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Bringing them home: Pakistan's child deradicalisation centre offers second chance

Updated September 23, 2015

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Boys attend the rehabilitation school Sabaoon in Malakand, adjacent to Swat Valley. — AP
Boys attend the rehabilitation school Sabaoon in Malakand, adjacent to Swat Valley. — AP

Hidden in the mountainous swathes of the picturesque Swat Valley stands a tall fortress unknown to many.

Behind the high walls and heavily guarded rooms of this fortress, young boys are starting a new chapter in their lives; one which does not involve guns and bombs. This is Sabaoon, a deradicalisation centre, for 'child soldiers'.

Some of these children, indoctrinated by the Taliban, were once even prepared to walk into crowded markets and blow themselves up.

Swat witnessed a grim era of violence and brutality after militants led by Mullah Fazlullah took control of the valley in 2007. Some children in the area suffered a double blow as they not only lost their families to the fighting between the military and the Taliban but were later abducted by the militants and trained to become killers.

For the distraught residents of the valley, Sabaoon is, thus, a unique facility offering hope for those longing for peace in Swat. But 'child soldiers' from other violence-hit areas of the country are also brought here.

The existence of the centre brings renewed promise as it attempts to rehabilitate children under the age of 17 who had been recruited by the Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP) Pakistan for front-line terrorist activities such as suicide bombings.

Using children to conduct terrorist activity is not a new phenomenon. There have been numerous incidents in the past to support the claim: In 2011, a 12-year-old suicide bomber killed 31 army cadets in Mardan. Another teenage bomber, blew himself up in a mosque during Friday prayers in Jamrud tehsil of Khyber Agency, killing 47 people. In 2010, a teenage suicide bomber killed 19 people at a bus terminal in Kohat.

With the growing need for rehabilitating militants, deradicalisation centres were established in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) for adults and juveniles. But for children this is the 'only deradicalisation centre in the world', says Professor Dr John Horgan of Global Studies Institute and Department of Psychology Georgia State University, USA in an interview with Dawn.com.

Having visited Sabaoon [Pashto word meaning “the first ray of light from the dawn”] earlier this year, Dr Horgan wrote about his experiences in a series of articles published in foreign publications.

The youth brought at Sabaoon are mostly apprehended during raids by the army; some are turned in by parents while others voluntarily surrendered during army operation. They are made to spend approximately two years or more at the centre where they go undergo psychological treatment, education and vocational training.

Dr Horgan explains the effectiveness of deradicalisation programmes and why Sabaoon is unique in its approach:

Dr John Horgan on his visit to Swat Valley.
Dr John Horgan on his visit to Swat Valley.

Q: How is the deradicalisation programme in Pakistan different than the ones around the world?

A: There are about 40 deradicalisation programmes around the world right now — all of which are focused on rehabilitating adults.

In Pakistan, the best known initiative right now is a programme named 'Sabaoon', which is being run by a non-governmental organisation in Swat valley, Hum Pakistani Foundation. This initiative is unique not just because of the success it has had but also because it is specifically aimed at rehabilitating children which, to my knowledge, is the only such programme in the world.

Many of these deradicalisation programmes are quite narrow in terms of what they want to achieve, but not this one. I think it is more appropriate to describe their programme as a 'rehabilitation and reintegration' program rather than just a deradicalisation programme.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in working with 'radicalised' children?

A: I think children should be our first priority for rehabilitation and reintegration because children cannot make an informed choice in being involved in these groups whereas adults decide for the most part and take responsibility for their actions.

But children are groomed and manoeuvred much like victims of child sexual abuse who are groomed by predators for victimisation. I think children have to be our number one priority as far as rehabilitation is concerned.

They are easier to indoctrinate and less likely to resist. They can penetrate security checkpoints without raising the normal levels of suspicions, making them an ideal choice for terror missions.

Children also have the natural instinct to please people around them and those older than them which is why they are easy victims. Recruiters like TTP are very effective at telling children what they want to hear; they sell them a fantasy which makes the child feel more important. They promise them opportunities that they will never be able to achieve by staying at home.

Q: What kind of approach needs to be taken to deradicalise children?

A: What impresses me about Pakistan’s approach towards rehabilitation is that it doesn’t rely on one single idea of how best to deradicalise someone. Rather it takes a very individual level, person-specific view. Many deradicalisation programmes focus on one specific objective, for example; religious re-education, but at Sabaoon they have tailored their curriculum to be more realistic.

Certainly, the goal of the programme is to equip young people with the kind of skill they need to find a new and meaningful role in their community. Sometimes it might come through getting an education, sometime it might come through acquiring skills and undergoing vocational training.

I think Sabaoon acknowledges that one size does not fit all and they have to cater to each individual child’s need for successful reintegration.

Part of the challenge in countering terrorism is to challenge the narrative that movements like TTP put out there.

The Taliban exploit children as part of their strategy and more Pakistanis need to realise that.

Q: Do you think it’s a good idea to use religious re-indoctrination for deradicalisation?

A: I think, for any deradicalisation programmes to be effective they must have multiple over lapping objectives. I think programmes run into trouble when they prioritise one objective over another. For instance, religious education may be necessary for people who have had no religious education whatsoever. It will necessarily vary from person to person, it will also vary according to the tactics that the groups are using to radicalise people in the first place.

It is important because groups like TTP are manipulating religious concepts to keep people in the movement.

Q: There are two kinds of approach, an anti-terrorism analyst's and a psychologist’s approach. How different are they and is one better than the other; how do they work together?

A: The critical point is that none of these approaches should take priority over the other. To be effective these programmes have to be multidisciplinary; they have to involve perspectives from psychologists, mental health professionals, social workers, from the military, from the police, from community elders and school teachers — everybody has to get involved.

It takes a community to protect the children from being vulnerable to deradicalisation and one of the things that I found quite reassuring in Pakistan's programme is that it puts in a lot of effort in integrating children back into society by teaching them skill sets. For example; some are taught a trade, as electricians or refrigerator repairmen. They work on the principle that busying them in purposeful work proves to be more fruitful than feeding them a counter ideology.

Whether you recruit an adult or a child, ideology alone will never solve the problem.

You can replace one ideology with another, an allegiance with another, but you have to provide someone with an identity, an opportunity to do something in their community whether it is through a job, or a vocation, or a purpose. But the answer will never be just ideology.

Q: Have there been any studies yet to measure the effectiveness of this program?

A: There have been no longitudinal studies to measure the effectiveness of these programs so far. I think evaluation is going to be the next step.

I think that we need to understand why rehabilitation is successful and also what is actually causing recidivism.

I think it’s very important to understand why or how someone became involved in militancy in the first place to effectively deradicalise them. You want to make sure that you’re addressing the core issues that motivated someone to be involved.

But no, there has been no research on evaluating the efficacy of the programme. But I think that is a critical next step if we are to encourage and promote the growth of these programmes.

Q: What do you see as the next innovation in deradicalisation programmes?

A: I think the first step is to scientifically evaluate these programs for their successes. Social scientists and psychologists can help these programmes in gauging what areas need improvement and what resources are required.

These programmes represent some of the most innovative and creative approaches to counter terrorism we have ever seen. We should absolutely promote their development but we should also be very clear that we have evidence that backs its success.

In many ways deradicalisation deals with the aftereffects of terrorism. The political leadership has to do a far better job of delegitimising violence as an acceptable response. We don’t do enough to counter violent extremism, we just try to catch up with its effects. A comprehensive counter terrorism strategy is needed which deals with proactive actions.

(Interview slightly edited for clarity)