Can jihadists truly deradicalize? Jewish author speaks with terrorists to find out

Swag bags? Check. Bottled water beside each chair? Check. A five-star hotel setting? Check.

In many ways, the conference that journalist Carla Power attended in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta was just like any other — except that its aim was to get former terrorists out of their past militancy and back into society, a concept known as “deradicalization.”

Attendees included 15 actual ex-jihadis and the opening address noted that four generations of jihadis were present, from former mujahideen to a family that had just returned from volunteering for Islamic State in Syria. It’s one of the experiences Power shares in her new book, “Home, Land, Security: Deradicalization and the Journey Back from Extremism.

“We’ve been so conditioned, particularly after 9/11, to look — at least in the United States — at these individuals as the ‘other,’ as outside of society, as evil,” Power told The Times of Israel in a Zoom interview. “And of course the important thing is to widen our gaze. Look at the contexts that are sending these people into violent extremist groups — they are not monsters. Statistically, they are not more crazy than the rest of the population. They do have reasons. Whether one supports — or not — what they want to do, one has to listen.”

Power has been doing a lot of listening over the course of her unconventional career, including on the subject of Islam, which she has written about for Newsweek. The daughter of a Jewish mother and a Quaker law-professor father, she grew up in both the Midwest and Mideast. As a child, she lived in Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, India and Afghanistan, with her dad advising the Afghan minister of justice for a year.

“I was raised sort of culturally, nominally, Jewish,” she said. “In Iran, we were there in the Shah’s era… I don’t think my mom encountered any problems.”

Journalist and author of ‘Home, Land, Security,’ Carla Power and book cover. (Courtesy Nic Seely-Power/ One World)

“I traveled a lot in the Muslim world,” Power reflected. “I told people [about my background] when they asked. I did not encounter any problems.”

Revisiting Pakistan for her latest book, one highlight was going to a boarding school in the Swat Valley that worked with ex-Taliban child soldiers, helping them reenter society in diverse fields from law to motorcycle repair. One youngster ended up going to university, studying psychology and returning to the school as a psychologist.

“I was really surprised that the most successful deradicalization program was, of all places, in Pakistan, because their militants are very much [woven] into the fabric of parts of the country and its people — brothers and fathers go off to join the Taliban,” Power said.

Power has been willing to travel the globe to explore the complexity of a story — including in her previous book, “If the Oceans Were Ink,” a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

“I’m very interested in writing about, sitting with, listening to people who might have very different views from mine — sometimes diametrically opposite,” she said. “My first book was about reading the Quran with a very traditional, madrasa-trained scholar,” first in her current home of the UK and then in his ancestral village in India.

Hardline responses provoke hardline responses

“Home, Land, Security” is based on conversations with former terrorists and the people trying to deradicalize them. The latter include Berliners from the punk scene working with neo-Nazis or Islamic extremists. Poignantly, in the UK, Power converses with two mothers who have lost a son to terrorism in different ways: Nicola Benyahia, a Welsh-born convert to Islam whose son Rasheed died volunteering for IS in Syria, and Figen Murray, a Turkish-born Briton whose son Martyn Hett perished in the Manchester Arena bombing of 2017. The mothers ended up getting together to share sympathy, sorrow and solidarity — which prompted some blowback.

Illustrative: A rehabilitated far-right extremist, second left, talks to refugees in Schwerin, northern Germany, November 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Frank Jordans)

Deradicalization programs in general have far-from-universal support, whereas hardline responses are easier to find in national policies. these include the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan for 20 years after 9/11, and the US Supreme Court decision this past March 4 to reinstate the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

“In times of fear and violence and crisis — both the Boston Marathon and 9/11 obviously were very scary and I understand that — I would ask people to look at our record of hardline responses and see how well they’ve done,” Power said.

The book cites a study from the conservative Cato Institute that documented a 1,900 percent terrorism increase in countries that have been the target of a US invasion or drone strike.

“We need a much more critical and flexible approach,” Power said. “Militarization and criminalization have not made the world a safer place.”

Terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, center in white hat, fleeing the scene of the Boston Marathon bombing, April 15, 2013. (AP Photo/David Green)

In contrast, there was the boarding school in the Swat Valley and its zero percent recidivism rate when she visited.

“People from the school work with communities,” she said. “People have to be able to go home again, and ‘home’ needs to understand and work with them, try to accommodate them, even if they’ve been criminals or outside the law. It’s not just about the individuals joining these groups. In order to make a lasting peace, you need to work with the homes they’re going to go back to.”

‘I hit my empathic bedrock’

Meanwhile, at the conference in Jakarta, organizer Noor Huda Ismail tried to get ex-jihadis to think about reentering society through drawing upon his experiences at St. Andrews University in Scotland, where he studied terrorism and focused on Catholic-Protestant tensions in Northern Ireland.

“He embarked on an experiment [in Indonesia] trying to set up former militants in various businesses,” Power said. “One with his own cab-driving business, one with his own T-shirt business — which was great until he started printing T-shirts extolling Osama bin Laden.

“What Huda did was to say, look, militants want to belong. They often join the group because they want a sense of purpose. They’re entrepreneurial, they like to be around people. He said, ‘We’re going to hone these skills,’” she said.

At the conference, she explained, “The idea was to give these people media skills, media training, storytelling training, good businessman [skills], talk about being entrepreneurial.”

Illustrative: In this Thursday, June 2, 2016 photo, former leader of Al Qaeda-linked Jamaah Islamiah Imron Baihaqi, who is also known by his militant name ‘Abu Tholut,’ talks with friends at a street side cafe in Jakarta, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

Islamic religious officials also got involved.

“Mainstream clerics tried to talk with ex-jihadis,” Power said. “[Ex-jihadis] had to bond with mainstream clerics. There were all sorts of events to promote people networking, essentially.”

As she explained, “one reason jihadis stay with jihadis is, they don’t know anybody else. [The conference was] very, very cleverly designed to actively mix people up.”

Yet Power’s tolerance was tested. On the last day, during a coffee break, she found herself in an elevator with a particularly notorious ex-jihadi — a man named Hasanuddin who, her translator said, “masterminded the beheading of three Christian schoolgirls.” He had served 11 years in prison and was now a seminary instructor. The translator had pointed him out on the first day. Power had avoided him throughout. In the elevator, her knees shaking, she could make no more than small talk. Part of the reason was that she is the mother of two daughters herself.

“I sort of hit my empathic bedrock,” Power recalled.

“One thing throughout the book,” she said, “is that I don’t believe in violence as a solution to political problems… This guy committed a horrific crime.”

She added, “I believe, as a journalist… listen to everyone, try to understand everyone, try to understand where they’re coming from… I very much wanted to deny the notion of evil. It doesn’t get you very far. Instead, you’ve got to try to understand. But I immediately kept calling him ‘the Beheader.’ I could not get beyond that.”

Illustrative: In this file picture taken on July 24, 2017, an Indonesian family who escaped from the Islamic State group in Raqqa gather inside their tent at a refugee camp, in Ain Issa, Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

Power was able to talk to others in Indonesia to get a sense of the complexities of leaving terrorism — including Amir Abdillah, an ex-terrorist whose crime, like the Beheader’s, had taken lives. Abdillah assisted in the bombing of a Marriott in Jakarta — which caused nine deaths, with many others wounded — and served eight years in prison. She visited him in his old neighborhood. He was now a rideshare driver who played soccer with his old friends in his spare time.

“While he has told his soccer mates that he would never participate in violence again, he did, [in my] interview with him, say that the person who changed his mind while he was in prison was Osama Bin Laden,” Power wrote in an email. “He read Bin Laden’s letters, where the Al Qaeda leader said that ISIS had alienated Muslims [by] causing too much bloodshed among Muslims.

“That was a shock for me to hear — that this middle-aged guy would openly declare that Osama had the clearest vision of what jihad should be. He said that for now, he doesn’t want to do jihad, but hinted that if militants got wide-spread support from ordinary people, he might. The problem is doing damage to the faith [by] spreading too much violence.”

His situation was clearly complicated — like that of many other former militants Power interviewed.

“You talk to academic experts on rehabilitation and deradicalization,” she said, “they make the distinction between somebody who walks away from violence and still possibly holds sympathies… [and] other people, completely deradicalized, who never hold these sympathies any more.”

“There is no one process,” she said. “There are many, many routes out of violent extremism, just as there are many, many routes into violent extremism.”

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