BY SARAH SILVERMAN
The continuous contemporary news cycle alerts us daily to the mass violence and destruction carried out by radical and extreme violent insurgent groups, and the far reaching flow on effects. Groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East, Boko Haram in West Africa, and al-Shabab in East Africa, and al-Qaeda in both continents, have resounding impacts, both regionally and internationally. The violence perpetrated by these groups is spilling across borders in Africa and the Middle East, causing a migration crisis not seen in scale since the end of World War II. With the world’s attention focused on border controls and refugee quotas, what has gleaned less focus is the response to returning defectors and the deradicalization process.
While the humanitarian crisis emerging with the influx of people fleeing into Europe requires immediate response, governments and civil society must also focus on addressing issues of deradicalization. Starting in early 2015, many members of violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram, ISIS, and al-Shabab began fleeing the groups in an effort to return to their former lives. If provided with proper support, rehabilitation, and reintegration, defectors can play a crucial role in the fight against these radical insurgent groups. Using their knowledge and experiences of the radicalization process can also have a long-term effect on the process of counter-radicalization internationally, aiding in the effort to create more stable nations. Many countries are approaching defectors and deradicalization through different processes with varying degrees of success, however some of Nigeria and Somalia’s programs provide useful lessons from which governments can learn. The process implemented by Nigeria promoting both deradicalization and counter-radicalization serve as examples that other governments facing similar problems should seek to mirror.
The Nigerian Experience: Understanding the Need for Support and Reintegration
Since the Boko Haram insurgency began in 2009, an estimated 17,000 people have been killed and many villages have been completely uprooted and destroyed. This has resulted in high numbers of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and human flight. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari moved the military’s command center to the Borno State capital of Maiduguri in June 2015 and is working with four neighboring countries in an attempt to collaborate militarily in conquering the Boko Haram insurgency. With mounting pressure from the Nigerian military forces as they have taken back territory in recent months, many insurgents see more incentive to defect from the group, although the process poses serious risks. In early July 2015, eleven members who were attempting to defect were murdered by Boko Haram “in order to instill discipline among the members of the terror group.” These murders, which are not uncommon, act as a disincentive that the Nigerian government must counter in the process of encouraging defections.
For the women and girls who have been rescued, as well as insurgency defectors, the Nigerian government is providing a network of psychological services which contributes to the deradicalization process. Women and defectors who are suspected of having maintained ties to members of Boko Haram are involved in more intense psychosocial therapy. This therapy process is mutually beneficial for the victims and defectors, while also benefiting the Nigerian government who can derive insider-information on the insurgency and its tactics. Through gaining a greater understanding of Boko Haram, they are more able to both address the immediate concerns of violence, as well as study the needs of a counter-radicalization effort to improve education and structure in communities prone to radicalization.
The Office of the National Security Advisor in the Nigerian government has made notable steps in the deradicalization process with their Countering Violent Extremism Program. Deradicalization processes for former members of Boko Haram varies on a case-by-case basis. Those who have voluntarily defected from Boko Haram are provided with psychological therapy and given tools for reintegration into Nigerian society, while those who have been captured are required to participate in the criminal justice process in addition to the therapy provided. For both groups, post-traumatic stress disorder care is provided. This new “soft-approach to countering terrorism,” as it is called by the government of Nigeria, was rolled out in the summer of 2014, and focuses on understanding and opposing the root causes of the insurgency.
This program has both vertical and horizontal approaches to countering violent extremism, involving all tiers of government as well as civil society, religious groups, and community leaders. It involves background research which provides methods of counter-radicalization. This includes education, religion, and a greater understanding of what produces an insurgent with the participation of local civic leaders, religious figures, educators, and families. By engaging community members, the program endorses a sense of self-healing and reconciliation which will promote stability for these communities in the future.
It is crucial for the future stability of Nigeria – and the well being of the states affected by the insurgency specifically – for the Nigerian government to provide aid and ongoing support for both victims and defected perpetrators of the Boko Haram insurgency. Without this aid and deradicalization process, the result will be a generation of damaged and fragile citizens, deficient in education, and Nigeria will lack the civic aware population it needs to maintain economic, political, and social stability and growth.
The Somali Experience
Somalia’s approach to the use of al-Shabab defectors provides a unique process involving the maintenance of ties between defectors and their former associates in order to encourage a top-down approach to de-radicalization. For example, Zakariya Ahmed Ismail Hersi, a former top-ranking member of the al-Shabab insurgency group, began the process of defecting as early as 2013. The Somali government has used this experience and advice about the group to create a new amnesty initiative as an incentive for al-Shabab defectors to encourage their former associates, current members, to defect. Hersi worked with the government through months of debriefing programs upon abandoning the militant group, but still resides in a government-guarded safe house. He is in constant danger as al-Shabab now sees him as a non-believer.
The Somali government is currently in talks with a number of high level al-Shabab leaders in an attempt to convince them to come back to “normal life” and “offer them a chance to leave – to give them an exit route where they can change their mind.” Similar to defectors from other extremist groups, many members of al-Shabab became disillusioned when the group partnered with al-Qaeda and they lost their local focus, leading them to become more lethal.
With their “disengagement” program, Somali officials are hoping for a domino effect with defectors encouraging their former associates to leave the group. This was the case for a former tax-collector for the extremist group, who took advantage of the fact that the Somali government was granting amnesty to defectors. These camps, set up as sanctuaries for the defectors, provide multifaceted programs that not only help to reintegrate and provide opportunities for the ex-militants, but also provide reconciliation and reconstruction for the communities that have been terrorized by al-Shabab. The combined effect of these programs can create a more stable community that can move forward without long-term hatreds and rifts between communities.
The Somali government as well as international allies have made major steps in the fight against al-Shabab through “growing military pressure,” particularly aimed towards the militant group’s leadership. Al-Shabab is reportedly losing territory, and the Somali government is “using the carrot as well as the stick” to try to lure leaders to defect. By controlling and minimizing the physical attacks as well as forming networks and programs to encourage and support defection, the Somali government is both improving the situation in the present and mitigating future instability. The defectors, particularly those who were high-level within the group, are encouraged to talk to their former collaborators in an attempt at deradicalization.
Experiences from Other Affected Countries: Iraq and Syria
In stark contrast to Nigeria and Somalia’s approaches to de-radicalization and reintegration, the Syrian and Iraqi governments, and the complex web of international players at work in those countries, have failed to provide this scale of aid to defectors of ISIS. This has resulted in lost opportunities to gain a greater understanding of the group and its inner workings. Additionally, the harsh punishment for defectors acts as a disincentive and does not provide an open door or encouragement for members to leave ISIS. The majority of defectors in the Islamist extremist group are forced into hiding for fear of retaliation, as ISIS considers these defectors to be apostates. Escaping ISIS is extremely dangerous and difficult; the insurgency has informants in many areas to looking for those attempting to leave.
According to many defectors of ISIS who have found a platform to share their stories, “life under the Islamic State was far from the utopia they had been promised.” These former insurgents have defected because of disillusionment, disagreements with the insurgency’s actions, distrust, and selection as suicide bombers, among other reasons. By bringing light to this brutality, corruption, and random and misguided acts of violence within the extremist group, particularly the violence directed against other Sunni Muslims, the recruitment tools of ISIS will be weakened.
If defectors and their stories were made more public, their experiences would play a key role in countering ISIS propaganda, which in turn would lessen the appeal of joining the group and help to strengthen the counter-radicalization process. Female defectors, such as former ISIS militant going by the name Um Asma also provide crucial details about experiences as a member, which can help combat future recruitment. Punishment and isolation, both by the government and civil society, act as disincentives for defectors to share their stories and reintegrate into society. The defector’s stories actively “shatter ISIS’s image as a united, cohesive and ideologically committed organization,” which sufficiently contradicts their propaganda.
Because the radicalization process of ISIS is often intertwined with religion, part of Iraq’s rehabilitation program has focused on dialogues with moderate Muslims who teach nonviolent approaches to Islam and less extreme interpretations of the Qur’an. Many of the deradicalization programs carried out in Iraq maintain a focus of rehabilitation and reintegration into society, rather than punitive measures which might fuel negative emotions, to mitigate the opportunity for relapse upon the defectors’ release. These rehabilitation programs include “a combination of education, vocational training, religious dialogue, and post-release programs” to ensure ongoing counter-radicalization throughout the community. International leaders, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, have stated that perhaps more important than the use of force to counter ISIS forces is the disintegration of the “poisonous ideology” that ISIS continues to spread.
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If the host governments combating ISIS, international actors, and civil society organizations provided more aid, resettlement, and rehabilitation to the ISIS defector diaspora, as well as platforms for them to speak out about their experiences, this would not only help the individuals returning home, but also create a long-term solution for state stability. By creating a counter-radicalization program that disproves ISIS’s recruitment methods, potential radicals might be deterred.
These three highly varied approaches to the deradicalization and reintegration process, as well as the use of defectors in the fight against violent extremism, illustrates the wide range of views and understanding of radical insurgent groups. While Nigeria, Somalia, as well as other countries affected by ISIS are all combating the immediate concern of violence, they seem to be lacking a long term approach. Due to the transnational nature of ISIS’s terror, Syria, Iraq, and other countries and organizations dealing with their counter- and deradicalization failed to present a unified approach. By dis-incentivizing the process of defection through punishment and isolation, they create a breeding ground for further radicalization and state fragility in the future. Nigeria’s focus on counter-radicalization before young civilians turn to insurgency groups reveals their understanding of a lost generation due to this ongoing violence. If an entire generation is displaced and lacks the education they need to avoid radical, extremist groups, the country has even less hope in the future for a peaceful society. As Somalia provides security from the dangers of defecting for their ex-militants and maintains open lines of communication, they are able to gain a greater understand of both the immediate needs for combating al-Shabab as well as tool for counter-radicalization in the future. While the immediate need to combat violent-extremism cannot be diminished, a parallel focus must be on the future of each of these state’s stability and the need to protect society from the prospect of radicalization.