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Pakistan sends former Taliban fighters to militant rehab

LAHORE, Pakistan — The seed of jihad was planted in Shahbaz Ahmed in 2001 when fundamentalist mosques in Pakistan welled up with rage against America’s post-Sept. 11 invasion of neighboring Afghanistan.

Ahmed, 20 at the time, left his family in Lahore to help the Afghan Taliban fight U.S. troops. Captured by American soldiers, Ahmed spent four years in jails in Afghanistan and Pakistan before his release in 2005. Since then, Pakistan has kept a wary eye on the wiry, angular-faced scrap metal dealer and thousands of Afghan-trained fighters like him, who are thought to be ripe for recruitment by Pakistan’s dizzying array of militant groups.

This spring, law enforcement officials in Lahore and other parts of Punjab province went further. Inspired by “deradicalization” programs in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, they have crafted their own effort to reeducate current and former fighters.

After three months of sessions with psychologists, Islamic religious scholars and vocational counselors, Ahmed says he’s cured.

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“I would never admire what I did 11 years ago,” he said. “It was a blunder on my part. I was immature, but it was my decision and I am still paying the price for it.”

Western analysts regard this kind of program as a crucial piece of the battle against Islamic militants. But Pakistan has no overall national effort. The program that Ahmed attended, the first in Pakistan’s heartland, is one of three separate initiatives. Earlier extremist rehab efforts have been concentrated in tribal regions along the Afghan border, Pakistan’s primary seedbed for Islamist militancy, and in the Swat Valley in the northwest.

Ahmed was among 300 men who took part in the deradicalization program in Lahore.

From a database of Afghan-trained fighters and extremists monitored by Pakistani authorities, 600 were selected to participate; about half of them agreed. Many had fought with the Afghan Taliban against the U.S.; others came from Pakistani militant groups seen by the West as a continuing threat, including Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization behind the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that resulted in more than 160 deaths.

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Analysts say the overall strategy is sound but may not be ambitious enough. Current programs focus almost exclusively on former and current fighters and lower-echelon commanders. The goal, says Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, should be to target higher-level commanders. Lower-rung fighters often have been lured primarily by promises of a steady income, he said.

“These programs target militants who are not hard-core,” Rana said. “Their emphasis is to deradicalize militant group sympathizers or recruits arrested during search operations, but unless they target the leadership, the prospects for these programs will not be so bright.”

At a think tank forum last year in Washington, a former top CIA official talked of the need for the U.S. to ramp up its own efforts to craft deradicalization programs for homegrown extremists.

“There needs to be a program that can return young men from the dark side,” said Stephen Kappes, former CIA deputy director, “and demonstrate that a government has the tools and the authority to show that there’s a way back, that you can return to your family and avoid death, and not shame your family for all eternity.”

The Punjab program is spearheaded by Mushtaq Ahmad Sukhera, head of the Punjab police counter-terrorism department, who became intrigued after reading about such efforts in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Sukhera sent an officer to Indonesia to learn more about Detachment 88, an acclaimed, American-trained counter-terrorism squad that augments terrorist manhunts with a deradicalization effort combining religious counseling with financial incentives such as scholarships for participants’ children.

Sukhera used scholars from the same school of religious thinking associated with almost all Pakistani militant groups, said a Punjab government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the issue. The scholars rely on Koranic teachings that, for example, state there is no justification for killing an innocent person in the name of Islam. The other key component of the program, vocational instruction, is provided by a job training institute in Lahore.

In Lahore, the inaugural class showed up every workday morning at the Punjab Technical Education and Vocational Training Authority Institute, a squat, one-story red-brick building in the city’s upscale Gulberg neighborhood, home to bustling shopping malls, health clubs and tony restaurants.

When they weren’t huddled around instructors in workshops learning carpentry, plumbing or electrical wiring, they were seated in classrooms listening to Muslim scholars debunk the Taliban take on Islam, or participating in group sessions with psychologists.

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Participants were paid a three-month stipend of about $255. Upon graduation, they return to their hometowns and villages, where local counter-terrorism officers now check on them monthly.

“Many had different jobs within jihadi organizations — facilitators, handlers, bomb makers — though many were also rank-and-file fighters,” the Punjab government official said.

The only setback so far, the official said, has been the failure to follow through on a promise of interest-free loans of about $320 to help start a small business. Provincial officials said they didn’t have enough money.

“We faltered with the ones who wanted the interest-free loans,” the official said. “Out of self-respect and ego, they didn’t want money as charity. They wanted the loan.”

The official said it will take a year of monitoring graduates before the program can be called a success. The Saudi program says that 80% of its graduates do not revert to militancy. However, such claims are clouded by the case of Said Shihri, a Saudi national and former Guantanamo detainee who, after completing the Saudi program, moved to Yemen and became the second in command for Al Qaeda’s activities there. Shihri was killed in Yemen last month in what government officials said was a U.S. drone missile strike.

The Pakistani military did not respond to a request for recidivism data for its Sabawoon facility in the Swat Valley or its other deradicalization programs.

Rana of the Pak Institute said that according to police in the Swat Valley who monitor the graduates, reversion to militancy has not been a problem. Taliban militants held sway over the verdant tourist haven until May 2009, when a large-scale army offensive drove them out.

As troops swept through Swat towns and villages, they scooped up hundreds of teenage boys and young men who had been recruited by the Taliban to serve as everything from scouts to suicide bombers. In the fall of 2009, the army established Sabawoon, a boarding school steeped in discipline and routine that took young Taliban fighters and turned them into farmers, carpenters, mechanics and air conditioning technicians.

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“Once we put him back to society, he has to be able to do something for himself; he shouldn’t become idle,” said an army commander based in Swat, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “They were idle before, which is why they were targeted by the Taliban.”

Deradicalization programs have churned out at least 3,000 graduates, Rana said. But Pakistan needs to begin converting higher-level militant commanders and leaders, he said.

“The major challenge will come when they start rehabilitating militants who are ideologically motivated, who have more of an argument for their cause.”

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com


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