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Pakistan Bids To Change The Minds Of Swat Radicals

Jul 25, 2011
Originally published on August 17, 2011 11:17 am

Pakistan is deploying alternative methods to deal with the menace of militants.

In the scenic Swat Valley in the northwest of the country, the army crushed violent Islamist militants two years ago after they had seized the area. Now, doctors, teachers and psychologists are taking up the challenge of deradicalizing some 200 young men from that conflict.

UNICEF has financed the project with a grant to the Hum Pakistani Foundation. The Lahore-based group of more than 20 non-governmental organizations was formed to assist the 3.5 million Pakistanis who were displaced during the army offensive that expelled the Taliban from Swat and surrounding areas in 2009.

Speaking in Swat at a conference on de-radicalization, Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani said, "There is no military solution to terrorism."

Access to the young men is extremely limited.

"Many of the boys suffer from trauma," both physical and psychological, says leading clinical neuropsychologist Feriha Peracha. "It takes them a long while to get over that anxiety."

In one videotaped session recorded by the army, which provides security to the program, Peracha is the gentle inquisitor, questioning the boys about how they were pulled into the Taliban's orbit. None of her young charges can be named for their own safety.

One young man says the Taliban "had their own weapons at the mosque."

"What were all these weapons doing in a mosque? Something to think about, isn't it," Peracha notes, firmly. "Yes," comes the reply.

A clinical neuropsychologist, Peracha opens her sessions assuring the young men they will not be punished for past transgressions. They had informed on the local population for the Taliban, extorted money from shop owners and performed all manner of menial tasks at the Taliban's orders.

In another session, she takes one of the boys to task for joining in the whipping of a young girl by a group of militants. He tells her he would have been "killed" had he not participated in the beating. But Peracha presses him: "Did you see any other member of the crowd beating her?"

"No, I didn't," is the answer.

"But you hit her 20 to 30 times. Did the poor girl die?"

"No, ma'am. I was hitting her gently, but he told me off and wanted me to use more force."

It is a painstaking process before the young men reveal the full extent of their involvement and indoctrination.

Paracha and a team of medical experts and educators help them through it at a deradicalization center known as Sabaoon, or "New Dawn," an isolated retreat in the Swat Valley. Peracha, who runs the center, says it has treated more than 180 young men since opening in 2009.

"Some are trembling when they come here," Peracha says, "because they were involved in acts that were very serious."

That includes training as suicide bombers. Few admit to doing anything wrong.

But standing in a classroom of his peers, one 16-year-old candidly recalls how he got involved with the extremists. He had abused alcohol so badly that, in desperation, his mother turned to the Taliban.

"I was beating my mother and my brother. My mother told the terrorists: 'Show him a good way. And help him [get over his drinking].'" But they didn't help; instead, says the teen, who was 13 at the time, "they kidnapped me and beat me very badly. ... They showed me the way of ... suicide [bombing]."

Susceptible Adolescents

The Taliban could exploit these young men because they were poor, illiterate and in many cases without a father. Medical specialists say these underprivileged and underachieving teenagers are especially vulnerable to the militants and are all too susceptible to becoming suicide bombers.

"An adolescent, libido high, and you tell him, 'Look, to kill a Pakistan army guy, you are going to get 70 beautiful women immediately. Immediately, you do it and there they are, waiting for you. And there is milk and honey.' ... So why should he not do that?" Peracha asks.

Treatment is individually tailored to the needs of each young man. The approach includes mainstream academics with the aim of a high-school degree. Boys who never attended school before get vocational training to become electricians or repairmen. When they complete the deradicalization program, the young men are placed in jobs or in local schools where they continue to be closely monitored.

While residents at the center, they also receive religious instruction with a focus on correcting conflicting notions about Islam: from misconceptions that the Quran condemns anyone who is not a Muslim to more mundane matters like Western clothing for men.

"Would you believe it?" says Peracha. "They thought that anybody who wears trousers is a sinner, a [nonbeliever]. You will see they're all wearing trousers. They will not take the trousers off, now. So symbolically that is one kind of intervention," she laughs.

Searching For A Cause

What makes a militant?

It's a question that resonates throughout Pakistan as the country grapples with growing fundamentalism.

Notables from Pakistan and abroad took up the issue at a recent army-sponsored international forum in Mingora, Swat's main city, about an hour's drive from Peracha's center for young former militants.

Members of the audience called for closing any mosque or madrassa that encourages fundamentalism of the kind the Taliban espouses when it recruits impressionable boys and young men. Others blamed the chasm between Pakistan's haves and have-nots for the lack of opportunity that militants use to cultivate followers.

Swat Valley resident Ehsanullah Khan, hands nervously trembling, read his statement to the chairman of the forum aloud, blaming a judicial system that defies speedy justice for seeding the germs of radicalism.

"Get rid of this corrupt system! When that doesn't happen in over 60 years, what do I think and dream: radical thoughts, sir, radical thoughts!"

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani made an appearance and said that the United States needs to give Pakistan room to maneuver in its battle with extremists. He said the wars waged by the West in Afghanistan had spawned a militant culture that has spilled over into Pakistan.

But under a white tent outside the meeting hall, political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais said Pakistan's own leadership is responsible for the country's tangled web of extremists. He said after all this time Pakistan's political class hasn't even developed a counternarrative to the militants' anti-Western, pro-jihad message.

"My view [of] the ruling groups is very simple: They don't belong to the people. They don't belong to this country," he said. "They're here to plunder the resources of this country. And they have created this mess in which Pakistan is going through."

Back To Normal?

In Swat Valley, where men in black turbans once lured young recruits, boys are back at the soccer fields and life again seems normal. But Swat resident and educator Ziauddin Yousafzai said despite the large army presence, peace is fragile and people are scared. One of the elders of the area who had been on the militants' hit list was recently murdered.

"Muzaffar Ali Khan, he was martyred just a month ago at his home at midnight ... The ideology of militancy, the ideology of terrorism, it is still there!" he said.

In recent weeks, hundreds of militants have staged cross-border raids from Afghanistan into neighboring districts of Swat — sequential attacks that demonstrate the huge challenge Pakistan faces in changing militants' thinking.

Army spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas says the same Pakistani militants who were flushed over the border are roaring back. "Many of [the militants] have been killed, many have been apprehended, and many of them have crossed over to the other side [of the border]."

Pakistan's army has been accused of extrajudicial killings of suspected militants in Swat. Osama bin Laden's ability to hide in Pakistan has raised disturbing questions about the country's capacity to confront extremism. And not long ago, Pakistani intelligence trained militants to fight in Kashmir, a disputed area between India and Pakistan, in a bid to "bleed" its archrival India.

Yousafzai, however, says the army deserves credit for its efforts to help reverse extremists' thinking today.

"We created serpents. ... And we thought that this snake will bite my neighbor, and it will not bite me," Yousafzai says. "Now [the military has] come to their senses. So, it's good. We support it."

Peracha, meanwhile, quietly continues her effort to educate young men in Swat Valley. She says the best way to undo their Taliban indoctrination is "to give them back their childhood."

"They're teenagers, for heaven's sake. ... They're children in the end."

Since her Sabaoon center opened nearly two years ago, just 32 men have been fully integrated into Swat society. Organizers say the process is slow and arduous, but are hopeful that with their exhaustive treatment program, some 40 more graduates will move on to local schools and colleges by the end of the year.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on an effort in the scenic Swat Valley to de- radicalize a new generation of Taliban fighters.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The same Pakistani military that routed the Taliban from the Swat Valley two years ago is now trying to deprogram some 200 young militants from that conflict. Most were picked up by the army in post-operation sweeps, some turned themselves in. In this army-produced video, boys age 12 to 17 tell a neuropsychologist how they were pulled into the Taliban's orbit.

NORRIS: (Through interpreter) I used to meet them at the mosque.

FERIHA PERACHA: Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) Yes. They had their own weapons at the mosque.

PERACHA: Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) It is.

PERACHA: (Through interpreter) The mosque is Allah's house. What are weapons doing in a mosque?

MCCARTHY: Dr. Feriha Peracha is the gentle inquisitor. She says her young charges cannot be named for their own safety. They had spied on the local population for the Taliban and extorted money from shop owners. Some had been involved in fighting. Dr. Peracha begins her questioning with assurances that the boys will not be punished, but it's a painstaking process before the young men reveal the full extent of their involvement. This boy begins by saying he happened upon a group of men whipping a girl.

PERACHA: (Through interpreter) And why were they whipping her?

NORRIS: (Through interpreter) I don't know, madam. I was just passing, joined the crowd, and was watching the show. Then, unexpectedly, one of them came up and handed me the cane and ordered me to whip her, and I did.

PERACHA: Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) They would have killed me.

PERACHA: Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) Yes, ma'am.

PERACHA: (Through interpreter) Did you see any other member of the crowd beating her?

NORRIS: (Through interpreter) No, I didn't.

PERACHA: (Through interpreter) But you hit her 20 or 30 times. Did the poor girl die?

NORRIS: (Through interpreter) No, ma'am. I was hitting her gently, but he told me off and wanted me to use more force.

MCCARTHY: These young men are now residents of this de-radicalization center known as Sabaoon, or New Dawn, an isolated retreat in the Swat Valley. Dr. Peracha runs it with funding from UNICEF and support and security from the army. It's treated over 180 young men since opening in 2009.

PERACHA: Some of them are trembling when they come here. And I heard one say to the other once, they're going to kill us, they're gonna kill us. Because they have been involved in acts that were very serious.

MCCARTHY: Including training as suicide bombers. Few admit to doing anything wrong, but standing in a classroom of his peers, each wearing a neat green pin- striped shirt, this 16-year-old candidly recalls how he got involved with the extremists. He had abused alcohol so badly that in desperation his mother turned to the Taliban.

NORRIS: I was beating my mother and my brother. And my mother told the terrorists, show him a good way and help him from intoxication.

MCCARTHY: Unidentified Man #2: No. They kidnapped me and beat me.

MCCARTHY: Unidentified Man #2: Yes, very badly with sticks. They showed me the way of suicide.

MCCARTHY: Unidentified Man #2: Yes, yes.

MCCARTHY: Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, they teach me that you want to try to do - fight.

MCCARTHY: The Taliban could exploit these young men because they were poor, illiterate and in many cases without a father. These teenagers, says Dr. Peracha, are all too susceptible to becoming suicide bombers.

PERACHA: An adolescent, libido high, and you tell him that, look, to kill a Pakistani army guy, you are going to get 70 beautiful women immediately. Immediately, you do it and there they are waiting for you. And there is milk and honey. Why is he not going to do that? He has no logical reasoning in any case. His rational thinking is at five percentile, so why should he not do that?

MCCARTHY: When they are finished with the de-radicalization program, the army places them in its schools, where they are closely monitored. The boys also receive instruction that focuses on correcting confused notions about Islam - from misconceptions that the Koran condemns anyone who is not a Muslim to more mundane matters, like Western clothing for men.

PENACHA: They believe - would you believe it, they thought that anybody who wears trousers is a sinner or (unintelligible).

MCCARTHY: An unbeliever.

PENACHA: You will see they're all wearing trousers. They will not take their trousers off now. So symbolically that is one kind of intervention.

MCCARTHY: Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Members of the audience call for closing any mosque or madrassa that encourages fundamentalism of the sort the Taliban espouses as it recruits boys and young men. Swat Valley resident Ehsanullah Khan rises to say a decrepit judicial system that denies speedy justice is sowing the seeds of radicalism.

EHSANULLAH KHAN: (Unintelligible) get rid of this corrupt system. When that doesn't happen in over 60 years, what do I think and dream? Radical thoughts, sir, radical thoughts.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MCCARTHY: The prime minister makes an appearance.

YOUSUF RAZA GILANI: What we've witnessed today is the consequence of history.

MCCARTHY: But under a white tent outside the meeting hall, political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais says Pakistan's own leadership is responsible for the country's tangled web of extremists. He says Pakistan's rulers haven't even developed a counter- narrative to the militants' anti-Western, pro-jihad message.

RASUL BAKHSH RAIS: My view about the ruling groups in Pakistan is very simple. They don't belong to people. They don't belong to this country. They're here to plunder the resources of this country. And they have created this mess in which Pakistan is going through.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

MCCARTHY: Here in Swat Valley, where men in black turbans once lured young recruits, boys are back on the soccer field and life again seems normal. But Swat resident and educator Ziauddin Yousafzai says despite the army presence, peace is fragile and the people are scared. One of the elders of the area who had been on the militants' hit list was recently murdered.

ZIAUDDIN YOUSAFZAI: Muzaffar Ali Khan, he was martyred just a month ago at his home at midnight. So the ideology of militancy, the ideology of terrorism, it is still there.

MCCARTHY: In recent weeks, hundreds of militants have staged cross-border raids from Afghanistan into neighboring districts of Swat. Army spokesman General Athar Abbas says the same Pakistani militants who were pushed over the border appear to be roaring back. Not long ago, Pakistani intelligence trained militants to fight India in Kashmir, the disputed region between India and Pakistan. Ziauddin Yousafzai says that was like releasing dangerous snakes. But he says the army deserves credit for de-radicalizing extremists today.

YOUSAFZAI: We created serpents. You know, snakes. And we thought that this snake will bite my neighbor and it will not bite me. Now they have come to their senses. So it's good, we support it. We support it.

MCCARTHY: And in Swat, Dr. Feriha Peracha quietly continues her effort to rehabilitate young men. She says the best way to undo their Taliban indoctrination is to give them back their childhood.

PERACHA: Even yesterday there was a big brawl apparently. They're teenagers, for heaven's sake. You know, they are going to get into brawls and that's all right. They're children, in the end.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.