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I heard a piece on NPR this morning about re-educating Taliban Jihadis in Pakistan. What really caught my attention was that they were using education and opportunity to combat terrorism. Here are two excerpts from the article.

Even today, for the young men of Swat there is the constant fear of Taliban fighters, who press whomever they want into service.

“The Taliban just grab these kids and take them into the hills,” says Hussain Nadim, a professor at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Islamabad. He is part of an effort to re-educate these young men at a number of jihadi rehab centers in the valley.

“These kids have no exposure, they have no education, there is no media to speak of, and the lack of these types of things in Swat breeds ignorance … and fear,” Nadim adds. “It makes it easy for the Taliban to recruit them and radicalize them.”

Vocational School For Jihadis

That explains why the Pakistani army decided to make Swat ground zero for a quiet experiment: a little-known program aimed at re-educating thousands of young men who were taken in by the Taliban.

Using international funds and a contingent of army officers, Pakistan has tried its hand at turning would-be terrorists into law-abiding citizens. It has opened two jihadi rehabilitation centers — one called Mishal, for teenage militants, and another called Sabaoon, for younger ones — to see if they can return the young men of Swat back to their families.

The two campuses are like vocational schools for jihadis — only with high walls, barbed wire and armed guards.

Zeshan takes me into an electronics class — it looks like a high school science lab, all electrical meters and alligator clips. A computer lab has rows of flat-screen PCs.

“We teach them very basic things, like how to use MS-Word and things like that,” Zeshan says. I ask if they go on the Internet, and Zeshan looks surprised, saying, “Yes, of course.”

Before coming to the army centers, very few of the young men even knew what the Internet was. Parts of the Swat Valley are that cut off from the rest of the world. And that isolation, rehabilitation center officials say, is one of the reasons the Taliban prey on young men from this area.

“We bring them here to make them productive members of society,” says Zeshan. “The Taliban has put ideas in their heads, and we work to undo that and set them right.”

There are different theories on how to re-educate violent jihadis and an even greater number of doubts about whether reverse indoctrination actually works. In Saudi Arabia, a 12-step program includes art therapy and helping young men find a job and a wife. In Singapore, jihadis are taught less violent interpretations of the Quran.

But in Swat, the approach is different — and simpler.

The focus at the centers is not specifically about jihad. Instead, it is more about skills.

“We tell them, you need to get your life back in order. We tell them that their mothers or their sisters are at home waiting for them … waiting for them to take care of them,” Nadim says. “We don’t confuse them with ideas of what is a good jihad or a bad jihad. We tell them their focus should be on their families.”


Since 2010, several thousand young men — and a handful of women — have graduated from the program. The funding for Mishal, Sabaoon and a couple of other rehab centers in Swat comes from the Pakistani army and from international aid groups. Zeshan says the recidivism rate is near zero.

“When they are provided an opportunity to come back to the society where they have a livelihood and a family, what’s the point in going back to those people?” says Zeshan, referring to the Taliban.

I have said in the past and I will say it again; the lack of opportunities breed extremism. When there are little or no opportunities for people then any option looks good compared to no options. This creates fertile grounds for recruiting people into extremist causes. Groups like the Taliban are able to offer direction, work, a livelihood and meaning which in some cases is more than the recruit sees available to them in society in general. When you have nothing then you also have nothing to loose, so why not take a chance on the only opportunity you see available?

Yet when people can make a life for themselves in society then the idea of joining an extremist group is far less appealing. Why would they want they want to risk their livelihood and family for a cause unless they already are true believers in that cause?

This is why we see extremism breed in countries that have weak economies and weak governments. Recruits tend to come from the poor and uneducated populations. That is why I think this program is great, it engages the root causes rather than the symptom. If people have opportunities in life then they are far less likely to become an extremist. With programs like this we could defuse terrorism rather than fighting a war against terrorism. In order to stop terrorism we do not need everybody to like us, rather we need people to not hate us so much that they are willing to die to hurt us. There are two sides to this equation. First terrorism can be reduced by reducing animosity towards the US. Second terrorism can be reduced by giving people something to live for so they don’t want to risk dying.

No amount of killing will stop terrorism, in fact it will make terrorism worse. War destroys economies and governments, it takes away the opportunity to live a normal life and have a family which makes people easy targets for extremist recruiters. Also war creates animosity towards the US. So the war on terror fuels both sides of the equation that drive people to extremism.

I hope that in the future we focus more on creating opportunities for people in order to combat terrorism rather than killing terrorists.