Is it possible to deprogram a terrorist? A group recently formed outside Aleppo is working to find out.
The Syrian Center for Anti-Extremist Ideology, which opened on Oct. 28 and is housed inside an area contested by ISIS, aims to be a place where those who have been indoctrinated by the terrorists can be rehabilitated.
One hundred students -- composed of former ISIS fighters, sympathizers of the Islamic State who worked in civil society and foreigners who fought for the group before defecting and being detained in liberated areas -- are enrolled in the program.
“Everyone has a point of weakness and thinking, from which, we can get into his ideas from a particular side and then remove this extremist and terrorist thought from his brain,” Hussien Nasser, the center’s director, told Fox News.
Participants will take part in programs, lectures and seminars covering Islam, psychological and intellectual development, media and entertainment. With the assistance of specialists who chair each session, the center has tailor-made initiatives to figure out what technique works best at de-radicalizing each militant.
Many of these men, Nasser said, may reside within prisons for a certain amount of time, only to re-enter society and continue to sow chaos or spread hate. He told Fox News his goal is to "find a solution to these people."
Although the nascent organization is bootstrapping it -- specialists are unpaid and they have no legal framework to formally “graduate” people out of the center -- they will pass along evaluations about each enrolled prisoner to the relevant court.
Nasser said ISIS itself poses the biggest threat in terms of reforming militants.
“The biggest obstacle is the senior members of ISIS, who planted negative ideas about the concept of moderate Islam and made them criminals under the name of Islam,” Nasser said.
Research into whether these de-radicalization efforts have worked is limited. A 2010 Rand Corporation study on the topic pointed out that recidivism rates may not be the best way to judge a program’s success, while another analysis said Saudi Arabia’s programs had only mixed success. The Saudis poured a lot of funds into their efforts, but saw subsequent suicide bombings perpetrated by graduates of the de-radicalization program.
Sometimes what happens on the battlefield is the biggest catalyst for deprogramming a militant.
In November 2001, Usama bin Laden gave a speech in which he said, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse” -- the idea being, it’s easier for terrorist groups to recruit new followers when they're gaining territory and scoring battlefield victories because people are attracted to winners.
“[ISIS] have shown themselves to be failures in their grand aspiration,” William F. Wechsler, senior fellow on national security and counterterrorism at the Middle East Institute, told Fox News. “Everything they said has so far turned out to be not true. That’s the greatest contribution that the U.S. has made to this effort. You’re de-radicalized because your side has lost.”
A study from King’s College in London of 15 prison-based de-radicalization programs found these programs work better when an insurgency or extremist movement is losing—rather than in places where civil war is still ongoing.
Nasser said he sees some small indications of early progress from his managers in the program.
But he added a caveat: “Of course, I cannot confirm the evaluation until a group of prisoners are released and closely monitored to be properly and effectively evaluated."