Speaking to IS Jihadists in Prison: Middle Eastern social worker sisters reveal how to fight radicalization

By: Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli

April 6, 2017

Beirut, Lebanon- “One of my friends at University, a physics major from an affluent family, began to withdraw, refusing to see me or my friends.  We discovered a few months later that he had gone to Syria to fight with IS.  He is dead now. The mission at our NGO, is to understand the different drivers of radicalization and to develop programs to counter the IS narrative” explains Maya Yamout. Together with her sister Nancy, the two social workers have developed a program in Lebanon to counter radicalization. Prisons are known to be one of the key recruiting points for radicalization which is why the sisters decided that was where they had to focus their efforts. They spent seven years interviewing jihadists in the Lebanese prison of Roumieh, who had either joined IS or Al Qaida.

IS recruiters are highly adept at identifying people with profiles that are likely to accept their call for radicalization. The ‘fishers’, as the Yamout sisters call them, profile the person to understand what to leverage to convince them. Presenting radicalization as a way to gain trust, respect and empathy they hit the targets who are lacking social recognition, a job or who have lost a relative in a government prison. The social workers use exactly the same access points, establishing trust with the prisoners, offering them empathy and social recognition. In some cases, once a person has abandoned radicalization, they support his reinsertion in his community. This has proven an effective way to avoid the former prisoner from going back to jihadism.

The issue of de-radicalization and its feasibility is not new. What makes the sisters’ work unique is the fact they collected hundreds of interviews with over 70 jihadists from Al Qaida and IS, documenting the different reasons that brought them to radicalize.

Exploring the roots causes of radicalization, Dr. Trombetta, a Beirut-based scholar and expert on the Levant, notes “to understand the appeal of radicalization we must look at the issue in its regional context. In Iraq for example, it developed mostly in rural areas, which are removed from political power and exposed to lack of essential services, job prospects and social promotion. Often IS became a form of ‘gainful employment’ and a platform for social recognition.”

The social workers categorized the radicalized prisoners according to their motivation for becoming jihadists. This allowed them to be more effective in their de-radicalization programs. They separated the jihadists into the following: the psychopaths, the ethnic and geo-political ones, the religious ones and the ‘retribution’ ones (those who had lost a relative).

For the two social workers, the only civilians who have access to the prisoners aside from their families, gaining the jihadists’ trust took time. The jihadists come from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.  There were several barriers to overcome from the religious one (speaking to females) to fear of other inmates’ reaction accepting to speak to the social workers. However, in some cases being a woman also proved helpful in breaking down barriers. “We reminded them of their sisters or mothers”. There are several methods they use to slowly gain the confidence of the jihadist they interview. Offering sweets is one of them. Working on the memories that the sense of smell can evoke they try to bring the person back to his life prior to jail and radicalization. Cigarettes will remind the prisoner of jail or war and the guards interrogating them, which is why they are never used by the social workers during their interviews.

To successfully counter radicalization it is important to focus on programs in schools, on drop outs and in underprivileged areas. “It is important to offer youth another option” states Nancy Yamout. However, while the sisters were able to de-radicalize roughly half of the jihadists they interviewed, it remains unclear if their methods can be transposed in other countries. As Dr. Trombetta points out, there are few documented cases where the local communities have shown willingness to accept those who radicalized back into society. What is clear is that while it will be challenging to reintegrate youth who joined IS or Al Qaida into society but if nothing is done to address this problem the consequences will be even worse.




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