The landscape of European exit organizations comprises various groups primarily active in Western Europe. Since the establishment of the first European Exit organization in Norway in 1996, this field has continued to evolve. These organizations play a crucial role in assisting individuals who are leaving violent extremist groups, aiding in their disengagement and rehabilitation process. Most programs adopt an individualized approach, tailoring their services to meet the specific needs and risks of their clients. Additionally, exit programs often extend support to families who are concerned about the involvement of their loved ones in violent extremist groups.
Exit organizations differ in their scale, operational methodologies, target ideological groups, and the specific context in which they operate. They can be found either in the prison-probation context or in open settings that accept clients both inside and outside the criminal justice system. These services are often provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). One advantage of NGOs is their autonomy from the state, which facilitates contact with clients and fosters trust-building, as violent extremists tend to be opposed to the "establishment".
Principles of Exit Work
As part of the EU-funded project EUTEx (”Developing a European framework for disengagement and reintegration of extremist offenders and radicalised individuals in prison, including returning foreign terrorist fighters and their families”), a training course for practitioners was developed and conducted. In order to optimize the effectiveness of the course, an assessment was carried out to identify and analyse the diverse approaches and practices employed in the field of disengagement and reintegration, including those utilized by NGOs.
Based on 47 interviews with social workers and psychologists regarding their practical work, three essential and effective practices were identified in Europe: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) (15%), Motivational Interviewing (MI) (5%), and the establishment of a Working Alliance (WA) (3%). This blog post explores these and other aspects from the perspective of NGO exit work.
Most exit work operates through individualized intervention plans and multidisciplinary teams. The client's journey begins with gathering information about their case, conducting needs assessments to understand their background, current situation, and various needs and risks. This information is then utilized to develop an individual intervention plan, which is assigned to a case manager. The case manager acts as the primary point of contact, connecting the client with internal and external support services.
Process Ownership: Violent extremist groups exert strong control over their members' perceptions and world views. The ideology and group dynamics guide and validate "the correct" interpretation and understanding of world events. When individuals become less involved with the group and eventually decide to leave, a crucial aspect is their ownership over the exit process. This means that clients must be involved and take responsibility for their own journey of change. Instead of being told what to do or think, exit professionals guide their clients on making pro-social, constructive, and non-violent decisions.
Building trust with a hard-to-reach target group requires time, patience, and persistence. Assisting clients in their journey of change may span over several years. Establishing a trusting relationship with the client is vital, much like in other fields such as social work, psychotherapy, and probation. Trust forms the foundation for the case manager's ability to influence and facilitate change for the client. Trust can be cultivated through various methods, including being transparent about the exit organization's goals and work methods. Spending informal and unstructured time together initially, engaging in activities and problem-solving, can also aid in the trust-building process.
Maintaining non-judgmental and non-confrontational attitudes when working with violent extremist clients is key to fostering successful cooperation.
Five Areas of Needs in Exit Work
Functional reintegration: This focuses on practical aspects such as providing housing, relocation assistance, employment and educational support, tattoo removal, financial aid, and assistance with administrative tasks.
Social reintegration: This addresses the exploration of social identity, social and family relationships, and the strengthening of pro-social networks. It also involves identifying obstacles to social reintegration, such as isolation, stigmatization, and anger and conflict management.
Cognitive needs: These pertain to the strengthening of critical thinking, reorienting world views, and questioning the ideology that promotes violence.
Mental health-related needs: This encompasses addressing trauma, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and mental health issues.
Security-related needs: These involve consulting with law enforcement and security services to assess safety risks, including the possibility of retaliation from violent extremist groups, and other security-related aspects.
The current challenges in the field of Exit work include the need to enhance program evaluations and the lack of long-term funding for Exit organizations. Evaluating practices and measuring success is complicated due to the lack of consensus and standards regarding the precise goals of exit work, whether it be focused on disengagement (behavioural changes), deradicalization (altering violent-promoting ideologies), reintegration (returning to society and pro-social communities), or rehabilitation (transitioning away from a violent lifestyle).
European Exit organizations heavily rely on state funding, with few alternative sources of stable financial support. State funding is typically provided on an annual basis, while the casework may span multiple years, especially for clients serving long prison sentences. Consequently, the absence of long-term funding streams in European member states poses challenges for Exit organizations.
Outlook for the Exit Field
The current landscape of violent extremism in Europe suggests an increase in polarization and the spread of conspiracy theories, which has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, there is a growing need for additional approaches to primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention. The field of Exit work in Europe is still relatively young. However, there are several other fields, such as conflict resolution, mediation, and restorative justice practices, that offer valuable experiences and promising practices which can be further incorporated into the Exit work field. The training developed in the afore-mentioned EUTEx project serves as a promising example of building capacity and skills among first-line practitioners in the field - follow this link to learn more about the project's outputs and achievements.
Further recommended reading:
RAN (Radicalization Awareness Network): The role of civil society organisations in exit work (2022)
RAN Exit: Minimal methodological requirements for exit interventions (2016) - this publication includes both process-oriented principles and practical aspects of exit work.
RAN activities on Rehabilitation (2022)
RAN Centre of Excellence: Peer and Self Review Manual for Exit Work (van de Donk, M., Uhlmann, M., & Keijze, F. (2020))
Robert Örell, Director of the Swedish NGO Transform, is an independent expert with over 20 years of experience in Exit work. He led Exit Sweden for 10 years and served as the program director for ExitUSA for 3 years. Since 2011, Robert has been a member of the Steering Committee of the EU RAN, where he co-chairs the RAN Rehabilitation working group.