Former extremist now fights militancy in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD – Ten years ago, Maajid Nawaz came to Pakistan to recruit for an extremist group intent on a global Islamic state. Now he's on a different mission — to steer youth away from militancy.

Nawaz's message is one rarely heard in Pakistan, where the response to extremism has been overwhelmingly military, with little attempt to try to rehabilitate insurgents or keep young people from turning to militancy in the first place.

In speeches to thousands of university students across the country, Nawaz emphasized the urgent need to renounce radicalism.

"We must reclaim Islam," the British citizen of Pakistani descent told some 100 students on a campus close to the capital last month. "We must reclaim Pakistan."

While Pakistan has poured troops and weaponry into its fight against the Taliban and other extremist groups, it has adopted few of the softer measures aimed at dissuading militancy. And critics say that is a major weakness in Pakistan's strategy against terrorism.

"There is no country where such a program is more important than in Pakistan," said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert who chaired the first international conference on militant rehabilitation in Singapore in February.

"In parallel with the kinetic fight to catch and kill terrorists, there needs to be a parallel policy to fight the ideology."

There are signs Pakistan is considering such a program. Senior officials recently went to Saudi Arabia to study the effort there, considered the world's most comprehensive. Egypt pioneered the idea of militant rehabilitation in the 1990s, and Yemen, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia have also followed suit.

The programs involve counseling by moderate clerics and former extremists. Militants who renounce their old ways can receive financial support or help finding a job. Parallel programs in schools and mosques are aimed at young people.

A former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Saad Iqbal Madni, said he would welcome such a program in Pakistan.

"If I had a little support, I could tell them that killing innocent people is not from Islam," said Madni, who was freed last year. Madni, who was never charged, denied engaging in violence, but said he would have credibility with fellow Pakistanis.

The results from such soft tactics have varied, said Christopher Boucek, who recently published a report on the Saudi program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Indonesia has persuaded prominent terrorists to disavow violence and counsel others to do the same. But 23 of 117 Saudis who returned from Guantanamo and passed through the Saudi system have been re-arrested or are on the government's most-wanted terrorist list, said Boucek.

Shazadi Beg, a London-based human rights lawyer who has studied the need for such programs in Pakistan, said they are important because most militant recruits are young men with a limited understanding of Islam and no other way to earn a living.

A further complication is that for years the Pakistani government actively sponsored extremists to use as proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir, a territory claimed by both Pakistan and India.

"In Saudi, you're dealing with relatively small groups, but in Pakistan the jails are full with these sorts of detainees," said Mohammed Amir Rana, a terrorism expert at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. "The problem is the number of people the government wants to be rehabilitated."

Most of Pakistan's 180 million people follow a moderate form of Islam influenced by local traditions, but hard-liners have made significant inroads since the 1980s. Anger at the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and support for a succession of Pakistani leaders seen as corrupt and illegitimate have swelled their ranks.

in Bulgaria. AP