Perturbed by the unremitting Boko Haram attacks, the Federal Government, in conjunction with the Nigerian Army, has inaugurated a programme to deradicalise the so-called “repentant” Islamist insurgents. The scheme is targeted at weaning “penitent” Boko Haram members from their jihadist ideology and re-integrating them into the society. At first glance, the programme seems well-intentioned. However, the reality is more complicated. Subduing Salafism through de-radicalisation is often a misplaced strategy. Policymakers in Abuja should tactically review the scheme.
Over 90 insurgents, who surrendered to Nigerian troops in the North-East, have been enlisted in the Operation Safe Corridor since its inception in 2016. The number is expected to grow as the military intensifies its campaign against the terror group. “…the penitent insurgents will be given a new lease of life as they commence their journey back into the civil society through the de-radicalisation and rehabilitation processes,” the Army said. This is just a homily. It cannot persuade suicide bombers and mass murderers that have been brainwashed by a false heavenly utopia of martyrdom to retrace their steps.
Unlike the Nigerian state that advertises its weakness and lack of coordination in the fight against terrorism, Boko Haram has proved to be formidable and dexterous. Its single-minded goal is to install an Islamic caliphate through jihad. In the course of this, the Abubakar Shekau-led group has committed a long list of atrocities. At a time, Boko Haram annexed 27 local government areas in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states in spite of a state of emergency that prevailed then.
It abducted 276 Chibok schoolgirls in April 2014, bombed the UN Headquarters in Abuja and has continued to spread terror in the North. Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno State says that Boko Haram has killed about 100,000 since 2009. The death toll increased last week when the group audaciously laid in ambush for the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation crude oil exploration team to the Lake Chad Basin, successfully slaughtering 18 soldiers, five University of Maiduguri members of staff and other civilians. Three senior UNIMAID lecturers were captured and were seen in a video appealing to the government to rescue them.
It is in the midst of all this that the government has commenced a premature programme to deradicalise the battle-hardened insurgents. The crux of the matter is: should terrorists who have shed blood and massacred thousands of people re-enter the society under the guise of deradicalisation? What of their victims, and the innumerable widows and orphans they have created? Iraqi prisons were the recruiting and training grounds of fighters. Abu Bakr Baghdadi was one of the prisoners freed from Abu Ghraib in a prison attack; he later succeeded al-Zarqawi and fulfilled his dream of establishing a Caliphate in June 2014.
In Saudi Arabia, some of the deradicalised terrorists returned to insurgency. France has just officially closed its only state-run prevention centre against radicalisation. In most countries, no attempt is made to deradicalise the most committed extremists, particularly those who have been involved in serious plots, successful or otherwise. Committed ideologues never give up their beliefs. Five commanders of Boko Haram, who were freed by Abuja as part of the negotiations to get back 82 of the Chibok girls appeared in a video with Shekau. The underlying principle in Europe, Australia and the United States is to target deradicalisation programmes at young people holding extremist views, but not those who have already participated in acts of terror.
This is where the project in Nigeria misses the point. The current group of insurgents should first be prosecuted. Otherwise, terrorists will wrongly believe that no matter the degree of their atrocities, they would get clemency from the government. The deradicalisation programme is meant for those below 25 in Australia, according to the Somali Australian Council of Victoria. This disqualified a Somali-born terrorist, Yacqub Khayre, from it. Although he was acquitted for his role in a terror attack on Holsworthy barracks, he was excluded because he had spent 16 months in prison. After his release, he killed a man, took a woman hostage and wounded three police officers in Brighton, Australia, in June 2017 before he was shot dead by police.
In France, Adel Kermichie also shows it is difficult to deradicalise terrorists. During his trial, he confessed: “Jihad is evil.” This false repentance deceived the court into granting him leniency. After his short jail term, he invaded a church in Normandy, France, in October 2016, forced the priest, Jacques Hamel, 85, to kneel at the altar and slit his throat.
The Netherlands, for example, imposes prison sentences on returnees from the Islamic State. Deradicalisation in the United Kingdom – a response to the 7/7 bombings in 2005 – is designed to provide early support to individuals identified as being vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. There is strong evidence that graduates of such reasonable deradicalisation programmes have low recidivism rates.
Without prosecution of terror suspects, the war against Boko Haram is a non-starter. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015, France cracked down hard on returnees from ISIS, and those suspected of terror at home. It sent dozens to prison. In Nigeria, no major terror suspect has been prosecuted.
Their long detention without trial is detrimental to the morale of Nigeria’s security forces. It poisons the prison system. The incentive to join the group must be removed by first prosecuting offenders. The state should build good educational, psychological and enlightenment programmes that will systematically draw the minds of youths away from Salafism. To curb the fear of radicalisation through the penal system, the state could build separate prisons for terrorists.
Appeasement (deradicalisation) does not work with terrorists. They are resolute in wanting to propagate their warped version of Islam. When they are caught, the logical step is not to rush into deradicalisation, but allow the law to take its course.