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Recent arrests reveal failure of country's de-radicalization program.
“It’s fine to have radical thoughts, as long as you don’t put them into action,” said Noor Huda. And that is part of the reason he prefers to call the program one of disengagement, rather than de-radicalization.
He said he decided to start his own discussion in the prisons when he saw that the police were working on an individual level, usually by offering inmates and their families economic incentives, such as money for school or to start a small business.
The program’s trainers recognize that it is not a sure-fire solution.
“It’s a very, very soft approach,” said Farah Monika, from the International Institute for Peacebuilding. “It teaches them to resolve conflicts without violence and to understand each other’s differences.”
And that, she said, makes it more of program aimed at conflict resolution rather than one geared specifically against terrorism.
The program now runs for five days and since it’s in a pilot stage it will conclude after the eighth session in as many different prisons. Monika said five days is not enough but it will help them understand what they need to move forward.
Participants must know how to read and write, they must wield some influence inside the prison and they must have time left on their sentence so they can help spread the program’s message, she said.
The problem at present is that not everyone’s participation is voluntary. On the first day many of the participants held back, so rather than push them to join, the trainers tried to ease the tension through games and role-play.
Program officer Wakhit Hasim said it helps that he went to an Islamic boarding school and has a similar background to many of the detainees.
“I know about their world, what they know. And the terminology of jihad is familiar,” he said.
At the front of the room where the classes are held someone has taped a paper to the wall that reads: “Training Principles: 1) Empowerment, 2) Positive Choices, 3) Respect for other humans.”
Aziz said he has learned a lot from the training — though he admits he had already begun to re-evaluate his position on jihad before Search for Common Ground came in.
Still, he is candid when he says that the parole board’s decision to deny him early release has left him conflicted. When he talks about police abuse his words become clipped. Aziz has a long beard and wavy hair, a sign of his Yemeni heritage. He said he comes from a hard, Arabic tradition and he can be just as tough with police as they are with him.
He believes the government treats terrorists as enemies of the state, and he speculates that recent attempts to target the police are a means of redemption for the way they have treated former terrorist detainees.
That could make Search for Common Ground’s program more relevant than ever, since it also works to train prison guards and staff on how to interact and monitor terrorist prisoners. While guards cannot become counselors, Monika said, terrorist convicts still remain a threat behind bars and someone has to make sure they’re not radicalizing others.