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Extremist rehabilitation: Updating the Biden administration’s domestic terrorism strategy

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The seditious conspiracy trial of top members of the Proud Boys serves as a powerful reminder of the United States’ ongoing battle against domestic violent extremism (DVE). The January 6, 2021, Capitol riots, which tragically resulted in five deaths and numerous injuries to 140 officers, highlighted the disruptive, destabilizing effect violent extremist groups can have on U.S. democratic governance. Recognizing the need for government and law enforcement officials to develop effective strategies to combat extremist groups, the Biden administration crafted the first National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, released publicly in June 2021. Despite this strategy’s explicit aim to “enhance terrorism-related research and analysis,” one crucial topic for such research was missing: rehabilitation. Similarly, even as the Biden administration continued to stress the dangers of DVE and propose new initiatives to counter it in 2022, rehabilitation remained unmentioned. This is a regrettable oversight.

The United Nations and U.S. allies in Europe have long embraced rehabilitation, along with deradicalization and reintegration, as crucial strategies to combat extremism. In contrast, the United States does not have a concrete system in place to help members of extremist groups transition towards more productive lifestyles, nor has it worked to advance deradicalization programs. The United States has funded and facilitated rehabilitation and reintegration programs for violent extremists in other nations and has embraced rehabilitation within its own criminal justice system, yet inconsistently, it continues to leave rehabilitation out in its fight against extremism. This odd omission is further compounded by a dearth of scholarship exploring the efficacy of rehabilitation tactics in combatting extremism in the United States. The Biden administration should remedy this lamentable state of affairs. It can do so efficiently by leveraging an existing program, namely the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) Grant Program, to catalyze much-needed scholarship on and further the development of rehabilitation tactics and deradicalization programing in the United States.

The robust international landscape of violent extremism rehabilitation

Prominent international and European organizations have long recognized the importance of rehabilitation in combating domestic terrorism. For example, the UN Office of Counter Terrorism—“designated by the Secretary-General as the main focal point for coordinating the United Nations system for preventing violent extremism”—discusses rehabilitation and reintegration as central steps in approaches to preventing terrorism. The UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) has carried out this mission since 2012 by helping member states create specialized rehabilitation programs, reintegration programs, and training for prison officials. UNICRI has worked with Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Mali, Morocco, the Philippines, and Thailand to promote rehabilitation programs across the globe. Using a similar transnational approach, the European Union created the Radicalization Awareness Network in 2011 and committed $28 million to addressing extremism. Moreover, in 2016, the Council of Europe, Europe’s foremost human rights organization, issued a handbook entitled Council of Europe Handbook for Prison and Probation Services Regarding Radicalization and Violent Extremism, which provides clear recommendations for rehabilitation best practices.

Most European countries have clear plans for combatting extremism that boast dedicated government funding and individualized support. Common across Europe, the Norwegian Exit program (also known as Exit) presents one successful approach to rehabilitation. Established in 1997 to manage the rise of neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, and white power movements in Northern Europe throughout the 1990s, and targeted at youth who had been participating in neo-Nazism, the Exit program was “staffed by social workers … and offered a place where people struggling to disengage from extremist groups could get access to therapy, learn new skills, and talk with job counselors.” The program also encouraged parents to participate in and support their child’s deradicalization. This multifaceted approach is based on sociologist Tore Bjørgo’s conclusion that youth often do not join radical groups because of radical, racist views but rather because they are looking for a social network or support. Initially, Exit was completely government-funded, but as neo-Nazism became less of a threat, the Norwegian government elected to discontinue its funding. The program is now run entirely by Voksne for Barn, a Norwegian NGO. Exit’s success led to its spread across Europe, where it continued to yield impressive results. Exit-Germany reports a recidivism rate of approximately 3% of 800 cases since 2000, and in Sweden, only 4 out of 133 former extremists relapsed after three years.

Germany, another European leader in extremist rehabilitation, has focused specifically on sponsoring rehabilitation research. Beyond hosting Exit-Germany and the Violence Prevention Network, Germany has invested millions of Euros into “Living Democracy!” a funding program that enables independent agencies to develop and test deradicalization and disengagement strategies within prisons. Funded projects span rehabilitation programming for far-right and Islamist extremists and include interventions such as case consulting, social group work, and training for prison staff.

While Germany’s “Living Democracy!” program, with its focus on testing different populations and approaches to rehabilitation, may be an especially valuable model for the United States, all the aforementioned programs exemplify the robustness, feasibility, and success of European and intergovernmental organizations’ approaches to extremist rehabilitation. Regrettably, as will be demonstrated below, the United States clearly lacks a commensurate level of dedication.

Inadequate rehabilitation programming and research in the United States

The United States hosts its own ExitUSA program—although less robust than European models—through a private nonprofit known as Life After Hate. Established in 2011 by a community of former extremists, Life After Hate is the only prominent rehabilitation program in the country. ExitUSA helps extremists deradicalize and reengage with society to lead more productive lives. Beyond working with individuals, ExitUSA also engages with extremists’ families so they can better understand and support their loved one. Despite receiving a Department of Homeland Security grant, Life After Hate has not had the same level of state support as the German and Norwegian rehabilitation programs. (The Trump administration, for example, previously revoked a grant awarded to the organization.)

Unfortunately, detailed data on Life After Hate’s success rates, such as the recidivism rates available for European programs, are currently unavailable. While stories of individuals with whom ExitUSA has worked suggest the program has had a significant positive impact, the lack of clear statistical evidence attesting to ExitUSA’s efficacy poses a barrier to ExitUSA’s expansion and success. To obtain the dependable government support common in other countries, empirical proof that Life After Hate’s tactics work is needed.

Further research on extremist rehabilitation would also help clarify and overcome mixed sentiments around rehabilitation, which may also be preventing the proliferation of rehabilitation in the United States as an answer to extremism. Criminal rehabilitation as a whole faced intense scrutiny in the 1970s—the result of “prevailing mistrust of the state and of welfare ideology” coupled with the seeming confirmation of prominent sociologist Robert Martinson’s influential essay which asserted that rehabilitation does not work. Martinson’s essay stated that “rehabilitative efforts that have [been] reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism,” an idea that has been difficult to dislodge. Research has ultimately found positive effects of many types of rehabilitation. Still, lingering doubts around rehabilitation efficacy mean that empirical evidence for extremist rehabilitation will be essential to substantiate requests for program funding.

Expanding U.S. rehabilitation for criminals to domestic extremists

Curiously, the United States has embraced rehabilitation in the broader criminal context. In fact, rehabilitation for incarcerated individuals was a key goal of the Obama administration, with President Obama arguing, “[o]ur prisons should be a place where we can train people for skills that can help them find a job, not train them to become more hardened criminals.” Current rehabilitation and reentry programs in prisons include vocational education, life-skills training, drug abuse programs, and cognitive behavioral treatment. The federal government actively funds several of these programs, with Congress expanding its commitment to successful reentry for former prisoners through the 2008 Second Chance Act.

Incorporating violent extremism rehabilitation into the criminal justice process would be a logical continuation of current best practices, and could be particularly beneficial, since incarceration has been identified as a catalyst for exit from extremist groups. U.S.-based researchers Bryan Bubolz and Peter Simi propose that this may occur because incarceration enables extremists to separate themselves from hate groups, potentially allowing for self-reflection. Further, they find that some extremists may ultimately come to view “prison as a direct consequence of [their] hate group involvement.” However, before the United States could implement any such deradicalization programs, the government would need to invest resources into studying the efficacy of these strategies, tactics, and programs.

The framework for providing violent extremism rehabilitation research and programming funding already exists within the U.S. national security system: the Department of Homeland Security’s Target Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) Grant Program. In FY 2022, DHS dispensed $20 million in funding through this grant program for projects that aim to prevent violence and extremism. Programs funded by these DHS grants have ranged from bystander trainings to the Life After Hate program. The White House could work with Congress and DHS to allocate a set number of grant dollars per year specifically towards rehabilitation research and programming. Alternately, the grant program could focus more closely on extremist rehabilitation. Since the TVTP Grant Program already exists, altering it to directly address rehabilitation would be much easier than establishing a wholly new system. DHS grant funding could directly enable further research regarding the efficacy of Life After Hate and explore new possibilities for rehabilitation like deprogramming—a technique sought out by some families after the capitol riots.

Given the model set by Europe and the United Nations, there is clear precedent for establishing and expanding American extremist rehabilitation programs. Such programs would importantly serve as a continuation of preexisting criminal rehabilitation and reentry programs in the United States. By studying extremist rehabilitation, the federal government, NGOs such as Life After Hate, and other organizations would have an opportunity to learn and implement effective rehabilitation and deradicalization tactics. Expanding rehabilitation research and programming via the TVTP grant program could reveal viable, new strategies that could be incorporated into the national security agenda. To be as equipped as possible to combat domestic violent extremism, the U.S. government must facilitate the study of extremist rehabilitation, which will benefit both those presently embroiled in extremism and the American public at large.

Natalie Heller is a political science and criminology double major at the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts and Sciences. She was a 2021 intern at the Center for Ethics and Rule of Law.    

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