A 15-year-old boy, his identity carefully hidden by a keffiyeh (an Arabic male scarf) and sunglasses, raises his glasses slightly for just a second to wipe away a tear. He is a defector from the Islamic State in Syria, and he is telling the chilling story of his experiences with the radical group to an interviewer with a video camera. The boy recounts the violence he and others were forced to participate in and how the group’s leaders were only interested in making money, not upholding the principles of Islam. These are the reasons he fled the group.
Dr. Ardian Shajkovci ’16, a PhD in Public Policy and Administration graduate and recipient of the Harold L. Hodgkinson Award, watches this video made by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and knows how powerful of a tool the boy’s story is. His Walden research focused on discovering why people choose to leave radical and terrorist groups, gathering information through predominantly face-to-face interviews with law enforcement and government officials in the Balkans.
“There has been a good deal of research on why people join radical and terrorist organizations,” Shajkovci explains, “but very little on what motivates them to leave. Understanding why they disengage, and if and how they deradicalize, can be very valuable in terms of homeland security. It can help us dissuade people from joining radical groups by exposing what the experience is really like.”
His passion for and interest in the topic, as well as his recent findings, helped him obtain a position as a research fellow at the newly formed ICSVE, an independent, nonpartisan research center in Washington, D.C. At ICSVE, he is continuing his study of disengagement and fieldwork, working with a team of professionals to gather more data that can help governments counter the recruiting efforts of ISIS and other radical organizations. His work helps shape key ICSVE projects, including videos, such as the one of the 15-year-old ISIS defector, and memes designed to counter ISIS’ strong online recruiting presence; presentations to lawmakers, law enforcement, religious institutions, and civil groups around the world; and articles in academic journals focused on issues in international terrorism.
“I never saw myself just sitting in an office,” Shajkovci says. “I enjoy being in the field. That’s the reason I chose to do my PhD at Walden. I needed an institution that shared my passion for issues that affect our communities every day.”
Walden also offered him the chance to work and connect both virtually and in person with fellow students and faculty members, including a large pool of professionals in the field of homeland security, a resource he did not have access to while earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at brick-and-mortar universities. That connection at Walden provided him not only with valuable insights into the challenges that needed to be solved but also helped focus his research on seeking solutions for those pressing problems.
“Knowledge is not static to me,” Shajkovci says. “Research is most powerful when it’s immediately applied to help solve problems in the real world, which is what I was able to do at Walden and continue to do at ICSVE. I’m grateful to be able to use my skills to be part of hands-on efforts to spark incremental positive social change in the world.”