A Pakistani army officer named Col. Zeshan is giving a tour of a jihadi rehabilitation center secreted in the hills of northwest Pakistan’s Swat Valley.
“This place was also captured by the Taliban,” he says, walking me around the heavily guarded complex. “The army took over this place from them … when the war was going on.”
The war against the Pakistani Taliban in Swat began in 2009. It was a military offensive that took a year to drive most of the Pakistani Taliban out of the valley. And while the military action is considered a success, even today the Taliban’s ghostly presence is everywhere in Swat.
Last year, Taliban militants stopped a bus just outside Swat’s main city of Mingora and shot three girls returning home from school. One of them was Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old girl who has become a force for promoting girls’ education.
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 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-screened 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, and responds, “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.”
‘The Taliban Had Misguided Me’
Farooq, 24, is a typical charge. I met him in a wood-working classroom at Mishal. He was putting the finishing touches on a wooden rubab, a Pakistani musical instrument that resembles a lute. He had graduated from Mishal only a couple of months earlier; now the army employs him as a woodshop teacher at the center.
It was the rubab that got Farooq involved with the Taliban in the first place, he says.
“I was playing it outside my shop and they said it was haram (forbidden) to play this,” Farooq says. “And this is how they caught me and then they forced me to join their ranks. The Taliban just took me away.”
The Pakistani Taliban considers music evil. Farooq’s punishment for his rubab playing: to run errands for the group for years. Eventually, the Pakistani army captured him and transferred him to its school at Mishal. After six months of classes, Farooq says he now understands that the Taliban had used him.
“The Taliban had misguided me,” he says. “They told me I had to wage jihad against the Pakistani army. But now I understand that they used me. They told me lies. The army and this school helped me understand that.”
For the most part, these men — like Farooq — aren’t driven by religious fanaticism. They stayed with the Taliban because they didn’t know any better.
“The Taliban told me that the Pakistani army was just a puppet of the United States,” Farooq says. “They said that we should fight the Pakistani army, wage a jihad against them. And so we did.”
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.
A Jihadi On Parole
The army offered several handpicked graduates for interviews, but we wanted to find one independently. And we met him in a Pashtun house in the middle of a field, hours from Mishal.
Newly constructed, the house was made of solid brick on three sides with glass facing into a courtyard. The front door was made of steel.
We were escorted to a room where the men of the house slept. Five double beds were pushed against the walls and a single candle flickered on a table. There was no electricity. The recent graduate — who said his name was Fandula — came in from the darkness wearing a soft wool hat and a cape.
“I stayed with the army for two years and I was accused of being one of the accomplices for the Taliban,” he said in Pashtun.
Two years is a long time in the army’s rehab program, and it suggests that Fadula was a hard case. He said that in addition to vocation classes and sitting down with a psychologist at the center, he was asked to talk to religious leaders as well.
“In the afternoon, the religious men told us whatever happened in the past was not good and killing in the name of religion is not good,” Fandula said. “I know what they were trying to do: they were trying to undo what the Taliban did.”
We asked if it worked. He nodded.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “It worked.”
Fandula checks in with the army once a week. He’s on a kind of jihadi parole. And he says he isn’t tempted by the Taliban or the group’s ideas anymore. He said he occasionally sees some of the students who were with him at the center and, he says, they don’t have any interest in the Taliban now either.