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They are coming back

February 11, 2018

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THIS is not a tale from the mediaeval times which glorified fighters returning from war. This is the story of those who went on the jihadist expedition to Iraq and Syria to support the militant Islamic State group. After the group’s defeat, many IS fighters are returning to their home countries. There is no exact figure for these returning militants, but experts believe many of them could have ill intentions.

These fighters, or IS supporters, may not have committed any crime in their native country but security departments are concerned. Many of them may be returning with the aim of launching IS-like actions in their own towns and cities, and some may be seeking to recruit more people for future IS endeavours. However, they cannot be taken into custody merely on the basis of suspicion. There will also be some who are repentant among them, or who want to quit militancy and start a new life. The best way would be to put all under surveillance and, at the same time, attempt to rehabilitate them. What would be the contours of such a rehabilitation process? This is a difficult question to answer for law-enforcement agencies and counterterrorism experts in many countries.

This question becomes even more critical when it comes to the families of those to be rehabilitated. Many IS fighters had taken their families with them on their jihadist expeditions. Loss of one or more family member in conflict makes the future of these families even more uncertain.

Returning militants cannot be taken into custody merely on the basis of suspicion.

One such family arrived in Punjab last November. A mother with her three daughters had been part of her husband’s jihad expedition to Syria. After he was killed in an air strike and the IS lost its stronghold in Raqqa, she was left with no option but to leave. It is not certain how she managed to enter Turkey but she shared very painful memories of her days in Syria and Turkey. Apparently, these women were not involved in any IS operations, recruitment or ideological preaching in Syria or Pakistan. The law-enforcement agencies did not have any legal right to hold them for long in custody.

It is not known how many such families left for Iraq and Syria. A parliamentary committee has tasked the National Counter-Terrorism Authority with compiling data for Pakistani fighters in Iraq and Syria and for those who have returned so far. Nacta is being helped by the provincial counterterrorism departments and police special branches. The database is to include details for all individuals and families who fought for or against the Assad regime in Syria.

However, there are many problems in collecting such data. Apart from capacity issues of the CTDs and police, there are two other main constraints in this regard. First, official bodies can collect data for those who travelled mainly to Turkey and Central Asian destinations in the last few years, but processing such data would be a big task as they are not trained in such sensitive jobs. And collecting such data in large cities like Karachi and Lahore will be even more difficult. Secondly, many among those who went for jihadi expeditions travelled through land routes mainly via Iran as was witnessed in the case of a Lahore-based IS-inspired family in 2015, which sent messages to family members from the part of Balochistan bordering Iran.

Apart from the difficulty in compiling and processing the data, executing rehabilitation or deradicalisation programmes will be another uphill task — despite the fact that Pakistan has both structured and semi-structured initiatives of deradicalisation. The military-led rehabilitation centres in Swat and the tribal areas are part of some structured efforts to rehabilitate those detained during military operations.

On a similar model, the provincial governments and police CTDs have been trying to evolve rehabilitation initiatives. Punjab has planned a nine-month deradicalisation programme to bring militant detainees into the mainstream, primarily those who have not played any operational role in their organisations or whose names were not on the Fourth Schedule. The CTD in Sindh had similar plans last year. But the fate of the two initiatives is not publicly known — there are only a few reports of self-proclaimed success.

Both structured and semi-structured rehabilitation initiatives look into why individuals join militant groups and both consider extremism and the inclination towards violent groups a mental disorder. The military-led structured programmes have educational and skills-development components, alongside psychological counselling. CTD-led programmes also depend on psychological counselling but not by professional psychologists/ psychiatrists. Instead, they rely on police officials.

A provincial CTD has conducted a study of 500 militant detainees and found that a majority of them had mental disorders in varying degrees. The findings were contradictory to those of similar studies conducted in other parts of the world. When and where the study was conducted was not verified by official and independent sources.

What is largely missing in both structured and semi-structured rehabilitation initiatives are the ideological and religious components. Ideological resources have not been effectively used although extremism is an ideological and political phenomenon.

Now Pakistan has a very clear verdict given by 1,800 religious scholars on the issue of jihad, suicide bombing and jihad in foreign lands. The collective verdict, which was made public as ‘Paigham-i-Pakistan’, can be made part of the curriculum in rehabilitation centres run by the military and CTDs. Most importantly, progressive and moderate scholars, including religious scholars, should be engaged in the rehabilitation programmes.

Certainly, rehabilitation of the detainees and the scrutiny of IS foreign fighters are costly and long-term tasks but are nevertheless critical to peace. The challenge of extremism is becoming complex for Muslim societies. Even those fighters who are returning after being disappointed by the IS could establish links with radical and militant networks. The threat is grave.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2018