Chess, smokes, therapy for ex-jihadists

Chess, smokes, therapy for ex-jihadists

In a rehabilitation centre in northern Syria, young men huddle over an innocuous game of chess and some cigarettes -- activities they once brutally suppressed as Islamic State group jihadists.

Based in the rebel-held town of Marea, the Syrian Centre for Countering Extremist Ideology is home to around 100 one-time IS fighters from Syria, the Middle East and even Europe. "I used to dream of establishing an Islamic State... but now, we take courses that clear up what's wrong with what we once believed," 23-year-old Mohammad Haj Ahmad says.

Ahmad hails from Raqa, the northern city that served as the de facto capital of a now-collapsed jihadist "Caliphate" sprawling across Syria and Iraq.

He joined IS in 2014 and took part in one of its most gruesome battles at Tabqa airport near Raqa, where jihadists executed more than 200 army troops. "I was completely convinced by their slogans about jihad, that they were the only ones implementing religion correctly, and that everyone else was an infidel and an apostate," he said.

"My father was scared I'd be convinced to blow myself up." Now, Ahmad and fellow ex-jihadists are undergoing intensive rehabilitation courses in Marea aiming to wash away extremist habits so they can ultimately reintegrate into society.

Ahmad doesn't know what he will do once he is cleared by rebel authorities to leave the centre. "Maybe I'll start a business, continue my studies, or go to Europe," he shrugs.

The two-storey centre in Marea opened on October 27. "We founded the centre because of the many fighters coming to northern parts of Aleppo province after the collapse of IS, which created a security problem," says its head, Hussein Nasser.

Some lodgers checked in voluntarily, while others are undergoing therapy as part of the jail sentence dished out by rebel authorities for joining IS. They are split into three categories: short-term IS fighters, those who fought heavily or for an extended period and foreigners from Tunisians to Uzbeks.

Treatment lasts up to six months, which can be renewed, Nasser says.

The administrators, doctors, and activists who run the centre coordinate closely with rebel authorities, particularly the court system.  

He says the centre is financed locally but seeking additional funds to take in more foreigners and open a branch for female IS members.

"The courses are similar to corrective treatment, giving them positive outlooks on themselves and their abilities," says the centre's psychosocial therapist Abdulkarim Darwish.  Darwish listens to their life stories, then runs therapy sessions.


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