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Boko Haram: ‘Deradicalisation’ is the only hope for the stolen when they’re ‘free’

Could psychosocial programmes turn extremists into moderates?

It was after the 10pm curfew on a mid-February Thursday evening in Maiduguri, capital of Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state and birthplace of the militant group Boko Haram. The streets on the outskirts of the city were empty, bar a single unmarked car making its way towards a camp for displaced people.

Crammed into the vehicle were a man and six or seven women – some local reports have it they were teenagers – wearing a deadly cargo of explosive belts. Versions of what happened next differ, but it appears the driver dropped the would-be bombers off near the large camp and drove off. There was a series of explosions. The women were killed, as was the man when he tried to ram a military checkpoint.

The latest in a wave of attacks by female suicide bombers in Nigeria’s northeast comes despite repeated claims by the Nigerian government and military that Boko Haram is a spent force. The military and a regional joint task force have pushed the insurgents back and recaptured swaths of land Boko Haram held at the height of its power in 2014, according to government reports. The militant group is said to be in disarray and racked by infighting.

But the remnants of Boko Haram, dispersed over a vast area, remain a serious threat and it is unlikely to be eliminated in a decisive battle, according to a 2016 report by the conflict mitigation group International Crisis Group.

The report warns: “Boko Haram is adapting to the new conditions, including making greater use of women and children as suicide bombers to attack softer targets.”

Blast: At least 21 people died when a bomb tore through a shopping district in Nigeria’s capital Abuja. (Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters)

After nearly eight years of fighting, the deadly jihadist insurgency has devastated the country’s northeast. Villages have been destroyed, as have mosques, churches and schools. More than 20 000 people have been killed, according to the United Nation’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. One of the most definitive elements of the Boko Haram campaign has been its focus on women and children. Some went voluntarily and the rest were taken against their will to be used as wives, household slaves and as fighters and suicide bombers.

The abduction of more than 200 girls from a school in Chibok in 2014 was just a spike in a wider trend, the International Crisis Group said in another report. “The group took Christian and later Muslim females to hurt communities that opposed it, as a politically symbolic imposition of its will and as assets,” states the report, which was published in December. “By awarding ‘wives’ to fighters, it attracted male recruits and incentivised combatants. Because women were not considered a threat, female followers and forced conscripts could initially circulate in government-controlled areas more easily, as spies, messengers, recruiters and smugglers. For the same reason, from mid-2014, Boko Haram turned to female suicide bombers.”

Increasingly pressed for fighting power, it also trained women.

Can you go home again?

Nearly 2 000 civilians, many of them women, were reportedly rescued from their captors in just one week in December. But they have had little freedom and nothing to return to. Their homes destroyed and shunned by fearful family members and their communities, they mostly find themselves under close scrutiny in military-run camps for displaced people. Known as the wives of Boko Haram, they are regarded with suspicion. Others have been put in so-called safe houses, where the aim is to “deradicalise” them.

Faced with the daunting prospect of protracted terror attacks even after military successes, thousands of Boko Haram captives and a deeply divided and hostile population in the northeast, Nigeria launched the deradicalisation programme guide in April last year with a donation of €67-million from the European Union to rehabilitate and reintegrate people captured by Boko Haram. This was in addition to the country’s countering violent extremism programme, which was adopted in 2014 as a “soft approach”.

Reversing the terror

Fatima Akilu, a soft-spoken psychologist who worked with London’s youth, was recruited by the Nigerian government to set up its pioneering counter extremism programme. The aim was not to only dissuade people from joining Boko Haram, but also to change the minds of those already involved in terror-related activities. The programme was a first in a country that had focused on military power to combat terrorism.

“Deradicalisation represents a whole set of interventions that prevent terrorists from re-engaging in terror activities,” Akilu explains. “They vary from country to country: some are prison-based and some are home-based. I studied everybody else to see what the best deradicalisation programmes in the world are and incorporated that into our programme.”

This included the high-profile and generously funded government-run counterterrorism programme that Saudi Arabia started in 2004. The first stage of this programme takes place inside prisons and consists of counselling and religious re-education by Islamic clerics, according to a paper published in June 2015 by Washington-based think-tank the Middle East Institute. The aim is to persuade inmates that their jihadist interpretation of the Qur’an is incorrect. The inmates’ behaviour is analysed and their therapy is adjusted accordingly. They then go to a “halfway house” where art and sport courses, vocational training and even access to Play Stations are provided, along with further therapy.

In Denmark, the psychological welfare of the individual is prioritised and participants are treated not as criminals but as victims of brainwashing. Germany’s Hayat programme, which grew out of efforts to dissuade highly radicalised neo-Nazis, focuses on family counselling.

Although the programme Akilu developed did not include the luxuries offered in Saudi Arabia, it did draw on the expertise of criminologists and art therapists. It also included sports facilities and literacy and numeracy courses.

“We wanted to expose them to everything that Boko Haram opposed to show them there was a different way.”

She had to develop a programme that would be unique to Nigeria.

“You have to look at the context in which people join terrorism. It often has to do with poverty and a lack of employment opportunities. There is a lack of access to education and no platforms for young people to express themselves.”

What’s next? Women and children rescued by the military from Boko Haram in Sambisa Forest arrive at a camp in Yola, Adamawa State for displaced people. (Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters)

Barely a year after launching the programme, Akilu was removed as part of a political shake-up. Non-governmental and aid organisations are, however, running their own deradicalisation programmes.

One of these is the Neem Foundation, an organisation started by Akilu to counter extremism. She believes it is crucial to understand why people join terrorism groups.

“People are disillusioned, angry. Terrorism gives people who feel alienated a sense of belonging.”

Akilu says it’s important to refute the interpretation of Islam enforced by Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly as “Western education is forbidden”. In the northeast, where the youth are traditionally disaffected with the distant government, education was limited even before the insurgents started torching schools. This made people particularly susceptible to Boko Haram’s views and violent version of Islam.

“Imams are a crucial part of the programme and have to teach them what the Qur’an really says,” Akilu explains.

Much greater awareness is needed, especially of the major role psychosocial support can play in fighting terrorism, she says.

“Here you are dealing with people who have been kidnapped and held against their will. They were raped. Some are carrying the offspring of Boko Haram and have to deal with that stigma. There are trauma issues you have to address.”

Psychosocial support provided by trained volunteers, priests and imams, teachers and counsellors is necessary as there are not enough psychologists to meet the demand.

A new way of life

There are doubts about the success of deradicalisation programmes. Although Saudi Arabia has boasted about a success rate close to 90%, there have been high-profile cases of recidivism. Sa’id al-Shihri, for example, became second-in-command of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula after completing the Saudi programme.

But there is no choice in northeastern Nigeria, Akilu says. If the thousands of women and girls suspected to have become Boko Haram loyalists are not reintegrated, they will remain isolated and alienated. This, in turn, will lead to a new cycle of the same resentment and resistance that spawned Boko Haram in the first place.

Adri Kotze is a senior investigative journalist and Bhekisisa's former Africa editor. Follow her on Twitter @adrikotze.