Taliban fighters attend a surrender ceremony in Baghlan province, north Afghanistan, on July 14, 2014. (Sahil/Xinhua Press/Corbis)

Taliban fighters attend a surrender ceremony in Baghlan province, north Afghanistan, on July 14, 2014. (Sahil/Xinhua Press/Corbis)

“Feet first.” That’s how one terrorist leader told recruits was the only way out. It makes sense. Allowing members to just walk away wouldn’t be good for the group’s image.

And yet—at the same time as Islamic State parades its European jihadists in shocking beheading videos and continues to recruit aggressively around the world—terrorists do disengage all the time. Some quietly disappear. Others go public, telling their stories on TV or in autobiographies. They embrace their new identity as an “ex-” or “former” to warn others of the dangers of involvement.

We have also come to know formers through the rise of so-called de-radicalization programs. For the past decade, I’ve examined how and why terrorists walk away, and I’ve also closely examined programs aimed at helping ease that transition.

De-Radicalization: How It Works

One of the newest efforts was launched earlier this year by social workers and psychologists in Denmark. Their objective? To successfully reintegrate Danish jihadists who left a few short years ago to take up arms against the Syrian regime. Now they want to come home.

The Danes join similar ongoing efforts around the world. It’s hard to say how many de-radicalization programs exist. At least 15 are publicly known, from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, but there are likely twice as many. Some are the brainchildren of individuals trying to make a difference in managing a group of terrorist prisoners. Others are wide-ranging, well-funded (typically by governments) initiatives that offer invited tours to journalists and academics. You can even meet and chat with “model” participants. In one of my first visits to a de-radicalization facility, back in March 2008, I was invited to sit and have dinner with several al-Qaeda members undergoing rehabilitation, whom, I was assured, were there voluntarily. Read more