The battle of ideas: Reform the militant

Published: April 14, 2011
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The military alone cannot eradicate a group of ideological hard-liner.

One is not born a terrorist. One doesn’t wake up on a Thursday morning with an epiphany of being the next Mullah Omar or Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. A desire to resort to terrorism doesn’t take place overnight.

It is a process of indoctrination; a change of thought and mindset. And all changes can be reversed when there is a plan.

Today, what’s important for Pakistan is the need to devise a strategy of de-radicalising, rehabilitating and reintegrating militants back into society.

I don’t mean to undermine military measures being taken against violent extremists, but the military alone cannot eradicate a group of ideological hard-liners. Pakistan needs to reconsider its options. It doesn’t need more fighter jets and soldiers to fight militancy – it needs a plan.

What happens to failed bombers?

Umar Fidai, a 14-year-old failed suicide bomber was arrested on the site of a recent suicide attack on the Sakhi Sarwar shrine.

In an interview addressing the people of Pakistan, he ashamedly admitted that he was misguided and would work towards the welfare of humanity.

Little is known of what becomes of juvenile suicide terrorists who are unsuccessful in their missions, and even less is written about their seniors.

What is known, however, is that most suspects are put through numerous rounds of investigation and interrogation, often torturous, by national and international authorities.

Nevertheless, there comes a time when these individuals are released back into society. It is this shift, this change of environment, which is clumsily neglected.

The future of a reformed militant

Counter-radicalisation measures are taken to prevent individuals within a given society from becoming vulnerable to extremist ideologies. De-radicalisation consists of targeting existing militants first through the process of ‘disengagement’, that is, convincing them to renounce their violent ways, and second by changing their ideology.

Currently, Pakistan has neither a counter-radicalisation strategy nor a concrete de-radicalisation strategy. Although engaged in disarming militants, literally nothing is being done to change their radical mindsets.

Two of the most important aspects of de-radicalisation are employment and education. Emphasis needs to be paid on the curriculum being taught in schools, particularly in madrassahs which are known to produce a high volume of violent extremists, including majority of Pakistan’s juvenile suicide terrorists.

Madrassahs, particularly those in South Punjab, remain largely unmonitored and graduates have restricted job opportunities. During his time in office, Musharraf pledged ‘madrassah reforms’, modernisation and regulation of curriculum, which never materialised.

Changing militant ideology means guaranteeing individuals with opportunities of better lifestyles so that upon re-entering societies they are unlikely to use violence as a political tool.

Part of this must focus on re-education as well, to prevent militants from falling back into the same ideological narrative which they were previously exposed to.

Torturing militants

Another aspect that is majorly neglected in Pakistan is torture inflicted upon militants both within and outside the country. This not only creates psychological problems for militants, but by throwing wrecked and battered individuals back into societies without any form of institutional support can instill irreversible hatred and feelings of animosity in the minds of such people.

For instance, former Guantanamo Bay detainees who have returned to Pakistan have expressed their desires for taking revenge on Pakistani authorities for handing them over to the Americans. Without gradually transitioning them back into the society, Pakistan thus breeds stronger, more brutal terrorists.

Learn from other countries

Various countries around the world are currently operating rehabilitation and reintegration programmes. Although not all are fully transparent, successful cases have been reported.

The government of Yemen currently operates a Committee for Dialogue. Established in 2002, this two-step procedure allows room for dialogue between selected clerics and militants before chosen individuals from the latter group are reintegrated into society.

Dialogue sessions question religious assumptions and ideological motivations. The Yemen programme allows the individuals to find jobs, receive education, and even start families. It is the prime example of the fact that articulate debates can help challenge extremist ideology.

Indonesia is another country with a successful government-backed de-radicalisation policy. Devised in 2007, it aims at stopping the creation of hard-line religious groups. However, the country itself has been operating counter-terrorism strategies since 2002. Up till 2009, more than 150 militants have been released in seven years, namely belonging to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a radical Salafist jihadist organisation with some affiliation to the alQaeda.

Saudi programmes are perhaps the most successful in Muslim-majority countries. They focus heavily on educational and ideological factors with the help of clerics and, contemporarily, the internet. Saudis have been using mass media and university curriculum to counter alQaeda’s ideology since 2003 (a strategy that could do wonders for Pakistan). The government is currently operating two large-scale projects. Firstly, a counselling programme is underway for radical prisoners before releasing them back into society. Secondly, the ‘tranquillity campaign’ initiates online dialogue with violent extremists in an effort to lead them to renounce their views. Since its secretive inception, and without any external pressure, some 3,000 prisoners have participated in the counselling programme, and around 1,500 have renounced their former beliefs and been released.

Monitoring institutions

Pakistan also needs to have an independent body overseeing rehabilitation programmes and structuring legal frameworks available to militants. This is where the role of think tanks becomes pertinent. National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), a government-run think tank established for the creation of a counter-terrorism policy, has yet to display anything concrete.

Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an independent think tank, has done immense research on these subjects and produced numerous research journals, but their insight has yet to be put to good use outside academic circles. Such institutions need to be better credited in order to help the government in its fight against extremism.

It is for the government to ensure that proper channels are available to militants in rehabilitation to use peaceful, alternative means, if they should desire to express their opinions.

Zoha Waseem

Zoha Waseem

A masters graduate from King’s College London who blogs for khudipakistan.com

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.