Pakistan de-radicalises hundreds of young former militants

Javed Mahmood

A Pakistani teenager who worked under the Taliban attends a class at the army-run Sabaoon Skill Centre in Madyan, Swat, July 5, 2011. Pakistan is working to de-radicalise brainwashed youth. [AFP/Farooq Naeem]

A Pakistani teenager who worked under the Taliban attends a class at the army-run Sabaoon Skill Centre in Madyan, Swat, July 5, 2011. Pakistan is working to de-radicalise brainwashed youth. [AFP/Farooq Naeem]

ISLAMABAD -- Hundreds of young former militants are undergoing de-radicalisation and rehabilitation with the aim of reintegration into Pakistani society, military and counter-insurgency specialists say.

Civil society organisations with co-operation from the Pakistani army run "six main de-radicalisation programmes throughout the country: namely, Sabaoon (Morning Light), Mashaal (Lamp), Rastoon (Returning Back), Sparlay (Spring), Nawa-e-Sahar (New Morning) and Heila (Hope)", the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) said in a November report titled "Pakistan's Counterinsurgency: Military and Civilian Approach".

"Pakistan's first de-radicalisation programme was launched in September 2009, after completion of Operation Raah-e-Raast (Righteous Path) against the Pakistani Taliban in Swat," the report said.

"Most of the militants caught during the operation were teenagers who were trained as suicide bombers," it said. "A need was felt to introduce an insurgent rehabilitation programme."

De-radicalisation in Swat, Punjab

The Swat de-radicalisation programme comprises Sabaoon for militants aged 12-18 years, Rastoon for those aged 19-25 years and Mashaal for the families of militants, designed to create awareness about the care and monitoring of the rehabilitated individuals, the report said.

Sabaoon specialises in the rehabilitation of would-be suicide bombers, while Rastoon and most other centres treat a more diverse group of ex-militants.

The military, which operates the centres, generally guards statistics on their operations, but Sabaoon rehabilitated about 200 ex-militants between 2009 and 2013.

Rastoon has rehabilitated almost 1,200, according to recent data.

A similar de-radicalisation programme designed on the model of Swat's Sabaoon centre has been operating in Punjab since 2012.

It focuses on ex-militants associated with groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and anti-Shia militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the report said.

During its years of operation, the programme has trained hundreds of ex-militants to function again as normal citizens.

"The programme is based on influencing ideological beliefs and behavioural modification pattern," the report said. It was "designed on a multi-pronged strategy of prevention, rehabilitation and after-care" with "three modules: psychological assessment, religious rehabilitation and vocational training".

Countering militant ideology

Civil society members and security analysts emphasise the need to rehabilitate former militants and to reintegrate them into society.

"De-radicalisation is very important for brainwashed youth who have ... absorbed the ideology of militant groups," said Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based think-tank.

"Thousands of people, including young boys and teenagers, have become radicals who need to be rehabilitated," he told Pakistan Forward.

The government should provide more resources and funds to expand the scope of the de-radicalisation programme throughout Pakistan, he said, citing "thousands" of Pakistanis who have fallen for the Taliban's perverted interpretation of Islam.

"It is a difficult task to de-radicalise and rehabilitate thousands of radical militants, but it is not impossible."

"The Pakistani army is funding most of the programmes launched for rehabilitation and de-radicalisation of militants, but the civilian government too should participate in this process to bring desired changes to society," he said.

Normalising former militants, families

The army's collaboration with civil society and NGOs is helping to rehabilitate militants, including teenagers who can easily fall prey to militants' misguided theories, said Peshawar-based security analyst and former security secretary for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Brig. (ret.) Mehmood Shah.

"The Taliban have brainwashed scores of youngsters and children who don't know much about Islam, and they are being rehabilitated and de-radicalised to further discourage militancy in our society," he told Pakistan Forward.

"I have visited Sabaoon, the largest rehabilitation centre in the Malakand area of Swat, where psychiatrists, religious scholars and teachers are educating the young militants and turning them into civilised citizens," Shah said.

"This is a very good exercise that is normalising hundreds of militants, especially teenagers who want to be part of this society again," he said.

The military, while conducting various operations, captured many of the youth undergoing rehabilitation now, Shah said. "The de-radicalisation programme is opening a way for their return to their families and hometowns by giving up militancy," he said.

Parents of children undergoing de-radicalisation also receive training on how to care for those children afterward so that they do not fall again into the militants' clutches, he said.

Widows of militants who died in terrorist acts also undergo rehabilitation, Shah said.

Implementing seminary reforms

Militancy cannot be eliminated by military might alone, said Karachi-based security analyst Col. (ret.) Mukhtar Ahmed Butt.

"The government should expand the de-radicalisation programme to all the nooks and corners of the country to change the mindset of extremists and militants," he told Pakistan Forward.

Seminaries with pro-militant ideologies should be included in this programme on a priority basis, he said. "Thousands of young students are studying in religious institutions that have a tilt towards the Taliban and other militant groups," Butt said.

"The government and civil society's participation is vital to nip in the bud the monster of terrorism once and for all," he said.

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This is also a very good effort, this way, thousands of people can be rehabilitated inside Pakistan, who may prove beneficial in development of country. Hostilities can be eradicated and parents of arrested people, who are neither alive, nor dead can also get rid of this agony. May Allah save this effort from being hijacked, Amen.