Deradicalising a terrorist

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Podcast: The Detail

The Detail is in lockdown mode – we are switching from podcasts to written explainers while our Auckland-based team is in Alert Level 4.


There are programmes that could help deradicalise people like Aathill Samsudeen. But the first requirement is they must want to change. 

A quiet west Auckland street filled with factories, workshops and a few houses was home to the LynnMall supermarket terrorist Ahamed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen.

Since July he had lived in a small flat attached to the Masjid-e-Bilal prayer centre on the road.

But the people who lived and worked there did not know him. Even the Muslim family nearby had never met him.

RNZ reporter Chen Liu says the street is eerie.

“There is a mental health facility at one end, a wood storage unit at the other end and in between a plastic recycling place, lots of factories and fenced off houses.”

From prison Samsudeen went to live in this quiet street, in the same building as the men-only prayer centre – the refugee damaged by a traumatic upbringing.

“He had problems with belonging and attachment, he was ostracised and clinically depressed and he did not have a lot of trust,” says Canberra-based criminologist Dr Clarke Jones.

Jones was called in to assess Samsudeen and offered to design a rehabilitation programme for him, but says it was not put in place because there was no funding and the police had no appetite for it.

As more details emerge about the case there is growing anger and frustration about how his release was handled by Corrections and the police.

The Muslim Association says he should not have been left in the small Islamic community that did not have the capacity or the capability to support him.

Corrections has defended its handling of Samsudeen and has outlined the measures it took.

Other counter terror experts have told The Detail deradicalisation or rehabilitation would have been difficult because he was unwilling.

What could have been done?

So what is a rehabilitation programme and what does it take to successfully deradicalise an individual?

“The arrangements that you put around a person create a web of support so that they don’t slip through the cracks,” says Jones.

There has to be accountability, times where you escalate the support, a psychiatrist gets involved, there might be medication, and police involvement in extreme cases is very important.

“But you don’t want police to be in front of intervention. Programmes where there is coercion are not as effective.”

It is all built on trust, says Jones.

His work at the Research School of Psychology at the Australian National University covers violent extremism, terrorism, radicalisation, prison radicalisation, community-led youth interventions, correctional reform, and gangs.

He has co-designed intervention programmes in Australian Muslim communities and he is advising Philippines corrections on the management of high-risk inmates, violent extremist offenders and prison reform.

“The main aspects of programmes are built on trust and mutual respect. But just because it works somewhere else it may not work here.”

Gaining the trust of a community suspicious of outsiders was sometimes “touch and go”, says Jones. He gets a lot of work through word of mouth, sometimes offenders recommending him to other offenders.

But getting close to extremists has earned him a reputation.

Countdown supermarket at LynnMall on 6 September. Photo: RNZ/Chen Liu

“When I work with ultra-terrorist groups, people say, ‘he has gone to the dark side, he has been radicalised’.

“How can you understand a person’s needs unless you have spoken to them and understand them. You must know what they think, why are you suddenly a violent extremist.”

Jones works closely with other specialists, including psychologists and psychiatrists, to draw up a programme.

“I look at what are the criminogenic needs. What are the structural elements of a person’s life that led them to commit crime, that led to their propensity for violence.”

Jones had deemed Ahamed Samsudeen a low risk when he assessed him in 2018.

He told the High Court the man did not appear to be violent and did not fit the profile of a young Muslim person who had been radicalised.

Jones offered Samsudeen’s lawyers a programme that he had devised in Australia for young Muslim men coming out of prison.

“I thought we might as well see if these principles would work.”

He didn’t get a chance to test it because the police resisted it but he does not know why. Jones says there is a lack of transparency in national security operations.

“It is hard for the police and hard for security agencies but if things are not working you have to look at alternatives.”

Jones, who had one phone call with Samsudeen in 2018, says he was crying out for help in New Zealand.

No money for help

“It was about how he was feeling, his imprisonment, discussion around mistreatment. He had a lot of grievances.

“It was not productive,” he says of the phone call. “Sometimes it takes several conversations, maybe more.”

Jones says he would have refined the intervention programme once it was approved but without the police support Samsudeen’s legal team could not afford to take it further.

“I’m working in some of the most socially disadvantaged areas of Sydney and Melbourne. It is not unusual to see me around a particular youth centre. It took a long time for the kids to come to me to talk about something.

“I’ve attended youth camps, been to family events, weddings. It takes a long time.

“You sit on the fence between being an insider and an outsider.”

Jones uses a framework called Circles of Support and Accountability where groups of volunteers and professionals support the offender’s reintegration into society.

“The person you are working with is inside the circle with a person they have a close relationship with. It’s about establishing the trust.

“Moving outside the circle they are introduced to trusted support, ideally people from the same cultural background.”

Jones says Samsudeen’s barrister would have been inside his first circle and then he would have gone wider into the Muslim community.

He says the programme must have accountability with oversight given to the police and the government.

The programme can last several years.

“You have to have dedication. This is why the community support is really important in establishing a family.

“Muslims do it well, they have a brotherhood, a sisterhood.”

Jones says he could not guarantee the programme would have worked with Samsudeen.

The ball wasn’t dropped

“No one has been able to come up with the process to accurately describe how someone is radicalised and a programme to deradicalise them,” says Dr John Battersby, a teaching fellow at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies.

Samsudeen was not interested in rehabilitation and one constant of the programmes is they all need consent.

Battersby says the best approach is providing education and work skills.

“So in many ways you look at providing disadvantaged people with the means to go on.”

Battersby rejects any “criticism that anybody dropped the ball. Every agency, every group have done everything possible within the law to work with this guy.

“The analysis we need to do is let’s look at these limits of the law, let’s see what we can do to stretch these.”

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