include other countries and regions
(Gaza, Tunisia, Netherlands and Singapore), the transitions from militia
to party politics by Islamists and the limitation of risks and security
threats (cf. "Hamas and the Prospects of De-Radicalization"). He
completed additional fieldwork in Libya in March 2010 and August 2011,
with a focus on the transformation of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group
(LIFG) and its interactions with al-Qaddafi's regime. In March 2010, the
LIFG reconciled with the Qaddafi regime and officially abandoned and
de-legitimized armed tactics. The plan was to reintegrate its members in
the society and possibly in some of the official institutions. But the
LIFG joined the armed revolution against the Libyan dictator, and its
commanders spearheaded the attack on his headquarters in August 2011.
However, after the removal of Qaddafi, the LIFG transformed into party and
electoral politics. (cf."Libyan Islamists Unpacked: Rise,
Transformation, and Future).
One major finding from Ashour's fieldwork was the development of the
notion of "Post-Jihadism". encompassing former jihadists who, after
reflecting on their experience, seek alternative non-violent means for
socio-political change, and adopt ideological and theological stances to
legitimate those means. Case studies for the research on this, carried out
between 2009 and 2012 were drawn from Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia,
Iraq, and Yemen. (cf. "Post-Jihadism and Ideological
De-Radicalization."). The focus of this research was twofold: the
theological and the ideological dimensions of de-radicalization (as
opposed to the behavioural and the organizational dimensions outlined in
his earlier book), and the impact of these transformations on
democratisation and the persistence of authoritarianism in the Middle East
and North Africa. Another major finding pertains to the persistence of the
transitions. Ashour argues that these transitions cannot persist unless
there is a comprehensive process of security sector reform and balanced
civil-military relations (cf "Post-Jihadism: Libya and the Global
Transformation of Armed Islamist Movements;" cf "From Bad Cop to Good Cop:
The Challenge of Security Sector Reform in Egypt).
References to the research
1. Ashour, O. (2009) The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming
Armed Islamist Movements. New York, London: Routledge. ISSN:
• Evidence of quality: peer reviewed monograph in prestigious series;
excellent reviews in leading journals (World Politics, Perspective
on Politics, International Affairs).
2. Ashour, O. (2012) "From Bad Cop to Good Cop: The Challenge of
Security Sector Reform in Egypt." Brookings -Stanford Papers.
Washington DC; Doha: Brookings Institution, November 2012. http://stanford.io/17AducT
• Evidence of quality: peer-reviewed paper that has been highly cited;
used as basis for UN-ESCWA and FCO consultations (see below).
3. Ashour, O. (2012) "Libyan Islamists Unpacked: Rise,
Transformation, and Future." Brookings Papers. Washington DC; Doha:
Brookings Institution, May 2012. http://bit.ly/JzJJga
• Evidence of quality: peer-reviewed paper that has been highly cited;
used as basis for FCO consultations on Libya (see below).
4. Ashour, O. (2011) "Libya and the Global Transformations of Armed
Islamist Movements." Terrorism and Political Violence. 23 (3):
• Evidence of quality: peer-reviewed article in highly ranked journal.
5. Ashour, O. (2011) "Post-Jihadism and Ideological
De-Radicalization." In Contextualizing Jihadi Ideologies,
edited by Zaheer Kazimi and Jeevan Doel. New York: Columbia University
Press. 2011. ISSN: 9780231702546
• Evidence of quality: peer-reviewed chapter in a prestigious series;
used as basis for UN-CTITF and FCO consultations (see below).
6. Ashour, O. (2011) "Hamas and the Prospects of De-Radicalization."
In Violent Non-State Actors in Contemporary World Politics, edited
by Klejda Mulaj. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. ISSN:
• Evidence of quality: peer-reviewed chapter in a prestigious series;
used as basis for UN-CTITF consultations (see below).
Details of the impact
Ashour's research and fieldwork have led to two key areas of impact:
informing policy debate through citations in policy documents and
practice and enhancing public understanding of Islamist issues
through engagement with the media.
In March 2009, Ashour informed policy makers by speaking at two
consultation events organised by the British Foreign and Commonwealth
Office (FCO). "Promoting Political Freedoms and Deepening Democracy"
and "Common Security Challenges in the Maghreb and the Sahel" were
attended by members of the Cabinet and Home Office and the Department for
International Development. Following the publication of his book, Ashour
participated in consultation events with the Ditchley Foundation in
February 2010, entitled "Countering Radicalization in Local
Communities"; the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs ("Security
Threats in North Africa", Rabat, May 2010) and the International
Association for the Chiefs of Police ("De-Radicalization Processed and
Programs", Paris, May 2010). In the US in 2010, Ashour was invited
by the RAND Corporation and Carnegie Endowment to contribute to
consultations with US Government. These resulted in publications of policy
papers such as De-Radicalizing Islamist Extremists (published by
RAND) which stated that: "the only major work on the subject [collective
de-radicalization] is Omar Ashour's The De-Radicalization of Jihadists."
(p. 188) and Ashour is cited 30 times. Following this. Ashour informed
policy debate by being cited six times in the US Counter-terrorism White
Paper on "Protecting the Homeland from Domestic and International
Terrorism Threats Current Multi- Disciplinary Perspectives on Root
Causes, the Role of Ideology, and Programs for Counter- radicalization
and Disengagement" (2010).
As the Arab world began to experience major political transitions, Ashour
was a constant source of advice. His research was described by United
Nations' ESCWA as "extremely important in tailoring realistic and
context-driven security sector reform recommendations and...serve to
increase the debate among security sector practitioners in the region and
press upon Arab governments the need for reform".
In March 2011, he was a panellist on three separate occasions at the
House of Commons: the first organised by the Committee for Democratic
Libya ("Libya: The Case for Intervention"), the second organised
by the Council for Arab-British Understanding ("The Fall of the
Pharaoh: How will it Impact the United Kingdom's Foreign Policy")
and, lastly, the Henry Jackson Society ("Moral Imperatives and
Strategic Interests — Western Policy after the Egyptian Revolution").
These were attended by MPs, the media, and NGOs like Amnesty
International, Human Rights Watch, and Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Ashour argued for intervention in Libya, and for engagement with
Islamists and former Islamists in Egypt and Libya. In the latter area in
particular, he influenced FCO philosophy with regard to post- Jihadists
such as Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the former head of Tripoli Military Council,
the LIFG, and the leader of al-Watan Party, whom Ashour had interviewed.
In March 2011 he presented a paper to the FCO, entitled "De-Radicalization
and Civil Resistance in Egypt and Libya". Since FCO representatives
and diplomatic and foreign office staff from 15 countries were present,
Ashour fed into FCO philosophy with regard to former militants and their
future political role in the country. In May 2011, he was invited by the
United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI)
to Lucca, Italy to present to British, European, American and Canadian
senior security officials on "Downstream Interventions: Rehabilitation
and De-radicalization" during a consultation on Policies to
Counter the Appeal of Terrorism. FCO, Home and EU counter-terrorism
coordinator. Gilles De Kerchove, and the head of the United Nation's
al-Qaida and Taliban Monitoring Team. Richard Barrett, and the other
officials were present. Ashour has been strongly advocating democracy and
ending dictatorship in his country of origin, Egypt. After the Egyptian
revolution in 2011, he was consulted by both the first Egyptian elected
civilian President in August and September 2012 as well as the National
Security Committee of Egyptian Parliament in March 2012 on security sector
reform and transformation of Islamists from armed to unarmed activism,
with special focus on the Sinai Peninsula. In July 2012, he was asked by
the British Embassy in Cairo and the FCO to lead a research project on
countering violent extremism in Egypt, with focus on the Sinai. Between
November 2012 and September 2013, the FCO invited Ashour to a series of
discussions on Islamist transitions and security sector reform in Egypt
and Libya. The meetings were attended by several senior officials
including, Minister Alastair Burt, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of
State. Some of the meetings were held under the title of `The Jubilee
Dialogues,' flagship series of debates organized by the FCO bringing
together leading thinkers to discuss some of the major drivers behind
transformation in societies across the world
On 11 February 2013 the Department for International Development (DFID)
invited Ashour to speak about de- radicalization and the Arab Awakening.
Ashour also gave a lecture on the same topic in the Advanced Command and
Staff Course (ACSC) in Joint Services Command and Staff College. which was
well-received by military officers from over 20 countries. This was
organized by the Ministry of Defence on 25 February 2013. He was also
invited to present his research findings in a roundtable table discussion
with the British Home Secretary, Theresa May on 1 May 2013. Overall. the
FCO summarized Dr Ashour's interactions with policy-makers: "an excellent
example of how long-term academic research and a sustained investment in a
relationship between governmental policymakers and academics can reap
benefits in a fluid and changing situation such as that of the `Arab
In addition to informing policy debate, Ashour has raised the level of
public debate and understanding of de-radicalization through his media
engagement. He was interviewed over 400 times only during 2011/13 by
various media outlets, both in the UK and abroad. Examples include the BBC
6 O'Clock News; "Impact" on BBC World News with Tim Willcox;
Channel 4 News; BBC News Hour with Lyce Doucet, the 6.30 ITV News; CNN;
Al-Jazeera (both English & Arabic); France 24; Russia Today and
others. A key theme was the recognition that the opposition movements
bringing about change were inevitably going to include Islamist and
post-Islamist activists who have been de-radicalised, which developed
directly out of Ashour's research. He has been quoted extensively in
newspapers, including the Guardian (7 times during 2011/12); Financial
Times; Daily Telegraph; Times; Washington Post; Gulf Times; and Al-Ahram
(Egypt). After the July 2013 coup in Egypt, The Observer ran an article
by Ashour opposing Tony Blair's view on the opposite page that the
military will bring democracy in Egypt and that the West should back the
new regime. His expert contribution was described by al-Jazeera Network as
"highly valued both by our organization and the audience" and his analysis
of the evolving situation in the Middle East was described as follows:
"widely contributed to educate our [al-Jazeera's] global audience."
He also appeared in the Doha Debates in April 2011, contributing to a
discussion aimed at raising public awareness on whether Arabs, not NATO,
should be dealing with Libya. The Doha debates openly discuss Middle East
issues and are broadcast by BBC World News eight times a year. The total
potential global audience for The Debates is over 350 million.
Sources to corroborate the impact
The following reports were either commissioned by government agencies on
the basis of research findings, or are reports that had a particularly
- RAND Monograph: De-Radicalizing Islamist Extremists.
Arlington: RAND Corporation. 2010 http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG1053.pdf
- Carnegie Endowment Event:
- International Peace Institute (IPI) Briefing Paper: Transforming
Terrorists: Examining International Efforts to Address Violent
Extremism. New York: 2011.
- US counter terrorism White Paper:
- Panellist. "Moral Imperatives and Strategic Interests -
Western Policy after the Egyptian Revolution." Presentation in the House
of Commons organized by the Henry Jackson Society, London, UK, 1 March
- The Guardian: Quoted in 7 articles during 2011/12
- BBC Online http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-14728565
- Panellist in the Doha Debate on Libyan intervention (& broadcast
on BBC World News) [Transcript]:
- Letters from Youssef Chaitani (UN-ESCWA), Ihtisham Hibatullah
(al-Jazeera), Martin Hetherington (FCO), Richard Barrett (UN-CTITF).