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Rehabilitating extremist combatants

Tarik El Barakah

SALE (AP) – As a combatant for the Islamic State (IS) group who left his native Morocco to join what he felt was a holy fight in Syria, Mohsin said he saw all the horrors of war. “A terrifying experience,” he said.

Now a prisoner, the 38-year-old claims he is no longer the fanatic he was then, enraged with a murderous hatred. Captured in Turkey and extradited to Morocco, he is serving a 10-year prison term on terrorism charges.

Now the former fighter has graduated with 14 other prisoners convicted of terror offences from a Morocco de-radicalisation programme that might make them more eligible for an early release.

The Associated Press and other media were invited to observe their graduation ceremony last week in a prison in Sale near the Moroccan capital, Rabat, and to interview some prisoners under monitored and controlled conditions. Prison administration officials picked out three men they said were willing to be interviewed. Officials stipulated that the inmates shouldn’t be identified by their full names and that their faces mustn’t be shown, citing privacy reasons.

But prison officials didn’t listen to the interviews or intervene to shut down media lines of questioning or inmates’ answers.

The 15 inmates in crisp shirts and trousers stood solemnly for Morocco’s national anthem and were handed certificates. Prison officials said the de-radicalisation programme consisted of three months of classes in prison on religion, law and economics, and that inmates also received training on how to start a business. These most recent graduates were the ninth batch since the programme started in 2017.

Director of Social-Cultural Action and Prisoner Reintegration at Morocco’s prison administration Moulay Idriss Agoulmam said the programme is entirely voluntary and works with inmates “to change their behaviour and improve their life path.”

ABOVE & BELOW: Inmates convicted of terror charges sing the Moroccan national anthem during a ceremony; and a view of the local prison in Sale where a programme was held for inmates to rehabilitate and de-radicalise in Morocco. PHOTOS: AP

“It enables prisoners to form an awareness of the gravity of their mistakes,” he said.

Graduating from the programme doesn’t make inmates automatically eligible for early release, but does increase their chances of getting a royal pardon or a reduced sentence.

That’s been the case for just over half of the programme’s 222 graduates so far, the prison administration said. Since 2019, the training has also been offered to women convicted under Morocco’s Anti-Terrorism Act. Ten women have graduated so far – all of them since released, including eight with pardons.

Called Moussalaha, meaning ‘reconciliation’ in Arabic, the programme is offered to prisoners who have demonstrated a readiness to disavow extremism.

Mohsin said he left to fight in Syria in 2012. A school dropout as a teen, he said he “was virtually illiterate and couldn’t discern good from bad”. He said he was radicalised by people who showed him extremist videos.

In Syria, “I saw massacres, rapes, and thefts”, he said. “I concluded after a time that the fight being conducted had nothing to do with our religion.”

He escaped to Turkey in 2018 and was detained for a year there before being extradited to Morocco. He said he has now disavowed extremism.

“That period of my life has passed,” he said.

Numerous Moroccans have travelled to Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to join extremist groups.

Morocco has also experienced multiple attacks itself. Five suicide attacks in Casablanca in 2003 killed 33 people. In 2011, an explosion destroyed a cafe in Marrakech, killing 17 people, most of them foreign tourists.

Clinical psychologist and member of the programme’s scientific committee Al Mustapaha Razrazi said among 156 people who have been released after attending the courses, just one has been caught committing a crime again.

That person was convicted of a non-terrorism-related offense, he said.

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