In what is likely to be an important step towards post-war construction and normalisation, Syria has witnessed the opening of its first counter-extremism centre under the name Syrian Centre to Counter Terrorism. The centre, which opened in the town of Mare’a in the northern Aleppo countryside, 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 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.
Confronting the Jihadist ideology on its own turf remains a tricky subject. ISIS ideologues are 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. The centre seeks to overcome this challenge by employing experts in Sharia law such as Sheikh Hassan al-Daghim, Professor Abbas Sharifa, researcher Ahmed Abazaid, as well as many media activists and local political figures.
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.
In between attending programmes, the former militants are afforded basic comforts and may earn the right to remain out of their cells. However, the managers of the centre are still conscious about letting inmates of different types mingle too much due to prison radicalisation remaining a very real risk.
Once “graduated”, these ex-militants will be allowed to enter and participate in local civil society, with the hope that they might become constructive citizens and provide a bulwark against future radicalisation. It is an ambitious project and one that is being run without prior foundation, owing to the lack of counter-extremism programmes in Syria. It’s existence, however, highlights the wave of counter-extremism efforts across the Middle East and North Africa. Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and other parts of Syria are all experimenting with different means to counter ISIS’ ideology, all working to ensure that the group that has caused so much suffering can never gain hold of their societies once more.