Interview with Sarah Marsden : Reintegrating Extremists, Evidence from the UK

“The process of reintegration
is very difficult.”
– Sarah Marsden […]

Read More…

Do convicted terrorists deserve a Second Chance ? What does the scientific literature say about this ? What are governments doing to reintegrate them ? And what role do community-based organizations play in their reintegration ?

Sarah Marsden
Senior Lecturer in Radicalisation and Protestin a Digital Age, Lancaster University

Sarah Marsden is an Associate Professor at Lancaster University in the UK. Through her extensive fieldwork, she has had the great opportunity to work closely with probation services1 and community-based organizations who help reintegrate former violent extremists. Also, Sarah developed a theoretical strength-based approach2 to social reintegration which, based on criminological theory, emphasizes building the strengths of individuals to help them integrate into society. Moreover, in 2017, Sarah published her book “Reintegrating Extremists : ‘Deradicalization’ and Desistance”.

During this interview, Sarah Marsden explains us how this approach helps to interpret the reintegration of those who have been convicted of terrorism offences by focusing on ways of working towards a positive future.

Her insights are a great addition to this first issue and contribute deeply to the reflection around the notion of Second Chances.

Throughout this conversation, Sarah shares with us her experience regarding the probation services and sheds light on the cross-cutting issues related to the reintegration of violent extremists. She also offers us avenues for reflection but above all, alternative approaches to prepare prisoners for their release and reintegration into society.

Our Interview

In the past years, your academic work has been focusing on the reintegration of extremists. What led you to become interested in this topic ?

There is a practical path and a values-driven path. The practical path was good fortune in the sense that I was doing research on terrorism more generally, focusing on the psychological and sociological process by which people became involved in extremism. A colleague at Middlesex University, where I was based, was approached by somebody within the probation services in London because they were facing a particular challenge which was the release of those who have been convicted of terrorism offences in the wake of 9/11.

After 9/11, particularly in the UK, there was a very significant increase in the amount of legislation and in the number of arrests (although they were often for relatively minor offences, they were still terrorism related). In the mid-late 2000s, these people started to be released into the community. The probation services, who are responsible for them when they leave prison, recognized they needed additional support around how to work with individuals who have been convicted of terrorism and how to support their reintegration.

They felt instinctively that community-based Muslim-led organizations could be potential partners in this work. In addition, they had encountered number of organizations who were already doing similar work to this independently. They were already engaging with people, trying to answer questions about radicalization, extremism and terrorism and trying to reduce the risk of radicalisation. Moreover, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to spend time with these community-based organizations. From then on, my interaction with the probation services continued. I was interested in understanding : What is the community capacity to work with people who have been convicted of terrorism offences ? What opportunities and challenges are there in working with community-based organisations in this space ? And how might that partnership approach, as I say, increase the potential for public protection and reduced the risk of reoffending ?

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to work with probation services and with those community-based organizations at the time, when it was really quite a challenging context in the UK. For example, in 2005, the London transport bombings had been a very
significant event.

What is the community capacity to work with people who have been convicted of terrorism offences ?
[…] keep people safe and to make it possible for them to live in conditions that are better and fair.

The Muslim communities, that we were working with, were really suffering from perceptions of stigmatization and from being perceived as a threat, even though, they themselves were working hard in those communities to try on a grassroots level to address questions of disenfranchisement or anger within their own populations. Therefore, it was a really significant time within the UK’s counter terrorism and counter extremism policies. My research continued to ask those questions about how best to support people who have been convicted of terrorism offences and that led me to ask questions about prevention and how we can reduce the challenges around reintegration, and also mitigate some of the risks around it.

I think it particularly appealed to me because fundamentally, my research and my own personal commitment are to enable people to fulfill their potential, to live a life which is worthwhile, and which is positive. In fact, it was really the same goal as probation services, to keep people safe and to, as far as possible, make it possible to for them to live in conditions that are better and fair.

Different notions have been used to talk about the reintegration of extremists, could you explain to us the difference between the concepts of “deradicalization”, “disengagement”, “desistance” or “reintegration” that are widely used in the field ?

The common definition of deradicalization is the reduction in the commitment to embracing ideas and attitudes which support violent extremism. Disengagement is typically seen as a behaviour change, more precisely as a shift in the behaviours, which reduce the chances that the person re-engages with violent extremism.

While, deradicalization is focused on cognitive change, disengagement is focused on behavioural change. The questions of desistance and reintegration, which are more commonly seen in criminological theory, have been brought into research on violent extremism. Desistance within criminological theory would look at desistance from crime, typically in terms of primary and secondary desistance. Primary desistance is any period where the individual isn’t involved in criminal acts, whereas secondary desistance is a more fundamental change or shift in the individual’s sense of self away from an offending identity and towards a non-offending identity. This brings us to the third important element, which is how society must accept to reintegrate an individual who has been involved in violent extremism.


 «  Probationers face significant challenges around economic, social and political integration  »

According to you, what are the main challenges for a successful social reintegration of “radicalized” people in society ?

On a practical level, the reintegration of those who have been convicted of terrorism offences is hard. When they’re in the community, they’re under very strict licence conditions, so they’ll be released into the community for a period of time before their full term of sentence ends, and during that time, they have a very long list of things they can’t do. Often, they can’t use the internet, they can’t travel to certain places, they have to ask permission for almost everything. All these issues make the process of reintegration tough.

Although that’s balanced against the need to secure public protection, from the individual’s point of view, for example, if you’re having to wait for decisions about applying for a job or if you’re having to negotiate all these different permissions just to live normally, that undermines people’s motivation. Thus, their actual motivation to engage with probation officers and others can reduce the potential for positive outcomes. On a practical level, the reintegration of people who have been convicted by terrorism offences into the community is very hard because there are a whole series of social, economic and political challenges that they face.

Socially, it can be difficult for a probationer to reintegrate back into society, into social networks, into family networks because families are often traumatized by the fact that the individual has been convicted of terrorism. Besides, the person sees himself as someone “without any support” ; feels that he no longer has a sure footing, no roots. He has the feeling of being suspected all the time and people often wonder if the person in front of them is safe. Economically, it’s difficult too, because they have to declare the fact that they have been convicted of terrorism offences. It can, at least, reduce the chances of getting a job or being allowed into an educational or training course. Also, practitioners recognize that those who were more invested in a radical group face challenges moving away from it, in particular, where the alternative future available to them is less attractive than the kind of future enabled by being part of that group.

Is there a program to support families that are welcoming back someone who has been convicted of terrorism offences ?

Daniel Koehler3, in Germany, works with families and he spends a lot of time counselling them, trying to help them understand what’s happening with the criminological justice process, what can happen next and how they can best support the individual family member. In Germany, they have a better system that recognizes to some degree the importance of working with families around these issues. Family members of those who have been convicted of terrorism offences and violent extremism are beginning to receive more attention in the United Kingdom, because they play an important role in the process of reintegration

Because of recent events, some people have questioned the legitimacy and effectiveness of trying to reintegrate extremists in society. What do you think are the key elements that make intervention programs for extremists effective ? Do you have examples of good practices that you would like to share ?

The debate is real in the UK and across Europe because there are challenges both with people who are coming out of prison, and also with returnees from overseas conflicts. And I think there is a real question about, well, what does society do ? Do we lock them up forever ? These questions need sustainable answers. The challenge would be to ask ourselves, what we do instead ?

Obviously, that’s what has happened in the UK with the shift in the law so that now, there isn’t automatic release halfway through a sentence.

“The more that we can be transparent about that, I think more people can have a public debate about this.”

After the last two attacks in London, the law was changed quickly, and terrorism offenders are now not able to be released as quickly as other offenders. That comes with another challenge as well because the longer they’re imprisoned, the less time you’ve got to work with them in the community to try reintegrating them and, in terms of effectiveness, it’s more complicated to make progress.

For us to know what credibility should be given to declarations of effectiveness or success of these kinds of support programs, we have to find relevant appropriate models and methods to assess what was going on and identify measures to successfully reintegrate these people. More nuanced indicators of whether these programs are having an effect on reducing risk are what we’re looking for in evaluating this work.

Germany, again, has done some evaluation work, which they’ve made public. The more that we can be transparent about that, I think, the more the people can say and have a public debate about this. There is the public appetite and the political appetite. As for any kind of recidivism, it’s much lower than it is than with other sorts of violent crime : international rates for crime are difficult to always compare. But, if we’re looking at recidivism rates in general of 30% to 40%, we would not have a politician or major organizations saying that it’s acceptable that for every 10 extremists that we lock up, three and four of them go on to commit a further offence. It just wouldn’t be acceptable.

“We need to be sensible and mindful about how we communicate threat or risk so that people are aware that there is going to be a risk, but that risk is communicated proportionally and carefully.”

I think having those public conversations about what we accept as a reasonable risk is extremely important. We need to be sensible and mindful about how we communicate threat and risk so that people are aware that there will be a risk, but that risk should be communicated proportionally and carefully, to make sure that there isn’t a backlash afterwards. This can create more social division and exacerbate the problem in the first place. For example, the terrorism we see in Europe has decreased significantly since the 1960s. The number of people killed through terrorist attacks has gone down and that’s not to be complacent. However, we also have to recognize that we’re comparatively safe, we need not to dismiss the tragedy of violence and put that in context so that we can, as a society and as practitioners, and as policymakers, make sensible decisions about how best to manage these individuals.

In your chapter, Reintegration of radicals : a strengths-based approach to ‘deradicalization’ Marsden, S. V. (2017), you developed a theoretical framework to think about the reintegration of extremists in society. Could you tell us about this framework and why do you think it might be the best one for addressing the issue ?

The strengths-based approach is rooted in the experience and knowledge of practitioners. Its main objective is to support the individual, develop their strengths and find ways of fulfilling personal goods in ways that don’t break the law.

The dominant model in the criminal justice system is to try and identify and address risk factors. However, it’s not very motivational for offenders because essentially, practitioners are going to an individual who’s been convicted of an offence and saying : “We need to fix your educational background. We need to help you with your critical thinking skills. We need to deal with all these issues and then, you’ll be better.” For an individual who’s on the other end of that, that is just not very motivating.

“The idea behind the strengths-based model was actually, instead of asking what was wrong with them [probationers] to ask how can we build their strengths to make them more resilient to the risk of reoffending ?”

The idea behind the strengths-based model was to ask how we could build their strengths to make them [probationers] more resilient to the risk of reoffending instead of asking what was wrong with them. First, the aim is to start out by understanding what motivates the individual to become involved in offending, then, work with them to develop strengths to mitigate that risk. There’s a model called the Good Lives Model (GLM) by Tony Ward4 and academics in Australia, which consolidates this approach.

Instead of saying that there are many risks or problems with someone at the individual level it recognizes instead that we all share a desire to achieve certain kinds of goods. For example, we might want to achieve goods in relation to work or our relationships, our community, or spirituality. The GLM arguments that if the root to those goods is blocked, then people will choose maladaptive or illegal means of achieving them. The flip side is if we’re trying to encourage people to move away from extremism or crime, then we need to provide pro-social, positive ways of achieving those goods and build resilience so that they can achieve them in ways which don’t break the law.

The advantage of this [strengths-based approach] is that it’s more motivating for people because we don’t start by asking them what’s wrong, but what do they want ? What motivates them ? What are they interested in and how can we support and enabling them to achieve those goods ? Therefore, it provides a more motivational framework. It also recognizes that these things aren’t just about individual deficits and needs. They’re about social processes, which need broader social support, which needs support around particular needs, so the individual becomes more resilient to reoffending. Through this, it seems to me that there is a more positive future, a more positive path, which enables people to work more collaboratively and more positively with individuals.

“There always has to be an opportunity for people to redeem themselves and to change and to choose different futures.”

I think balancing that and using that alongside the more risk-oriented models has got real potential, as I say, because it allows people to take control of their futures and in a supportive way, develop that resilience and those strengths so that people can desist. Another reason why community-based organizations are good partners in this work is because they’re able, from a community perspective, to say, “We accept you despite what you’ve done and we will work with you to help you achieve what you want to.”

That’s something which certainly some statutory organizations can do. The probation services can say that, but it’s more powerful when it comes from the community because there is a space for people to reintegrate. There’s not much more powerful than saying that the community accepts you and will help you. You tell us how you need our help and we will do what we can. Although you’ve got people who’ve committed horrible offences, I think there must always be a Second Chance, an opportunity for people to redeem themselves and to change and to choose different futures. I think partnership working between governments and non-statutory third sector organizations is central to that.

Article written by Khaoula El Khalil, undergraduate student in political science at the Université de Montréal.

1 Probation services : The National Probation Service is a statutory criminal justice service that supervises high-risk offenders released into the community. The National Probation Service was set up on 1 June 2014, along with 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) that manage low and medium risk offenders. We work in partnership with the CRCs, with the courts, police and with private and voluntary sector partners in order to manage offenders safely and effectively. For more information, visit The National Probation Service website, at

2 From Oxford bibliographies, strengths-based practice is a social work practice theory that emphasizes people’s self-determination and strengths. It is a philosophy and a way of viewing clients as resourceful and resilient in the face of adversity. For more information, visit

3 Daniel Koehler is the founding Director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-
Radicalization Studies (GIRDS). Koehler 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.

4 Ward, T. (2002). Good lives and the rehabilitation of sexual offenders : Promises and problems. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 7, 513–528.

Ward, R., & Brown, M. (2004). The Good Lives Model and conceptual issues in offender rehabilitation. Psychology, Crime and Law, 10, 243–257.

Ward, R., & Maruna, S. (2007). Rehabilitation : Beyond the risk paradigm. Padstow : Routledge. Ward, T., & Stewart, C. A. (2003). The treatment of sex offenders : Risk management and good lives. Professional Psychology : Research and Practice, 34(4), 353–360.

PAR 404mag

Questions? >


404 Magazine