Moroccan prison program aims to deradicalize IS veterans

SALE, Morocco (AP) – As a fighter for the Islamic State group who left his native Morocco to join what he felt was a holy battle in Syria, Mohsin says he has seen all the horrors of war. “A terrifying experience,” he says.

Now a prisoner, the 38-year-old claims he is no longer the fanatic he was then, enraged with a murderous hatred of non-Muslims. Imprisoned in Turkey and extradited to Morocco, he is serving a 10-year prison term on terrorism charges.

Now the former combatant has graduated with 14 other inmates convicted of terror crimes from a deradicalization program in Morocco, making them more eligible for parole.

The Associated Press and other media outlets were invited to attend their graduation ceremony Thursday at a prison in Sale near the Moroccan capital Rabat, and to interview some inmates under supervised and supervised conditions. Prison administration officials selected three men they believed were willing to be interviewed. Officials ruled that the inmates could not be identified by their full names and that their faces could not be shown, citing privacy concerns.

But prison officials did not listen to the interviews and did not intervene to stop the media’s questions or the answers from inmates.

The 15 prisoners in crisp shirts and trousers stood solemnly for the Moroccan national anthem and were presented with certificates. Prison officials said the deradicalization program consisted of three months of prison classes on religion, law and economics, and that inmates also received training on how to start a business. These most recent graduates were the ninth batch since the program started in 2017.

Moulay Idriss Agoulmam, the director of socio-cultural action and reintegration of prisoners at the Moroccan Prison Administration, said the program is completely voluntary and works with prisoners “to change their behavior and improve their life path”.

“It allows inmates to become aware of the seriousness of their mistakes,” he said.

Graduating from the program does not automatically qualify inmates for parole, but it does increase their chances of a royal pardon or reduced sentence. That has so far been the case for just over half of the program’s 222 graduates, the prison administration says. Since 2019, the training has also been offered to women convicted under the Moroccan anti-terrorism law. So far, ten women have graduated — all since their release, including eight with grace.

The program, called “Moussalaha”, which means “reconciliation” in Arabic, is being offered to prisoners who have shown a willingness to reject extremism.

Mohsin said he left in 2012 to fight in Syria. A school dropout as a teenager, he said he was “virtually illiterate and couldn’t tell right from wrong.” He said he had been radicalized by people who showed him extremist videos “about the divine obligation to fight against those who do not follow Islamic principles and to murder non-Muslims”.

In Syria, “I saw massacres, rapes and thefts,” he said. “I came to the conclusion after a while that the battle waged in the name of Islam had nothing to do with our religion.”

He escaped to Turkey in 2018 and was held there for a year before being extradited to Morocco.

He says he has now denied extremism.

“That period of my life is over,” he said.

Countless Moroccans have traveled to Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to join extremist groups. Morocco itself has also experienced several attacks. Thirty-three people were killed in five suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003. In 2011, an explosion destroyed a cafe in Marrakech, killing 17 people, most of them foreign tourists.

Al Mustapaha Razrazi, a clinical psychologist and member of the program’s scientific committee, said that of the 156 people who were released after taking the courses, only one had been caught committing a crime again.

That person was convicted of a non-terrorism-related crime, he said.

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