Serious study of terrorism has, for the past 20 years, been fixated on one question. That question, so teasingly close to the right one, is, Why do people join terrorist groups?
The better the study, the more muddled the findings. Would-be terrorists are "unremarkable people" living "unremarkable lives," concluded a 2007 report by the New York City police department. Humans do not join terrorist groups because they are poor, oppressed or religious. They seem to join in search of purpose, excitement or status. They seem to be fighting loneliness. But then again, not always.
The smarter question, the one experts have now begun to ask, is, Why do people leave terrorist groups? John Horgan, a Penn State psychologist, has interviewed 28 former terrorists. His subjects have spanned 13 organizations, including five Islamic extremist groups. The men have told him strikingly similar stories of disenchantment. "I was stunned by the common denominators between members of the ira and members of Jemaah Islamiah [a militant Islamist group in Southeast Asia with ties to al-Qaeda]."
Many said they'd been disappointed by the terrorist life. "The reality didn't live up to the fantasy," says Horgan. "The reality is depressing, stressful and generally not what people expect." And in that disconnect lies opportunity. Nearly a dozen countries, including the U.S. in Iraq, have recently started programs to educate radicals about the gap between their religious ideals and the groups they follow—to essentially force the disenchantment process with the help of clerics and ex-terrorists. "We've been fighting the wrong battle," says Frank Cilluffo, a former White House Homeland Security official who is researching deradicalization at George Washington University. "The real center of gravity of the enemy is their narrative. It is ideologically bankrupt."
Nasir Abas belonged to Jemaah Islamiah and its predecessor groups for 18 years. At a Jakarta coffee shop in February, he explained to TIME why he joined. "You have to remember how it was in those days. Muslims all over the world witnessed the suffering of their brothers and sisters," he says, sounding very much like a modern-day jihadi. When his teachers invited him to leave his native Malaysia to go to Afghanistan, he was thrilled. "I found it very heroic, a dream come true."
Nasir became a weaponry instructor at a mujahedin training camp. "Give me any kind of weapon that no longer works, I can make it work perfectly again," he says with a small smile, holding his coffee cup close. Eventually, he rose to head Mantiqi Three, Jemaah Islamiah's training unit.
On Christmas Eve 2000, a wave of Jemaah Islamiah church bombings killed 19 in Indonesia. Nasir heard about it on the news, and he was distraught. "It was against the teachings of the Prophet, which bar Muslims from destroying places of worship." Then in 2002, a massive bombing rocked a Bali nightclub, killing 202. Nasir had trained two of the men involved. "I felt really troubled," he says. "I tried to talk to people in the organization, but what could you do when they wouldn't listen?"
On April 18, 2003, the police forced the issue. Nasir was arrested in East Jakarta and sent to prison for 10 months on immigration charges. He cooperated in order to get a shorter sentence and because, he says, he was tired of the lies. Nasir helped put away several Bali plotters, and he published a 2005 book arguing against killing civilians. "It's well defined in the Koran whom we are supposed to fight. It is not justifiable to kill anyone who is innocent."
Today, as an adviser to Indonesia's antiterrorism squad, Special Detachment 88, Nasir visits ex-comrades in jail to persuade them to cooperate and speaks critically of Jemaah Islamiah in the media. So far, the program has helped disengage two dozen Jemaah Islamiah members, according to the independent International Crisis Group.
Similar programs exist in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Singapore and Britain. Data on success rates are scarce, which is a problem. But even the U.S. military is paying attention: some of the 25,000 detainees in Iraq have started taking religious enlightenment classes. Major General Douglas Stone, who oversees U.S. detention centers there, has said re-education helps "knock the edge off" detainees who don't understand Islam.
Such experiments can be expected to be messy. Of all the men he has interviewed, Horgan says, none are truly deradicalized. Disengagement is more realistic. Nasir still supports the creation of an Islamic state and says Muslims have a right to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq. When he recalls turning in former comrades, he becomes visibly upset. "I felt very sad. You will never be able to imagine how I felt." His eyes look defeated. He asks TIME not to name the coffee shop. Then he leaves, returning to the netherworld between the masses and the margins.