COUNTERING terrorism needs a multifaceted approach that focuses not just on confronting it through the coercive apparatus of the state but also through disengagement strategies.

Disengaging a militant from violence and extremist tendencies is an uphill task because of his or her ideological and political association with the cause. A number of countries have developed de-radicalisation programmes to deal with the issue but the level of success remains debatable, notwithstanding the claims made by the states concerned. The rehabilitation of detained militants becomes an integral component of any such programme as part of the prevention strategy.

The prison holds crucial significance in the de-radicalisation strategy as many of these programmes — including those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom — are run in prisons. The logic for this approach is twofold: first, prisons offer an atmosphere where the detainees have time to think and interact with many influences; second, if the inmates are not engaged in constructive activities, they would be likely to use their time in prison to mobilise outside support, radicalise other prisoners and, given the opportunity, attempt to form an operational command structure.

The Pakistan Army launched an initiative for the rehabilitation of detainees in the conflict-hit Swat region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2009 after a successful military operation against extremist militants there. During the operation, thousands of militants and their active supporters surrendered, were arrested or turned in by their families. They remain in the army’s custody.

In 2010, the army decided to screen detainees in order to identify hardcore militants. A de-radicalisation programme was launched for detainees other than hardcore militants. The initiative is in its initial phase still and there is room to learn from the best practices and make adjustments where needed to improve its chances of success.

The rehabilitation programmes for detainees are usually part of a larger de-radicalisation strategy. Different states use different strategies but there are four major approaches in practice to rehabilitate individuals and vulnerable communities.

These four approaches operate at the security, societal, ideological and political levels, and are based on the concepts of de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation.

There is general agreement that the best practices on countering radicalisation are a combination of all four approaches, ranging from engagement to winning the hearts and minds of the people. But the objective of most of the programmes is neutralising the security threat. Despite sharing common objectives, such programmes in Muslim-majority states have some characteristics that differ from the models developed by non-Muslim states with a sizable Muslim population.

Programmes in Muslim states focus mainly on prevention and creating an ideological response to radicalisation. The Egyptian, Yemeni, Jordanian and Indonesian models essentially developed as ideological responses and the Saudi model emphasised rehabilitation through psychological and social modules, along with ideological responses.

Pakistan’s rehabilitation programme in Swat is not part of a comprehensive policy and is a counter-insurgency initiative introduced by the Pakistan Army. Yet if implemented judiciously, it could provide the basis for a broader de-radicalisation strategy.

The initiative to rehabilitate detainees in Pakistan was taken in September 2009 with an initial cost of Rs4.4m, which was provided by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government. The programme has three main components: Project Sabaoon focuses on juveniles; Project Mishal concentrates on adult detainees; Project Sparlay is for the family members of detained persons.

Rehabilitation efforts have also been divided into four main modules, including an educational module comprising formal education, especially for juveniles, to enable them to continue their education. Another module includes psychological counselling and therapy for developing independent and logical thinking. The social module includes social issues and family participation and the fourth module includes vocational training, such as repairing home appliances, etc., to equip the detainees with skills that enable them to make a decent living. Through the initiative, over 400 individuals have been reintegrated into society so far.

The Swat rehabilitation programme is based on the Saudi model. As is obvious from the difficulties faced by the Mishal project, financial constraints were not considered while designing these initiatives. On the other hand, although Sabaoon is not facing any financial constraints, the absence of knowledgeable and devoted scholars such as Dr Farooq Khan (killed on Oct 2, 2010 by the Taliban) has certainly been a challenge. In addition to these constraints, the initiatives focus mainly on low-cadre militants who come from poor economic backgrounds.

The rehabilitation of this rank is important but the programme needs to be expanded to the mid-level cadre which has more political and ideological tendencies towards radicalisation. If some of them are disengaged from militants and extremism, they can prove valuable assets in the de-radicalisation process, as has happened in Indonesia. Yet bringing about the disengagement of the mid-level cadre is a difficult task and countering its narratives is a challenge. Egypt has a good record in this area.

The Swat model was developed with a post-insurgency perspective and the counter-argument modules focus on defusing anti-state tendencies. However, in Pakistan the militant landscape is quite complex and in the presence of other violent actors, who are involved in international and regional terrorism, this narrative cannot prevent them from joining other groups. The complete denunciation of extremism should be the programme’s objective and a viable ideological anchor needs to be provided in the framework of nationalism and pluralism.

The Swat model can be replicated in other parts of the country after addressing framework deficiencies and intellectual and financial constraints. But at the same time, the civil administration needs to shoulder responsibility. In other countries, such initiatives have been taken by the political government and implemented by the civilian administration. Only a representatives and accountable political set-up can have the credibility, legitimacy and mandate to take on the ideological and political sensitivities involved in the de-radicalisation process.

The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.