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From IRA to Islamists, former radicals unite to become a force for peace

Path to progress

Once in groups ranging from US white supremacists to Irish nationalists to European Islamists, these ex-extremists have formed a network to support each other as they try to help people avoid the errors they made.

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Former extremists Yasmin Mulbocus (r.), Arno Michaelis (c.), and Muhammad Manwar Ali join forces for Peace Center Project.

Courtesy of Warrington Guardian

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A former recruiter for a radical Islamist group, Yasmin Mulbocus now spends her days connecting Muslim women to the larger interfaith community in her West London neighborhood.

Her goal? To counter the radical ideology that catapulted her into extremism and to prevent young people, particularly women, from joining jihadi groups.

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Ms. Mulbocus expects to get her spirit broken with alarming regularity. With every beheading, suicide bombing, or mass shooting, every time a mosque is vandalized or a Muslim is attacked just for being a Muslim – even Mulbocus’s strong voice shakes a little. “Some days, you just want to give up,” she says.

That’s when she turns to a trusted group whose members share a similar past and common purpose.

These individuals were violent extremists themselves, or, like Mulbocus, were recruiters for radical networks. They run the gamut – from jihadis to white supremacists, street gang members, Irish nationalists, and left-wing extremists.

Today, they have become a force for peace, using their powerful storytelling to deter future radicals. The goal of these partners is to connect former extremists with one another and provide them with technical support and funding for counterextremism efforts in their respective countries and communities.

And while utilizing former extremists in counterterrorism initiatives can be risky for such individuals, who still may be trying to gain stability and acceptance in mainstream society, their networks offer members words of comfort and support to encourage them.

“In the end, the objective is to flood the Internet with narratives that can counter the other side,” says Sasha Havlicek, founder and chief executive officer of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which runs Against Violent Extremism (AVE), the largest international anti-extremist network. “And with each member we bring into the network, there is one less extremist out there.”

The voice of Abdullah-X

AVE’s ranks include some 300 former radicals, among them the creator of a YouTube animated series called “The Abdullah-X Show.” This man, who chooses to remain anonymous for security reasons, counters the arguments of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group through the persona of Abdullah-X, a 20-something Londoner who speaks with a working-class accent on issues such as jihad, Muslim identity, Islamophobia, and terrorism.

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Abdullah-X’s creator, who grew up in East London, was a recruiter on college campuses for extremist networks for about 13 years. Today, he lives a double life. As himself, a middle-aged former extremist, he talks face-to-face with youths on campuses telling his story and hearing their grievances. And then he assumes the role of Abdullah-X on YouTube, meticulously crafting and delivering bite-sized messages to the same audience, but as one of them.

He seems to relish this dual existence.

The creator of the Abdullah-X cartoons holds up a cellphone showing the character.
Sonia Narang

“Well, I’m not 19 and certainly not as good-looking as Abdullah-X,” he says, smiling. “Some of my own understanding of how extremists recruit and radicalize young people and how they prey on youth is in the narrative of Abdullah-X.”

But Abdullah-X is braver than his creator, he says. “Abdullah-X doesn’t mince words. You can be much ... bolder in animation and cartoons and that’s why it works. Abdullah-X has morphed into something larger than what any of us can be.”

Still, it can be a lonely road, he says, which is where networks like AVE come in. “Counterextremism work is also often a thankless task,” he says. “But you’re not doing the work to be thanked. You’re doing the work because it needs to be done. Having other people around you who share those same ideals can motivate you and can keep you going. I think it’s essential.”

Rallying communities against extremism

Mulbocus, who, like the creator of Abdullah-X, left an extremist group through her own process of critical thinking, says once she got out of that life after the Sept. 11 attacks, she became passionate about rallying her own neighborhood and community against extremism. She has organized “interfaith cafes” where women gather to talk over cake and coffee about issues such as fair trade, the practice of their religion, and violent extremism.

“It’s really about bringing people together and just celebrating the commonalities rather than differences and talking about issues like domestic violence and sexual abuse and posing the question, What can the community at large do?” she says.

These local issues can be a big factor for people who are lured by extremist ideology, Mulbocus says. “If we give them a platform and an alternative, it helps take the heat away from these violent extremist groups that would otherwise prey on these young individuals.”

Her focus is now on the young women from England and other European countries who are traveling to Syria, especially those who managed to escape IS and are now telling their stories.

“When it comes to preventing young women from joining [IS], we need to provide them with that critical thinking,” she says. Radical ideology goes against the teaching of Islam because the whole idea of martyrdom is anchored in personal pride, which the religion forbids, she says.

“Our imams need to be out on the streets teaching true Islam,” she says. “I’ve been trying to get more of them out there talking to young people.”

Former extremists meet with skepticism

For Mulbocus and others like her, this work comes with challenges. Former extremists are often met with skepticism and mistrust in the counterextremism world because of their past actions, says Vidhya Ramalingam, a counterterrorism expert in London. “That’s starting to break down, but we’re not wholly there yet,” she says.

And few who get out of extremism end up as peacebuilders, Ms. Ramalingam adds. “A large number of former extremists just disappear into mainstream society.”

Some experts warn that it is unhealthy for former extremists to remain cemented in that role. “Ideally, they should move on and live normal lives,” says Daniel
Koehler, director of the Berlin-based German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies. “Just because you’ve been a neo-Nazi for 15 years or a jihadi for 10 years, it doesn’t make you an expert in de-radicalization.”

It is also important that former extremists get a chance to completely recover before they try to help others, says Brian Levin, director at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “Not all people who leave extremism end up treating the underlying personal instabilities, be it familial issues, alcoholism, or financial problems, that led them to extremism in the first place.”

Some former radicals argue that counternarratives will not work when it comes to fighting an enemy like IS. “This doesn’t work like an employer-union negotiation,” says Henry Robinson, a former member of the official Irish Republican Army (IRA) who was imprisoned as a young man for kneecapping a member of a rival paramilitary group.

Better, he argues, is for former extremists to flag IS sites and make them unavailable to Web viewers. They “can play a part in that because they know how to identify recruiters, be it online or at the street corner,” he says. “Whether you’re white supremacist, [IS], Al Qaeda, or IRA, when you take away the ideology, they’re all the same.”

Still, the friendship and support Arno Michaelis, a Milwaukee-based former white supremacist, gets from these networks far outweigh the negatives. “There will be head-butting and conflicts” over how to address problems, he says. “But we learn to manage that in a healthy, peaceful manner and that’s an important part of our learning process and evolution.”

They result in unlikely friendships, including Mulbocus’s bond with an American woman who used to be a white supremacist.

“We didn’t want to speak to each other in the beginning,” she says of their initial meeting. “But we laughed when we started talking about how we each thought we were going to take over the White House.

“We realized we were not that different after all.”

• This story was produced with help from the International Women’s Media Foundation through the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.