Inside Pak Army’s deradicalisation programme for surrendered militants

A deradicalisation programme launched by the Pakistan Army for surrendered militants in the restive Balochistan province has an Islamist overhang, with leaders of hardline groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami being part of the training courses, according to documents accessed by Hindustan Times.

The deradicalisation and rehabilitation programme, started in 2018 by Lt Gen (retired) Asim Saleem Bajwa, also appeared to be aimed more at replacing the ethnic Baloch identity of the militants with one that emphasises “religio-patriotism”, the confidential documents show.

Bajwa, who was recently at the centre of a controversy after a Pakistani news website reported that his family had created a business empire of 99 companies in four countries – including a pizza franchise worth nearly $40 million – appears to have been the guiding force behind the programme that was launched while he was heading the Pakistan Army’s southern command.

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An existing deradicalisation centre in Quetta named Umeed-e-Nau was expanded and renamed ‘Darepsh’, a Balochi word meaning “ujala” (light), to implement the programme. The documents show that the programme has so far handled at least two batches of surrendered militants – 50 fighters who were part of a course from December 2018 to March 2019, and 128 fighters who underwent a course during April-July 2019.

While the programme does make an effort to rope in both army and civilian psychologists to deal with the psychological and social training of the surrendered Baloch fighters, almost 20 percent or a fifth of training modules are devoted to a “religio-patriotism programme”, and guest speakers for this included Abdul Haq Hashmi, the provincial president of Jamaat-e-Islami.

The Jamaat-e-Islami established deep links with jihadi groups during the war against Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and was also active in the early years of the militant movement in Jammu and Kashmir, having close ties with the Hizbul Mujahideen. The Jamaat also has close ties with the Pakistani military.

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The documents show that while the surrendered fighters are taught “rejection of extremism” during the religio-patriotism programme, they are also trained in “jihad, morality, patriotism”.

The documents also highlight the mismatch between the overall number of surrendered fighters and the number of those who have completed the deradicalisation programme. According to a brief history of the programme included in the documents, more than 2,500 fighters surrendered in 2018 as a result of “effect-based selected operations in Balochistan along with efforts in non-kinetic domain” that isolated “terrorists/Baloch sub-nationalists”.

However, only 178 surrendered fighters were part of the two deradicalisation and rehabilitation courses conducted so far. Most of these fighters were drawn from Dera Bugti, Sibi and Kohlu regions of Balochistan.

People familiar with developments also pointed to the similarity between the deradicalisation camps being run in Balochistan and the so-called re-education camps run by Chinese authorities for Uyghurs in Xinjiang. “The objectives, layout and vocational training module closely align with those of the camps in Xinjiang. One of the key aims seems to be to remove all traces of ethnic identity and nationalism,” said one of the people cited above.

Significantly, a slide that is part of the documents contains a reference to one of the key issues raised by civil society and human rights groups regarding the activities of Pakistani security and intelligence agencies in Balochistan – the issue of “missing persons” or the victims of enforced disappearances.

The slide on some nine points raised by the surrendered Baloch fighters during the deradicalisation programme includes in the first place, “Missing Pers whereabouts be pursued”. The surrendered fighters also called for financial assistance to be paid to some fighters who hadn’t received the aid when they laid down arms.

In recent years, the bodies of scores of victims of enforced disappearances have been found dumped on roadsides, many of them with marks of torture.

Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said it was strange that the Jamaat-e-Islami, described by some as the “mother organisation for most jihadis”, was part of such a deradicalisation programme.

“This programme also shows the misplaced priorities of the Pakistan Army – such a programme should focus on Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or Punjab, where deadly groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba are based. But then the groups that don’t indulge in activities against the Pakistani state have always received preferential treatment,” he said.

“The Pakistan Army appears to be using its own version of Islam to crush groups with an identity and form of Islam that doesn’t suit them,” he added.

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