Research Article

De-radicalization In Pakistan

By Ousama Khurshid Khan


Counter-terrorism, within the last decade or so, has come to great prominence in the policy circles of many states, with a view that it might help subdue, and, in time, eradicate, the seemingly perennial menace of terrorism . The threat of terrorism, contemporaneously, haunts those nation states that are either directly involved in combating terrorism, or supporting the war against it. The Global War on Terror (GWOT), coined, planned, and executed by the United States of America, against the Taliban, following 9/11, resulted in the dismantling of the Taliban’s infrastructure, within Afghanistan; however, the US failed to completely eliminate it . Instead, the Taliban re-emerged, with far more determination and resolve, to resist the US presence in Afghanistan, as well as the nations’ supporting the GWOT. And there remains enormous amount of confusion or rather misperception about what was actually accomplished in the war that has followed one might argue for relative successes and relative failure, monumental successes and monumental failures but it would still leave us in a state of despair with the same exaggerated assumption that, in effect, the iron fist policy in dealing with terrorism, militarily, might have had some successes, but it failed to eliminate it completely. And isn’t that why wars of this magnitude are waged? Not only to eradicate the problem but to ensure the roots that supported such a scenario to arise in the first place are concurrently stemmed out and a worthy successor becoming the light of democracy and social justice is established, to the credit of the US these are the exact proponents of its manifesto in Afghanistan, what it hoped to achieve. The hard counter-terrorism, of late, has been subjected to criticism by politicians, Human Rights activists , and economic experts as being a more dangerous and costly affair with the prospects of a more violent and deadly resurgence of militancy in the offing. Is it really so? Granted it would not take an expert to arrive to this feeble conclusion but nonetheless the assertions here need to be made more distinct and dissected with the same extent, when an effort as grand in its scale as the one carried out, and is still in progress, in Afghanistan, can one really point to the aforementioned missed targets and glaring faults as reasons for an astute failure to achieve the successes that were hoped?

Partly in response to the foregoing backlash, many states have turned their focus to soft counter-terrorism , instead of wholly relying on military means. This relatively new concept is being viewed as a more cost effective means in dealing with the terror threat, both fiscally, and in how it might better contribute to society, as a whole. For this, a well thought out de-radicalization program is a must to help bring back the wayward, and subsequently radicalized, violent individuals back into mainstream society. For many of its stoic beliefs in non-violence or in its most fundamental form, the scaling down of the use of the means of violence to achieve the ends is both a welcome change of strategy from the leading states as well as a more responsible idea in preserving the peaceful implementation of change in these troubled regions. It is often argued, and rightly so, that its exceedingly rare to see violence being put to end by even more violence . A fundamental change, in ideology and strategy is a must in such situations that present themselves in such a manner.

Pakistan has borne the maximum brunt of the US’ GWOT since 9/11. In its own merit, no other country has put so much at stake, and that too in its own backyard. The US was fighting on foreign land, but merely the reality that a war would be fought in this region and that Pakistan’s aligned itself in assisting the US and its coalition in dismantling the Taliban and Al-Qaeda networks as well as the numerous other insurgent groups that operate in that country . Scores of local and transnational militant groups have unleashed a series of violent, and relentless, killing sprees on its military, paramilitary, civilian population, and other segments of society. To say that it has been a horrifying bloodbath would be, to be put it mildly, an understatement. Thousands of innocent lives have been consumed, unjustly, by the radical and violent Islamic ideology of these extremists. Pakistan has been taking punitive actions against militancy, in all its forms, something which has been very reactive in nature. The commitment of its resolve has been praised and commended by those in the corridors of power in not just Washington but all across the globe. It was the Peshawar incident, at the APS, in December 2014, which claimed over one hundred and fifty lives (150), one hundred and thirty-two (132) of whom were students , which unified both the civil and military leadership and forged an alliance that determined to take decisive and resolute action against the perpetrators. The idea that people need dramatic examples to shake them off from their apathy is somewhat relevant here, not completely for the simple reason that from day one Pakistan was in it to win it. It has been steadfast in holding its ground against countries that have threatened its political, economic or social progress. The entire nation stood together with a firm resolve to eliminate and uproot this threat. The outcome of this resolve was the National Action Plan (NAP) and its military concomitant : Operation Zarb-e-Azb. The NAP was devised to incorporate numerous actions against extremists, including military tribunals/courts for the speedy resolution of trials; a ban on particular militant organizations; a restriction on hate speech; monitoring of madrassas; as well as limiting the use of media by terrorists, and so on.

Although the hard, and quite punitive measures, did achieve a significant success in bringing incidences of terror activity down, complete success could not be ensured. There is a growing perception among intellectuals that perhaps it’s time to address the issue with a different approach, alongside the tried and tested hardline measures. Citing examples of different states that have partly, if not wholly, addressed the issue through soft counter terrorism measures; we believe that de-radicalization is likely to bear more fruit as compared to the hardline measures.

This article focuses on this relatively new concept of countering terrorism by effectively de-radicalizing the terrorist, and then bringing them back into the folds of mainstream society as a contributing individual. The article will also examine the particular factors that motivate individuals to become radicalized, and how they should, in turn, be de-radicalized, and re-engaged with everyday Pakistani society.


In order to grasp the concept of de-radicalization, there is a definite need to understand what exactly, its opposite, radicalization is, i.e., how one becomes radicalized, and what the motivating and driving factors of radicalization are. Although simple in its nature, it’s the exact quality that renders it such an obfuscated dilemma for those attempting to understand it whilst simultaneously devising a strategy to counter it. One can argue at this juncture, whether it’s feasible to counter something that is by admission still not understood wholly? As the concept of radicalization has been a political hot potato in the recent past, there are multiple explanations and definitions available. It is prudent to state here how the international community has chosen to address this problem at its core, assessing the key psychological paradigms that have led to a cohesive definition of the threat that faces us to ensure a concrete response. The Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD) defines radicalization as the process through which an individual changes from passiveness or activism to become more revolutionary, militant, or extremist, especially where there is intent towards, or support for, violence. Lorenzo Vichina has taken this definition further by distinguishing between cognitive and behavioral radicalization. He proposes that cognitive radicalization is the process through which an individual adopts ideas that are severely at odds with those of the mainstream, refutes the legitimacy of the existing social order, and seeks to replace it with a new structure based on a completely different belief system. Behavioral radicalization occurs when an individual takes the additional step of using violence to further the views derived from cognitive radicalization.

This brings us to ask what factors motivate, or drive, an individual to become radicalized. These factors may be different for different states and circumstances. The age old argument of radicalization simply being a pragmatic response to a form of oppression being carried out by an individual or institution against a segment of society. This is then preyed upon by those elements that wish to grow their hateful ideologies in the minds of those that have just been aggrieved. Although many researchers agree that there is no one single route to radicalization, there are multiple theories and viewpoints that may explain how radicalization takes place, or what kinds of individuals or groups are more prone to radicalization. As mentioned earlier, the set of circumstances that may lead to or even may open up the possibility of radicalization in a person are far too many and far too passive to be noted out precisely. However, most agreed upon factors, or drivers, which are applicable in the case of Pakistan are highlighted herein. In Pakistan, radicalization and participation in violent acts—and militancy are mainly driven by ideological, economic, social and psychological factors. Illiteracy is yet another major contributory factor in the context of Pakistan. Poverty, deprivation, unequal wealth distribution, large families headed by a single earner, unemployment, religious/sectarian ideological differences, etc., are the more prominent among many other factors . When the unique situation rises up where a potent mixture of these elements has come into existence, the opportunity is ideal for these elements of radical intent to preach their mantra of hatred to gullible and impressionable individuals. These factors are available in abundance and are fertile breeding grounds for youth to engage in radicalism. It has been often pointed out by institutions, both foreign and local that there exists no medium for the youth in some of the impoverished areas to express their feelings in a civil manner in front of the relevant authorities. They are left to fend for themselves and this is where the “schism” takes place. More prone are far flung areas, offering the least in employment opportunities to illiterate youth, who could be easily targeted by interest groups. There is evidence to suggest that there exist family units, and youth, who view jihad as an occupation. And such a mindset is becoming increasingly more prevalent in other areas of the country that fall under similar circumstances. It should be added here that were there more prudent initiatives available then perhaps the idea of radicalization taking its roots in the youth of the country would have been curtailed a long time ago.

Financial support to youth providing for deprived families, coupled with the lure of ‘Huurs’, (72 virgins), immediately following Shahadat (martyrdom), is particular the most attractive, and tends to be the ultimate, reward or masses of illiterate and unemployed youth who readily express their allegiance to pseudo-radical religious scholars, becoming suicide bombers upon their prompting. Conceivably, were there opportunities available for these families that would enable them to be more literate and up with what the modern world is moving towards then perhaps this entire phenomenon would have been avoided. It is indeed a matter of utter importance to realize the gravity of the situation, an exceeding number of teens are associating themselves with this sort of a mentally, the idea that somehow the concept of Shahadat and terrorism are interlinked. Such a notion not only perverts the holy idea of Shahadat , it also leads to a grossly unhealthy synonymous feeling for other youths to wrongly impersonate it. This mentality is then exploited by certain elements for their own nefarious ends.


There are two important terms which need to be distinguished before proceeding any further: the difference between ‘disengagement’ and ‘de-radicalization’. ‘de-radicalization’ refers to the process of divorcing a person, voluntary or other, from a set of extreme views , whereas ‘disengagement’ refers to the process of moving a person away from the extreme groups’ activities without necessarily de-radicalizing that person or changing their views. Disengagement is, thus, primarily, a stage where a state may apprehend a terrorist and detain him for trial purposes, though may or may not ensure his continued interaction with other inmates. Hence increasing his radicalism or in turn, radicalizing more moderate inmates. For all our efforts in curbing terrorism and the mentality that breeds it, radicalism, it’s been a common mistake. Too many such convicts are allowed to be let off the leash with a propaganda tool to utilize to their own benefit. Capital punishment does little good either; radicals of such sorts crave the moment to embrace what they perceive martyrdom. It’s a strange archetype, the state is obliquely still unsure of what its necessary actions must be in such case, or rather is there anything to be done at all? This is probably the most likely occurrence that is taking place in Pakistan’s prisons, where no plans exist to isolate, or segregate, such radicalized prisoners . There seems to be a lack of a comprehensive strategy to de-radicalize such disengaged terrorists. While solitary confinement seems like a judicious tactic that the state can look towards, there is still debate over the effectiveness of it and whether the current prison system in the country is equipped in sufficient quality to properly have such an option as a realistic idea for the state. Even in these rumblings, it should be kept in mind that whatever the steps might be, they would certainly prove an upgrade to what the state currently has in its arsenal. Any action would be welcome in this regard.

Current efforts in Pakistan

At present, there are a few de-radicalization programs being run in Pakistan: The Sabaoon Center for Rehabilitation , Sparlay, Python, Heila, Mishal, and Rastoon. The objective of three of these programs is to educate detainees, including females, and this education includes corrective religious education, vocational training counseling, therapy, discussions with detainees and their families, etc. The process takes from six months to a year to fully rehabilitate an individual. The program officials have claimed a 99% success rate and have also stated that more than twenty-five hundred (2500) Taliban fighters have been reformed and brought back into mainstream society. Taken at face value, it would seem that a viable option would have finally presented itself that is both civil and humane in nature and yet offers solid results for the state to invest upon supporting programs. An option that ensures that such monumental successes are kept constant and that no lapses can occur within the detainees and that the parties that originally introduced the idea of radicalism in them are kept as distant from them. A solution such as this should also lead to rehabilitation rather than just pointing out the wrongdoing. The state however must back these claims up by ensuring the establishment of a stable educational system in these impoverished areas. However, for all these allure of a solution at last, these claims remain unverified.

Pakistan has been suffering to put off the violent narratives which it acquired as a product of changes each at country wide and international stage. These narratives gave delivery to several sorts of radical ideologies that resulted into extremism, sectarianism and terrorism. To be able to remove all of them, Pakistan launched a chain of military operations, and rehabilitation and de-radicalization programs. Despite these stern moves confusion approximately how to deal with terrorists prevailed till the inhumane Army Public school assault united the kingdom. As a result the authorities introduced country wide movement Plan, National Action Plan (NAP).

A two-year extension in Military courts’ tenure is vital to deal with the difficulty of terrorism inside Pakistan. Authorities are working on a road-map to upscale the countrywide action Plan and judicial reforms to prepare a parallel system before finishing the duration of military courts. The futile committees within the parliament show a lack of seriousness of parliamentarians, which further exacerbates the grievances and the wage promises to rehabilitate the broken justice system. To negate this menace there is a need for subtle, comprehensive and rigorous policy implementation which can only be attained through military courts. The government needs to present its actual meaning by devising unique movement plans for each of its manageable elements. The eminence of counter-terrorism practices stem from strategies formulated with consensus, and put into practice with dedication. However, the pertinent question that needs to be handled with brevity; will 2017-19 be a repeat of the lack of progress on judicial reforms or the right kind of policy implementation would be enacted in a coherent manner? The comprehensive answer to this question lies in the enunciation of military courts.

NACTA is a key counterterrorism entity with awareness on coordination and training of country wide counterterrorism and counter extremism strategy, there have been a few up-and-coming issues which have impeded its usual performance consisting of loss of human assets. Despite the different institutional and coordination bottlenecks, NACTA have made substantial progress in drafting a sturdy country wide narrative on terrorism and extremism.

Project Mishal is working under the Pakistan Army in the Swat region, and focuses, primarily, on corrective ideology and imparting certain civic skills to detainees . Sparlay is another project which assists in job hunting and has limited government financial support. More or less, the objectives of all such projects are to reintegrate the former terrorists into mainstream civil society. The major limitations of these projects are a lack of adequate financial support, and lack of monitoring, following the release of detainees. It is apparent that through rigorous efforts and a fiercely coordinated determination, results are there to be had where not only can these radicalized elements be rehabilitated but that they can be safely integrated back into the society as causative members who contribute towards the progress of economic, social nature in the country.

Ingredients of an Effective De-radicalization Program

Based on case studies from different states, de-radicalization programs, such as those in Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, United Kingdom, etc., one can safely assume that text book ingredients for de-radicalization do not exist that may be universally applicable in all circumstances, within all states. To put it in a nutshell, if concrete efforts are genuinely devoted towards attaining the goals of rehabilitating these elements then there is sufficient data to point towards the success of this idea of reintegrating them into the society . Disparate situations and divergent circumstances warrant unique de-radicalization strategies in accordance with the given cultural context and norms. Researchers, however, agree that a successful de-radicalization program should, at a minimum, include the following: countering radical ideology by utilizing the services of knowledgeable and well reputed moderate individuals, the incorporation of the particular set of cultural norms of the target community, the involvement of families and community in the de-radicalization process, well-planned financial support by the state and a well-structured after-care strategy to monitor and prevent recidivism. If the state can come up with such a program, then the efforts to counter this narrative run by a few that radicalize the youth with their ideology will be significantly boosted and allow the country to have a viable option in this regard.

Way forward

Although rehabilitation and de-radicalization strategies may vary from state to state and situation to situation, de-radicalization programs employed worldwide are deep rooted in identifying and detaining terrorists. Many states have embarked upon de-radicalization programs which ultimately facilitate the release of prisoners into the mainstream and have taken steps to keep a close watch on released prisoners through various surveillance means, including police, family members, and the community but it cannot be told whether or not such individuals have been effectively re-engaged into their communities. However, in the case of Pakistan, an effective religious counter-narrative, as well as re-engaging disaffected individuals with employment opportunities remains a core tenet in Pakistan’s de-radicalization strategy. For a more lasting, credible impact, trusted, well reputed and religiously authentic clerics delivering the correct message are the need of the hour. Although, it still would be uncertain, in tangible terms, as to how this message might be received by target audiences. It is well established that the elements that concocted this entire problem in its original form have had years of planning and funding and all the ingredients necessary to bolster their efforts, by self-admittance, it will take some time for these measures to turn in positive results which will also transcend their original purpose and contribute in a way that is expected of them.

Disengaging militants, and the general population, without violating their sacred beliefs is crucial. In some of these segments, these sacred values and beliefs are held in incredibly high esteem and upon any notion of danger to them; a reaction can be visibly noted. Pakistan needs to devise a comprehensive de-radicalization strategy to counter terrorism, keeping hard counter-terrorism measures in place to deal with the threat as a two pronged strategy. The following is suggested in this regard:


Pakistan needs to re-write its counter narrative to defeat the narrative professed by terrorists. Policy makers need to stay abreast and alert to the popular narrative of terrorist organizations and come up with a more convincing and logical counter-narrative to that of terrorists. This may require the services of well reputed, credible, and unbiased religious clerics/scholars to play their part in an overall resolve and drive against terrorism . Pakistan must seek the services of the Imam-e-Kaaba, and scholars of his stature/repute, to counter the narrative of a narrow and radicalized version of Islam: to declare suicide bombing and the killing of fellow Muslims as un-Islamic. The religious decrees (Fatwas) issued by the foregoing lobby then needs to reach our target audiences through a well-crafted state-level media campaign which requires adequate financing at state level. The notion of singularity needs to be uprooted from society and a narrative based on pluralism, and secularism, needs to be gradually cultivated in society as a binding force, to encourage tolerance and ensure that people can make religious, political, and social decisions without fear of state, social, religious, or sectarian persecution.

Pakistan must be clearer about its stance against terrorism. There are no good or bad Taliban, no untouchables. Law and justice must be equal for all. Concentrating only on low level militants may not be sufficient. To ensure lasting results, the so-called masterminds, as well as terror facilitators, must be apprehended, and, ideally, an attempt must be made to de-radicalize such terror masterminds, subsequently leading to the effective de-radicalization of their subordinates. Other measures supported are:

  1. Detention / segregation of prisoners within the prison system
  2. Adequate financial support by Government for de-radicalization programs
  3. Identification of most affected areas for de-radicalization, especially along the border regions
  4. Job opportunities for returnees
  5. Monitoring/surveillance infrastructure for released persons
  6. Measures to prevent recidivism.


According to a report in The Guardian, a London based newspaper, children, aged nine (9) and under, were among three thousand nine hundred and fifty-five (3955) people referred to England’s flagship de-radicalization program, Channel, in 2015, a figure that was an increase on 2014’s, which was one thousand six hundred and eighty-one (1681). England faces challenges quite distinct from the problems Pakistan is facing, in terms of counter-terrorism, and de-radicalization, but it has had a coherent system in place for many years in order to deal with the malaise of terrorism, and its concomitant, radicalization. In a framework that brings together the police, intelligence services, public and private academic and educational institutions, community organizations, and community leaders, of all backgrounds and faiths, the English de-radicalization program, Channel, is perhaps the kind of model Pakistan needs to base its counter-terrorism/de-radicalization concepts on. The prevailing concern in England about radicalization at this time is based on the threat posed by British born Muslims, among travelers of other religious and ethnic persuasions, traveling abroad to countries impacted by the threat presented by ISIS. Upon their return, it is thought that such people influenced by the ISIS ideology might influence others susceptible to radicalism within their communities, hence creating potential terrorists, ripe for the picking. In conjunction with the immigration services, and the airport authorities, the intelligence services are able to identify suspects and either detain, surveil, or refer individuals on to other services, depending upon their presumed threat level. Again, the level of harmony displayed by the inter-agency cooperation of the various agencies involved is near flawless, and, as well as this, is something that Pakistan might learn to cultivate within its counter-terrorism/de-radicalization planning and approaches. Militarily Pakistan is headed in the right direction, as Operation Zarb-e-Azb has shown, but it has become evident that Pakistan’s soft approach to countering terrorism requires much work, and even more refinement, before we are in a position to claim that our de-radicalization programs should be effective enough to help stabilize ex-terrorists within the communities from which they initially emerge. An effective counter-terror, and de-radicalization, strategy must, as a fundamental principle, incorporate employment, as well as, educational initiatives, offering a constructive alternative to individuals identified as being in the throes of radicalism

Another core tenet is that of the counter-narrative we present to those we engage, not only would be terrorists, but society at large, in that it must be credible. At its heart lies the religious doctrine used as an alternative to help displace the one adhered to by the radicalized. Let’s not forget that not all religious fundamentalists, would be terrorists, potential suicide bombers, and the like, are not simple minded, disenfranchised, and disaffected: there are those, albeit few and far between, that are intellectually attuned to what doctrines may be presented before them and might be ready and able to engage and refute what’s been proposed. Such individuals may be masterminds, or even terror facilitators, and will not easily be disproven on something they may have adhered to for an extensive period of time. Moreover, any alternative ideology must be simple, logical, and solid enough to withstand the rebuttals of those it is presented to, in order for them to be brought out of the darkness, and into the light, as it were, if they shall willingly come.