THE radicalisation process not only changes a person’s worldview, it also alters their personal philosophy on life. I once asked a radical whether he would like to return to a normal life. He could not comprehend the question, even after I rephrased it several times. While he had developed differences with his leadership and colleagues, conceiving of a life beyond militancy was hard for him. When he finally got my point, he laughed. Not about his life, but about the ‘poor normal lives’ of people like myself.
It always surprises me when I hear of a hardcore militant wanting to return to the mainstream fold. It was hard to believe when the head of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) Punjab chapter Asmatullah Muawiya was given amnesty. The reported surrender of Jamaatul Ahrar’s (JuA) spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan is even more surprising. This doesn’t mean that deradicalisation is impossible; there are examples across the world and in Pakistan that militants quit violence, but it usually happens due to three factors.
First, security agencies, using coercion and incentives, succeed in bringing some violent radicals back into mainstream society, mainly to use as propaganda tools against their former associates and similar non-state actors.
It is clear that the state lacks a clear, comprehensive deradicalisation policy.
Second, internal debates on theological and political issues, particularly evident in prisons, may change the minds of some militants, who then adopt non-violent means to pursue their objectives. In Cairo’s prisons, for instance, Al Gama’a al-Islamiyya militants came up with what they called a ‘revision’ and many denounced the violent path. This doesn’t mean that putting militants in the same cells will necessarily trigger deradicalisation — in many cases, it triggers ultra-radicalisation, as is happening in Pakistan’s prisons and as happened in Camp Buccaf, Iraq, where despite deradicalisation programmes the militant Islamic State group was nurtured.
Third, deradicalisation occurs when ideological, political and socioeconomic situations change and non-state actors are provided opportunities to reintegrate. There are many examples from Africa to Latin America.
The Philippines’ Mindanao (now Bangsamoro) peace process is a recent example; although it has a long history of successes and failures, the government and Moro freedom fighters are heading in the right direction. The most important thing about the Moro is that it is a separatist – not ideologically regional or global – movement. Lebanon’s Hezbollah is another example of a strong ideological and religious movement without apparent global ambitions. Despite its political mainstreaming, however, the group still behaves like a non-state actor. It may have territorial reasons for this, as ideological movements believe in ultimate victory.
I once asked Nasir Abbas similar questions about the factors behind his return to normal life. A former senior member of Indonesian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, Nasir is now helping the government to rehabilitate terrorist detainees in Jakarta. He recounted many reasons, including some popular notions of deradicalisation — he was unhappy with the civilian causalities of bombings, and his group’s flawed political and ideological arguments for it, etc. But the most revealing reason was that his associates began to distrust him. For him, this was the deciding factor in his exit.
As far as Ehsanullah’s case is concerned, there is little information about the real motivations behind his return. One media report indicated that his close friend Asmatullah convinced him to quit JuA. One thing, however, is clear: his return is not part of any comprehensive policy to reintegrate militants.
Some in the media and policy circles argue that religiously inspired militants deserve the same amnesty granted to Baloch insurgents, but that the government has given the insurgents general amnesty is an incorrect assumption. Although political reconciliation in Balochistan was an important point in the National Action Plan, the establishment has so far shown little interest in reconciliation as it believes the insurgency is weakening anyway. There were reports that some Baloch groups were demanding much less compared to what the religious militants had once been demanding, which included jobs and the release of detainees. Although there is a huge difference between the Baloch insurgency and religiously inspired militancy in terms of scale, intensity and outreach, it is evident that the state has been showing less flexibility towards those who are tagged as anti-state.
It is also important to note that the concepts of disengagement, disarmament, demobilisation, de-radicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration vary in functional attributes if not much in objectives, and many states have their own models and experiences. Pakistan’s context is unique; multiple types of violent and non-violent extremist groups operate here that have sectarian motives, global aspirations and local dreams. Many of them have been part of the state’s jihad project. So whenever there is debate on the soft components of counterterrorism in this country, the question of where to start such a process inevitably arises.
Recently, a working group of security experts in Islamabad debated the options and probabilities of reintegrating banned militant organisations. The group also listened to the points of view of the leaderships of two banned organisations. It reached the conclusion that it is parliament’s job to determine the direction of any reintegration plan. The group proposed that parliament constitute a high-powered, national-level truth and reconciliation commission to review the policies that produced militancy and to mainstream those willing to shun violence. This commission may deliberate on whether or not to identify wrongs committed in the past.
Most importantly, it was deliberated that such probabilities should only apply to those groups that are conventional in nature and labelled as proxies. The JuA spokesperson’s surrender and confession confuses the whole debate. The state has yet to chalk out any strategy of reintegration. Chances are few that a single surrender will trigger a trend similar to what happened in Algeria in 2005 after the enforcement of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. However, it was not a general amnesty, and its people had endorsed the idea through a public referendum.
Now is the time for parliament to initiate debate on this issue. Otherwise, spoilers will continue toying with ideas like de-radicalisation and reintegration.
By MUHAMMAD AMIR RANA, The writer is a security analyst.
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