In the town of Marea in northern Aleppo, Syria’s first counter-extremism centre continues its work to rehabilitate captured ISIS militants. The Syrian Centre to Counter Terrorism whose inauguration was first reported some four weeks ago currently houses 100 ISIS militants, many of whom surrendered themselves to the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) during the course of the Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016.
The inmates held in the Centre are divided into three levels: Foreign militants; those who committed crimes against civilians; and those who volunteered willingly. The division of militants into these three categories enables the centre to apply flexible and bespoke programmes that address the specific situations of the militants present. A one-size-fits-all approach, after all, is not feasible in countering violent extremism.
The centre, which is managed by Hussein Nasser, aims to not only change the behaviour of the former militants but also their ideology. This, Nasser says, is necessary to ensure that former militants will not be involved in non-violent affiliation and support of the jihadist ideology that has provided militants belonging to ISIS (and other similar groups) with a societal foundation that they could build on, even in the absence of armed local support.
The centre’s curriculum involves a mixture of physical activity and seminars on religion, with a focus on confronting the jihadist theology and espousing a theology of mercy instead. This is particularly tricky, as ISIS ideologues were experts in using historic, cultural and theological symbols to appeal to the collective psyche of people in Syria and across the region. Many counter-extremism and counter-narrative programmes around the world have failed to grasp the significance of such symbolry, resulting in these programs failing to address the root causes behind people viewing ISIS’ dogma as legitimate. As a result, the centre invites numerous religious sheikhs and experts in jihadism to frame the theological concerns in a way that ISIS militants will be able to internalise.
The issue of radicalisation remains a serious issue in Syria. Even with the end of the war, many people will continue to bear physical, mental and spiritual injuries, and efforts to rehabilitate such people have lagged behind across Syria. The opening of the centre in Marea comes shortly after a centre to treat the physical and psychological injuries of ISIS victims opened in Qamishli. It is hoped that centres such as these can proliferate, allowing more Syrians to move beyond the shadow of the conflict that has shattered so many lives.