Is it possible to rehabilitate ISIL fighters?

Recognising the humanity of those who are genuinely repentant might be one way to preserve our own

Instead of despatching former ISIL fighters to the gallows, a facility in a rebel-administered Syrian town is attempting to deradicalise them.
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ISIL, as an operational outfit, is dead. Many of the men and women who kept ISIL alive are not. This presents a conundrum for civilised societies. How do you deal with people who fought to advance the goals of an organisation whose principal objective was the destruction of civilisation? Should they be punished, or can they be rehabilitated and readmitted into society? The victims of ISIL are legion, spread out across the world, and it will take a long time for them to come to terms with the wounds ISIL inflicted on their psyche.

And yet even as we grieve for ISIL's victims, we must recognise that the task of rebuilding the societies ravaged by the self-proclaimed "caliphate" will require developing a policy for those who fought under its banner. For guidance, we might look to what one rebel-administered Syrian town is doing. Instead of despatching former ISIL fighters to the gallows, it is attempting to deradicalise them. As The National reported this week, the Syrian Centre for Countering Extremist Ideology (SCCEI), in Marea in northern Aleppo, is subjecting around 100 former ISIL fighters to intensive therapy. The "patients" at the facility come from Syria, Iraq and even parts of Europe. Most of the men have been sentenced to receive therapy by rebel authorities, but some checked themselves in voluntarily.


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A lifetime of exposure to hopelessness and authoritarianism is what prompted some of them to join ISIL. Failed by their own legitimate governments, they became gullible to ISIL's transparently dubious appeals to establish a perfect state on earth. Can the SCCEI successfully disinfect their minds? It is too early to tell. Not only is the centre poorly funded but the terrain on which it operates remains a war zone. Besides, what use would a "cure" serve if former fighters are returned to the very political conditions, especially in Syria, that prompted them to seek out radical outfits in the first place? Peace in the long run is contingent on political change in Syria, and the appeal of radicalism will not ebb as long as Bashar Al Assad remains in power.

In the short-term, however, the experience of Saudi Arabia might be instructive. Despite instances of recidivism, Riyadh has generally had a good success rate in "deprogramming" radical jihadists. Its deradicalisation programme, which helps inmates achieve a complete psychological break from their past by focusing on every aspect of their lives, is complemented by post-release surveillance. No government and no programme can reform every man and woman who picked up arms for ISIL. At the same time, as the SCCEI is showing, not every man and woman who fought for ISIL is beyond rehabilitation. We must never forgo traditional forms of punishment, but recognising the humanity of those who are truly repentant is one way to preserve our own humanity.

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