The reality of recidivism in rehabilitating terrorists

Amina Rasul

Posted on April 24, 2015

Last week, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) hosted the East Asia Summit on Religious Rehabilitation and Social Reintegration. Supported by the Singaporean government through the Nanyang Technological University, the summit gathered some 600 delegates (religious leaders and scholars, security and law enforcement officials, psychologists, policy makers, academics and civil society leaders from 30 countries).

In East Asia, Singapore has been at the forefront of strategic thinking on how to address radicalization. As RSIS leaders maintain, “strategic foresight remains the cornerstone of an effective security strategy.”

They added: “The volatile and evolving threat landscape amid an integrated and interconnected world continues to be at the forefront of the security challenge faced by countries all over the world. These global developments have had an appreciable impact on the global security paradigm.

“The emanating impact from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, the growing uncertainty from ongoing global conflicts and the cascading effects from the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have rendered it more urgent that governments and law enforcement agencies recalibrate efforts undertaken to mitigate the threat of terrorism and extremism, and its resulting impact on society.”

The two-day summit (April 16 and 17) discussed key challenges in securing our communities against terrorism, as well as ongoing efforts at rehabilitation and social reintegration of terror suspects.

I was one of the speakers and shared our experience in organizing Muslim religious leaders and teachers on peace and democracy. While several governments presented groundbreaking work on rehabilitating and reintegrating terrorists, I sadly could not present any current programs by the Philippine government. In matters of reintegration and rehabilitation, NGOs such as Balay Mindanaw have provided the programs for detainees.

Malacañang Undersecretary Nabil Tan, who was one of the Philippine delegates, stepped up to the plate and informed the conferees about the successful integration of Moro National Liberation Front combatants. As for terror detainees, Nabil could only say that the government is developing its program. He believes that the Philippines should have a holistic strategy to rehabilitate detainees, as other countries have done.

I was quite amazed with the Singaporean attempts to rehabilitate and reintegrate terrorists. The government and civil society collaborate on these initiatives, which have actually resulted in successful reintegration. Many of you will question the wisdom of reintegrating terrorists. Until you realize that most of the arrested terrorists are young and ignorant of the realities, lured by the effective communication strategies of terrorist organizations such as ISIL.

At the summit, several speakers stressed that counter-messaging is essential in the fight against terrorism, although finding an effective method has been challenging. According to Dr. Fatris Bakaram (Singapore’s Mufti), Muslims recruited to join terror networks may have fallen for the insidious manipulation and misinterpretation of religious texts. He also pointed out that radicalization could be caused by isolation of minority groups and their neglect by the State, as well as the rejection of the State’s secular culture or political agenda which benefit the majority but not the marginalized.

Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the RSIS noted that there were more than 10,000 terrorist-related Facebook accounts, 47,000 Twitter accounts and more than 9,800 Web sites. He stressed that counter-messaging should include “a point-by-point rebuttal of [ISIS’] justifications for using violence,” adding that we should “specifically question, show me in the Koran that this is permitted.”

In the Philippines, my colleague Professor Rommel Banlaoi (Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, or PIPVTR) examined “de-radicalization” efforts in the Philippines. Rommel and his institute conducted a study of Muslim detainees accused of various crimes associated with terrorism (2008). The target of the study was the high-risk detention cell at Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig City. This cell is officially called Special Intensive Care Area (SICA). At the time of the study, there were 136 Muslim detainees in SICA. The end state of the study was to find ways on how de-radicalize the Muslim detainees by encouraging them to renounce ideologies that venerate the use of violence and to leave behind violent acts associated with terrorism.

PIPVTR found that most of the detainees claimed to be “victims of harsh circumstances.” Some of them claimed that they were “victims of mistaken identity.” Few of them admitted that they were in prison because they wage jihad or rebellion against the government, but they did not feel “guilty” about it. Existing Philippine government efforts related to de-radicalization and rehabilitation programs have to contend with enormous conceptual and operational challenges particularly in the case of Filipino Muslim detainees’ accused of crimes associated with terrorism. Most of the Muslim detainees joined “terrorist” groups because of circumstantial and behavioral reasons rather than ideological conviction.

Thus, understanding the experiences of Muslim detainees on how they got into their present situation is crucial in convincing them to change their attitudes about political violence and terrorism. Though de-radicalization programs may have resulted in exemplary practices abroad, there is a need to address the problem of recidivism. In Indonesia, for example, there were a few individuals who underwent de-radicalization programs, were released from prison, but only to return to violent activities.

Delegates shared experiences and best practices on rehabilitating and reintegrating terrorists as well as strategies for communities to build resilience to the siren song of the terror cells.

At the end of the two-day summit, a network was launched for the rehabilitation of arrested or detained terrorists: the Strategies on Aftercare and Reintegration (SOAR). The network will focus on three areas: countering radical propaganda (particularly on social media), immunizing communities against extremism, and rehabilitating and reintegrating those who have been radicalized. Managed by the ICPVTR, SOAR will also be a repository of information and resources for de-radicalization.

Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, RSIS’ executive deputy chairman, called for collaboration among those involved in countering violent radical movements such as ISIL. He said, “challenges that we have here cannot be done and solved by only one person and one country”. Ong stressed the need for communication among those working to counter extremism as well as engaging the wider community in such efforts.

Amina Rasul is a democracy, peace and human rights advocate, and president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy.