When terrorists defect

My host entered the room where I was seated."They're here," he says."Do we know how many?" I ask....

Posted: May 3, 2018 4:18 PM
Updated: May 3, 2018 4:18 PM

My host entered the room where I was seated.

"They're here," he says.

"Do we know how many?" I ask.

"I think there are seven. We will begin shortly."

But only six men show up as they arrive in two cars. Entering the room, they take seats at a long conference table. They are quiet and appear nervous.

We are told we probably have two or three hours with these defectors from Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-affiliated militant group operating in Somalia.

Three are former child soldiers. One looks barely 17. He fidgets constantly and struggles to maintain eye contact.

Two adults say little, though one, a zakat (tax) collector in his mid-50s, insists early in the interview he was "only a driver."

Another is a bearded, middle-aged man who sits at the end of the table.

He, I am told, is a former senior commander. An imposing figure, he has a presence felt by all in the room. He is quick to answer questions, including those not directed to him.

He has recruited dozens of young boys into Al-Shabaab but now smuggles out those desperate to leave the group. So far, according to my host, this man's penitence has helped almost 70 people escape the clutches of these jihadists, whose brutality is matched only by ISIS.

These men are among the most recent Al-Shabaab defectors to join Somalia's fledgling rehabilitation program, the Socioeconomic Reintegration of Ex-Combatants and Youth at Risk. It is an ambitious effort to signal to Al-Shabaab fighters that they have a chance to walk away from terrorism.

Early indicators suggest the program is succeeding in attracting disillusioned fighters away from East Africa's al Qaeda affiliate. Without significant investment, however, this tiny program, and others like it, cannot fully realize the astonishing potential to thin the ranks of terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab.

Iftiin Foundation, a small nongovernmental organization based in Somalia that invited me to the country, was one of several groups implementing the program until the Somali government recently decided to manage all efforts. The focus of the program continues to be to win back the hearts and minds of those once thought lost to jihadists and hellbent on unraveling Somalia's social, cultural and political fabric.

Does reintegration work?

For 10 years, I've studied terrorist deradicalization initiatives around the world. I've visited programs in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Singapore and elsewhere. It's difficult to say if, and how, such programs work. They are often shrouded in secrecy and rarely subject to any kind of independent evaluation.

Most programs point to low recidivism rates as a benchmark of success. If only a tiny few go back into the arms of the group, then a program may say it is successful. This makes sense -- except for two critical issues. What little research on terrorist recidivism exists suggests that compared with ordinary crime, the recidivism rate for terrorist offenders is often low, even for people who do not participate in programs.

Additionally, in Somalia, defection from Al-Shabaab is a one-way street. The defectors tell a common story: "They will slaughter anyone who goes back." In other words, defectors fully expect to be killed by Al-Shabaab if and when they do dare to leave the group.

The challenge for programs such as Iftiin's is to be able to evaluate success without pointing to a low recidivism rate that may have little if anything to do with the program itself.

Iftiin Foundation and others like it in Somalia are small groups. Unsurprisingly, the scale of the problem often borders on overwhelming. Defectors are flowing out of Al-Shabaab, yet there are not enough places for them to go.

The 2014 UN Population Estimation Survey of Somalia found that more than 80% of the country was under 35. And according to Mohamed Ali, founder of Iftiin, almost 70% of the population is unemployed. So even if ex-combatants want to reintegrate, there are few legal job opportunities for them.

Getting out

Despite ongoing terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab, defectors tell me the group is in disarray. In the past 18 months, they say several hundred men and boys have left, and there are signs of many more just waiting to leave. Disillusionment is rife, defectors allege, with many of the rank and file deeply dissatisfied with the harsh reality and associated traumas of combat. Yet most still remain in the movement, in part, because they don't see a way out.

I learn from the defectors sitting across the table how leaving works. A member can run away from the organization and turn himself in to government authorities. Or those reluctant to take such a risk can instead reach out to family members, who in turn contact authorities for help in facilitating an exit.

When defectors hand themselves in, they are interviewed by police or other government officials for up to a week. They are then classified as low, medium or high risk. It's unclear how this assessment is made, or even what "risk" means.

If defectors are considered "low risk," they are released to one of several regional transition centers, a type of community center that provides food and housing, to begin the Socioeconomic Reintegration of Ex-Combatants and Youth at Risk Project, the rehabilitation program. They engage in counseling sessions and skill building.

Most of these young men have never had any kind of formal schooling. Some are trained in masonry and building, others in hospitality and the service industry. This training culminates in soon-to-be graduates receiving a micro-enterprise grant, about $1,500 in-kind, according to Iftiin, to start their own business and get back on their feet.

Traditional models of deradicalization involve prison-based activities, such as individual counseling with psychologists, group therapy sessions and regular meetings with religious scholars attempting to "undo" the ideological damage of life in such groups. Somalia's program expands on this model by focusing on what happens after the former fighters graduate from the initiative.

Each defector is matched with a local sponsor who can vouch for his whereabouts and well-being at any moment. Often this is a friend or family member. The sponsor accepts responsibility for checking on the defector, monitoring his welfare, and, if potential security concerns arise, communicating with local security forces. That concern is often less about fear of recidivism and instead possible victimization by community members less willing to accept that the former fighter is no longer a threat.

Challenges and successes

A common criticism of terrorist reintegration programs is that they are soft on those who deserve little more than, at best, life behind bars. Such reactions are understandable. Yet to ignore programs such as Iftiin's is to deny opportunities to address the terrorism problem in creative and groundbreaking ways.

To appreciate just how much progress this program makes, we only need look at its impact on the community. According to Iftiin, 90% of the first cohort of graduates still had their small businesses running after six months. Considering that many have lived all their lives in extreme poverty or have never had any formal education, this is remarkable.

It also owes something to the long-standing tradition of entrepreneurialism, as well as family support, in Somalia. One young boy, who became involved with Al-Shabaab when he was 14, had his store robbed. He had been supporting his entire family, but when loved ones subsequently rallied behind him, it helped the boy quickly reopen his business.

As Ali tells me, "It takes a village to help these youth to rebuild their lives again and reintegration into the community -- no one group or institution can do it alone." This community-centric approach has paid dividends.

But without more support, such success can only be short-lived and piecemeal. With 11 staff members temporarily based in locations across Kismayo and Baidoa, and one manager based permanently in Mogadishu, Iftiin has so far managed more than 300 ex-combatants.

Somalia's capacity to manage the flow of defectors is at a breaking point. A single mass defection event would completely overwhelm all sectors of this initiative. The government has to keep the flow moving, but there is clearly an urgent need to build and staff more centers.

Now the task is to promote reconciliation and reintegration by bringing together ex-combatants and community members to forge new pathways to heal together.

On the last day of my visit, we met with village elders and tribal leaders. They are keen to stress that they embrace returnees. "We don't discriminate," one says.

Another concludes, "They are part of Somalia. And so, we forgive them."

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