Speaking in the lilting accent of southern France, a girl in government ads describes how she was recruited by Islamic State extremists during her quest for religion, then was encouraged to quit school and go to Syria and finally to plot a suicide attack against a synagogue at home.
“I have a hard time even admitting now that I was indoctrinated,” she says to the camera in the ad before breaking down, describing how she tried to recruit others.
The teen, known as Lea, was meant to be the poster child of a nascent program in France aimed at de-radicalizing young people to stem their flow to Syria.
But the jihadi rehab didn’t work. Six times she reconnected with the extremists, and six times she called her counselor in tears to apologize.
The seventh time, late in 2015, landed her in jail.
France’s effort is one of many around the world trying to break the hold that Muslim radicals have on their recruits by figuring out what drew them to the groups in the first place. The United States has launched its first formal effort in Minnesota, on the orders of a federal judge.
But it is not clear how effective the programs can be in the long term. France alone has nearly 2,000 people like Lea — about 600 who have left for Syria, but far more who are involved in jihadi networks at home.
Across Europe, an estimated 5,000 people have joined extremist fighters in Syria, and about a third of them have returned. Most, experts and government officials say, will cause no harm.
Dounia Bouzar, who runs France’s jihadi rehab program, works with more than 1,000 young people who have been flagged as potential extremists. Lea’s story, she said, is more the rule than the exception. Islamic State and al-Qaida extremists don’t break off contact just because someone is caught — and the young people themselves have a hard time pulling away from what she described as their “online tribe.”
“A young person who reconnects, that’s normal,” she said. “Monday, they come to bear witness and save others. Wednesday, they denounce someone who wants to leave and say, ‘Save him.’ And Friday, they re-connect and threaten your life.”
There is no reasoning with someone in the thrall of a jihadi group, those who run the program say, so the recruits have to experience tangible doubts about the jihadi promises they once believed.
Bouzar said that can mean countering a message of anti-materialism by showing them videos of fighters lounging in fancy villas or sporting watches with an Islamic State logo. Or it can mean finding someone who has returned from Syria to explain that instead of offering humanitarian aid, the extremists are taking over entire villages, sometimes lacing them with explosives.
Only after doubts are seeded can young would-be jihadis reason their way back to their former selves, she said.
In the United States, a young Minnesota man who admitted he had planned to go Syria to join the Islamic State group is among the first to take part in Minnesota’s de-radicalization program, the first of its kind in the United States.
In early 2014, just after turning 18, Abdullahi Mohamud Yusuf applied for a fast-track passport with a vague plan to go to Istanbul. He was stopped at the airport in May 2014 but remained free. He enrolled in community college, got a job, then was arrested in November that year on two terrorism charges for trying to join the Islamic State. Yusuf, now 20, stayed in a halfway house while his case was pending and remained there after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. He went back to jail after a box cutter was found beneath his bed.
The program enlists the expertise of Daniel Koehler, a German researcher who works with would-be jihadis and their families. In the U.S., participants are already charged with terrorism offenses, and the goal is to assess their risk of backsliding and give them the tools to keep from slipping back into the networks that once drew them in.
“It’s a form of psychological warfare,” he said before leaving to evaluate the Minnesota suspects.
What neither Koehler nor Bouzar will offer is immunity from charges.
In the case of the Minnesota program, participants are already in the federal justice system. The program is initially being offered to Yusuf and five others who have pleaded guilty to terrorism charges.
In France, Bouzar only deals with people who have not traveled to Syria. Nearly all the jihadis who return from the war zone — mostly voluntarily and numbering around 250 — are jailed immediately. This is a sore subject for her, because “We just run after those who have repented” to offer the most persuasive arguments against joining. [...]
Posted by Women Against Shariah on Monday, May 30, 2016
From the AP via Japan Times: