Swat deradicalisation project — I

Broad examination of the Swat deradicalisation project reflects that modules stress the importance of religious dialogue to address a detainee’s understanding of Islam, a strategy critical for challenging the extremist’s mind, which relies on religion for

Swat deradicalisation project — I

A deradicalisation project was launched by the Pakistan army in the Swat region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2009 for the rehabilitation of a cohort of militant detainees, excluding screened out hardcore militants, after they were arrested by the successful military operation in 2009. The programme involved three programmes, ‘Sabawoon’, focusing on juveniles, ‘Mishal’, working on adult detainees, and ‘Sparlay’, which included working with family members of detained militants. Four modules incorporating a psycho-social educational curriculum were designed, which provide formal education to juveniles along with psychological counselling and family therapy culminating in vocational training. Although over 2,200 youth have been reintegrated into the community through the ‘Mishal’ project and in spite of the limitations, e.g. scant resources and poor community response, commendable success has been achieved from this modified halfway house that combined elements of a security operation with those of a social services institution.

The deradicalisation programme aims to reform terrorists in custody and is a tool that supports broader counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation strategies. These rehabilitation programmes focus on influencing ideological beliefs and behavioural modification, and are one of the various ways for mitigating the potential future threat of detained terrorists. This is an important point for programmes run by all countries like Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Egypt and the US, where variable capability and credibility constrain authorities’ ability to influence ideology that finally influences the recidivist rate. In recent counterterrorism efforts, several countries have advanced on a new approach to the problem of countering radicalisation of imprisoned extremists. Some of these deradicalisation techniques had varying degrees of success but reduced recidivism has yet to be confirmed.

To determine whether these tactics are effective in deradicalising terrorists in a rehabilitation programme requires not only identifying how they became radicalised but also entails determining whether the militants have moved on and whether terrorists will avoid harmful activity after they are released from the programme. One of the most reasonable ways to assess effectiveness is by the rate of recidivism: how many graduates of a particular deradicalisation programme returned to terrorism? However, recidivism rates can be misleading. They are often inaccurate, reflecting only what is known to intelligence services, which is limited. Recent events in Karachi and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the death of Chaudhry Aslam Khan have increased focus for information about the deradicalisation programme and accuracy of any estimate of recidivism, particularly since there has not been enough time to study the long-term effects of deradicalisation.

Analysts are interested in the deradicalisation programme ‘Sabawoon’, established by the Pakistani army in 2009 to deradicalise captured militants. Even with the security umbrella, recidivism remains a concern and will likely continue to be a problem. Saudi Arabia, in particular, had been under the spotlight since its rehabilitation programme played a significant role in previous detainee transfers, and the US has encouraged Pakistan and other countries to replicate it. Yet these rehabilitation efforts have also aroused criticism about the recidivist rate, especially since after the US reported that at least 11 graduates of the Saudi programme, one of whom fled to Yemen after release and became deputy commander of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and an al-Qaeda affiliate was linked to two incidents in the US in 2009.

In comparison, the Saudi deradicalisation programme at the Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Counselling and Advice, which formally opened in 2007, began in 2004 to take steps to balance traditional security efforts with techniques that address ideological sources of violent extremism. One critical component of this new approach was the rehabilitation of extremists in prison through religious re-education and psychological counselling. Since its inception, about 4,000 ministry of interior prisoners have participated in a six-week rehabilitation course, counselling sessions and an aftercare programme that helps reintegrate them into Saudi society. The initiative is overseen by committees of clerics, psychologists and security officers who handle religious, psycho-social, security and media-related programming. While Saudi officials continue to ride in confidence in their rehabilitation programme, they also continue to modify how its participants are educated, monitored and reintegrated into society. This has impressed US policy makers who have been reported to simulate the Saudi rehabilitation programme, deradicalising alleged terror suspects in their custody who may one day be released.

Broad examination of the Swat deradicalisation project reflects that modules stress the importance of religious dialogue to address a detainee’s understanding of Islam, a strategy critical for challenging the extremist’s mind, which relies on religion for legitimacy of his behaviour. Emphasis is on educational efforts aiming to modify a detainee’s behaviour, not change his religious beliefs. A wide range of programmes is offered, including educational classes for adolescents, psychological counselling, vocational training and family support. In contrast, the Saudi deradicalisation programme also includes counselling in sharia law, sociology, history, Islamic culture, art therapy, athletics and specialised courses on local history and culture. Each aims to support the centre’s goal of shaping the thoughts of its ‘beneficiaries’, but also stresses the need to change their behaviour and provide tools that help detainees reintegrate into the community.

Quite similar to a worldwide problem, follow up of the graduates after release from the rehabilitation programme remains one of the central weaknesses of deradicalisation efforts. Security officials rely heavily on the country’s security apparatus to monitor their activities after release along with the invested trust and responsibility shared with the militants as well as the family. Though still imperfect, subjective and reliant on post-release security efforts, these processes would improve in methodology to evaluate the threat posed by released terrorists in custody.

Although the UK does not stand in the list of countries that currently have a deradicalisation programme in process, yet ministers have confirmed plans to build the first ‘secure college’ for young criminals in England and Wales. Policy makers believe that “criminals cannot go unpunished but young people who have made mistakes and committed crimes cannot simply be left on the scrapheap. If we expect them to turn their lives around, we have to put their time inside to good use.” The Pakistani government has to also empower local stakeholders to build resilience against violent extremism. National strategies focusing on well-informed and equipped families, local communities and institutions would help to prove the best defence against this threat. The federal government has to focus on enhancing engagement with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government in building support for the government and law enforcement expertise for preventing violent extremism through such deradicalisation programmes. Simply focusing on altering the ideology of the militants may be slightly overoptimistic and will not address the underlying causes behind terrorism, which need to be tackled as well if militants are to be turned away from a life of terrorism.


(To be continued)


The writer is a member of the Diplomate American Board of Medical Psychotherapists Dip.Soc Studies, member Int’l Association of Forensic Criminologists, associate professor Psychiatry and consultant Forensic Psychiatrist at the Huntercombe Group United Kingdom. He can be reached at fawad_shifa@yahoo.com