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In Syria, fighting extremism in Daesh’s wake

With the group largely defeated in the north and east, civil organisations are taking on the next challenge: Eradicating the terrorist group’s ideology

Gulf News

By Sarmad Al Jilane

With Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] in retreat in northern and eastern Syria, activists are refocusing their efforts on counterextremism and establishing deradicalisation programmes with the hope of erasing the militants’ entrenched ideology.

Even in places where Daesh was defeated militarily, civil society groups were confronted with “the ideological remnants of the group,” said Aghiad Al Kheder, a member of Sound and Picture Organisation, an opposition-run media network that covers developments in Raqqa and Deir Al Zour.

The activist group is now spearheading deradicalisation efforts in former Daesh areas. In the process of conquering territory for its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, Daesh also began a widespread campaign to disseminate its ideology among the population living under its control. In the course of its three-year rule, these efforts specifically targeted children and adolescents, with Daesh schools, training camps and a new curriculum based on its way of thinking.

A 2016 study by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that examined Daesh textbooks found that children were being taught how militants identify “unbelievers” and what measures should be taken against them. Even the study of mathematics and chemistry involved a Daesh twist. For example, one textbook included the question: “If the Islamic State [Daesh] has 275,220 heroes in a battle and the unbelievers have 356,230, who has more soldiers?”

Daesh also spread its ideology among the broader population through various publications and media productions. This included weekly newspapers such as Al Naba’a, the Al Bayan Radio, which used to broadcast in Daesh territories, and the notorious Dabiq magazine, which it tailored towards foreign recruits. The militant group’s sermons in mosques also espoused a hardline Salafi-jihadi interpretation of Islam and encouraged violence against nonbelievers.

So far, the most concerted attempt at countering Daesh’s widespread dissemination of its ideology has taken place in Aleppo’s countryside. Activists and Islamic scholars established the Syrian Counter Extremism Centre (SCEC) last month after hundreds of Daesh-affiliated militants and defectors flocked to opposition-held areas in northern Syria, explained Hussain Nasser, the centre’s director.

The organisation “seeks to spread awareness and remove extremist ideology from the minds of Daesh members, while trying to promote tolerance in society,” Nasser told Syria Deeply.

Such efforts include courses and workshops delivered by SCEC staff, which includes a diverse group of experts, such as media professionals, psychologists and specialists in the field of Shariah, who promote a moderate interpretation of religious teachings.

No foreign funding

The SCEC operates both as a Free Syrian Army-run detention facility and a “rehabilitation” centre. It is currently “treating” around 100 individuals who in one form or another have been indoctrinated with extremist ideology, Nasser added. The centre has tailored its curriculum and activities for three different kinds of former Daesh recruits: Syrian members who are not fighters and were not accused of violations against civilians, Syrian fighters involved in violence against civilians, and foreign militants, he said.

For each of these categories there are workshops and seminars in a different part of the centre’s headquarters, which has been divided into three lecture halls. Among those receiving “treatment” are defecting Daesh members who surrendered to the FSA, militants who were arrested by the FSA and foreign fighters from the Middle East and Europe.

Nasser, and other members of local initiatives, said they had already run into difficulties, notably a lack of funding and experienced specialists and access to former Daesh areas.

The SCEC is funded “independently,” through donations by activists, the FSA and other local civil society groups, according to Nasser. It receives no foreign funding.

This financial gap has created significant challenges for the center, primarily the lack of experienced specialists. Lack of funds means the SCEC has to contend with hiring a limited number of specialists and “media professionals.” Nasser adds that more experienced specialists are needed, especially when dealing with hardened ISIS loyalists who have radical extremism ideology “planted in them.”

While SCEC focuses on known affiliates of Daesh, the activist-run Sound and Picture Organisation focuses on civilians who lived under its rule and could be susceptible to the ideology. Al Kheder said that his group is largely focused on awareness campaigns targeting people who fled militant-held territory toward camps for internally displaced people near Raqqa and Deir Al Zour.

It has carried out one campaign targeting young men and women between the ages of 18-26, and another targeting younger children. During workshops and seminars, activists work on “reminding these people of our social values and ... the negative impact of extremism in everyday life,” Al Kheder said. Because its operations are largely ad hoc and sporadic, the Sound and Picture Organisation cannot determine their impact, but Al Kheder believes it has been limited — mainly because of who is in charge of liberated areas. Former Daesh strongholds in northern Syria, such as the city of Raqqa, are now under the control of the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurdish-led force prohibits the presence of organisations that do not fall under its jurisdiction, Al Kheder said, noting that such refusal is a major hurdle to reaching all affected populations.

It remains unclear whether foreign governments will fund local deradicalisation efforts. But many, including France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have already contributed significant financial and logistical support to similar programmes within their own countries. Despite these efforts, little is known about their success rate.

What is clear, however, is that Daesh and Al Qaida’s broad influence has made extremism a rampant problem that is likely to persist in Syria — and only by directly confronting the ideology that has spread into people’s heads and homes can radicalism be eradicated.

— Worldcrunch, in partnership with Syria Deeply

Sarmad Al Jilane, founding member of the activist-run Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently media outlet, now works for the Sound and Picture, another activist-run media outlet.

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