LONDON—In the past two weeks, the British Isles witnessed two important developments in the annals of jihadist deradicalization. The first, here in London, was a spectacular failure to deradicalize: Usman Khan, 28, feigned remorse for his participation in a 2012 terror plot and was let out of prison early. He was attending a conference on prisoner rehabilitation when he ducked into a lavatory, taped knives to his hands, and emerged to murder two conference attendees before being shot dead on London Bridge. The second development, in Dublin, was a test of willingness to bring another radical back into our midst. Ireland brought home Lisa Marie Smith, a 37-year-old mother and former member of the Irish military who traveled to Syria to live under the Islamic State, and charged her with membership in a terror group. Many in Ireland opposed the government’s decision to bring this accused terrorist home, rather than abandoning her to the miserable fate she chose for herself when she traveled to Syria five years ago.
There is something strange about the concept of deradicalization. The term implies a symmetrical relationship with radicalization, as if authorities could just reverse the transformation. But in practice the two processes are different, because deradicalization happens against the subject’s will in many cases, at the insistence of the government, and radicalization is organic and voluntary. Deradicalization therefore has a bit of a Clockwork Orange feel to it, even though no program that I am aware of uses techniques as coercive as the ones in Anthony Burgess’s novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film. Nor are real-life deradicalization programs as successful as those fictional techniques. (Would we even want them to be? Terrorism is scary, but a successful government mind-control program would be frightening in a different way.)