Syria's Next Battle: Deradicalization In Ruins Left By ISIS

The Islamic State (ISIS) is facing defeat on the battlefield. Can it be eliminated from hearts and minds of young Syrians?

Raqqa in July
Raqqa in July
Sarmad Al Jilane

RAQQA — With the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in retreat in northern and eastern Syria, activists are refocusing their efforts on counter-extremism and establishing deradicalization programs with the hope of erasing the militants' entrenched ideology.

Even in places where ISIS was defeated militarily, civil society groups were confronted with "the ideological remnants of the group," said Aghiad al-Kheder, a member of Sound and Picture Organization, an opposition-run media network that covers developments in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.

The activist group is now spearheading deradicalization efforts in former ISIS areas. In the process of conquering territory for its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, ISIS also began a widespread campaign to disseminate its ideology among the population living under its control. In the course of its three-year rule, these efforts specifically targeted children and adolescents, with ISIS schools, training camps and a new curriculum based on its way of thinking.

A 2016 study by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy which examined ISIS textbooks found that children were being taught how militants identify "unbelievers' and what measures should be taken against them. Even the study of mathematics and chemistry involved an ISIS twist. For example, one textbook included the question: "If the Islamic State has 275,220 heroes in a battle and the unbelievers have 356,230, who has more soldiers?"

ISIS also spread its ideology among the broader population through various publications and media productions. They included weekly newspapers such as al-Naba'a, the al-Bayan Radio, which used to broadcast in ISIS territories, and the notorious Dabiq magazine, which it tailored toward foreign recruits. The militant group's sermons in mosques also espoused a hardline Salafi-jihadi interpretation of Islam and encouraged violence against non-believers.

So far, the most concerted attempt at countering ISIS's widespread dissemination of its ideology has taken place in Aleppo's countryside. Activists and Islamic scholars established the Syrian Counter Extremism Center (SCEC) last month after hundreds of ISIS-affiliated militants and defectors flocked to opposition-held areas in northern Syria, explained Hussein Nasser, the center's director.

The organization "seeks to spread awareness and remove extremist ideology from the minds of ISIS members, while trying to promote tolerance in society," Nasser told Syria Deeply.

Such efforts include courses and workshops delivered by SCEC staff, which includes a diverse group of experts, such as media professionals, psychologists and specialists in the field of Sharia, who promote a moderate interpretation of religious teachings.

No foreign funding

The SCEC operates both as a Free Syrian Army-run detention facility and a "rehabilitation" center. It is currently "treating" around 100 individuals who in one form or another have been indoctrinated into extremist ideology, Nasser added. The center has tailored its curriculum and activities for three different kinds of former ISIS recruits: Syrian members who are not fighters and were not accused of violations against civilians, Syrian fighters involved in violence against civilians, and foreign militants, he said.

For each of these categories there are workshops and seminars in a different part of the center's headquarters, which has been divided into three lecture halls. Among those receiving "treatment" are defecting ISIS members who surrendered to the FSA, militants who were arrested by the FSA and foreign fighters from the Middle East and Europe.

Nasser, and other members of local initiatives, said they had already run into difficulties, notably a lack of funding and experienced specialists and access to former ISIS areas.

The SCEC is funded "independently," through donations by activists, the FSA and other local civil society groups, according to Nasser. It receives no foreign funding.

This financial gap has created significant challenges for the center, primarily the lack of experienced specialists. Lack of funds means the SCEC has to contend with hiring a limited number of specialists and "media professionals." Nasser adds that more experienced specialists are needed, especially when dealing with hardened ISIS loyalists who have radical extremism ideology "planted in them."

While SCEC focuses on known affiliates of ISIS, the activist-run Sound and Picture Organization focuses on civilians who lived under its rule and could be susceptible to the ideology. Al-Kheder said that his group is largely focused on awareness campaigns targeting people who fled militant-held territory toward camps for internally displaced people near Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.

It has carried out one campaign targeting young men and women between the ages of 18-26, and another targeting younger children. During workshops and seminars, activists work on "reminding these people of our social values and … the negative impact of extremism in everyday life," al-Kheder said. Because its operations are largely ad hoc and sporadic, the Sound and Picture Organization cannot determine their impact, but al-Kheder believes it has been limited – mainly because of who is in charge of liberated areas. Former ISIS strongholds in northern Syria, such as the city of Raqqa, are now under the control of the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurdish-led force refuses the presence of organizations that do not fall under its jurisdiction, al-Kheder said, noting that such refusal is a major hurdle to reaching all affected populations.

It remains unclear whether foreign governments will fund local deradicalization efforts. But many, including France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have already contributed significant financial and logistical support to similar programs within their own countries. Despite these efforts, little is known about their success rate.

What is clear, however, is that ISIS and al-Qaeda's broad influence has made extremism a rampant problem that is likely to persist in Syria — and only by directly confronting the ideology that's reached into people's heads and homes can radicalism be eradicated.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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