The programmes attempt to convert radicals to Al Qaeda ideology
Al Qaeda's 're-radicalisation' schools lure ISIL fighters in Syria
Al Qaeda-linked rebels in northern Syria are using “re-radicalisation” programmes to lure fighters from rival extremist group ISIL, creating new recruits to mount jihadist attacks.
In Idlib province, the rebel coalition Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), dominated by the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, has put “between 100 and 150” ISIL militants through the scheme so far, security sources told The National.
The programmes run by HTS last up to two weeks, and are based on a “Shura and Sharia bureau approved curriculum of Jihad".
Indoctrination has taken place in the desert region of Abu Dhahur, east of Idlib, the scene of recent fighting between HTS and the Syrian regime.
“This is one of the clearest examples of how Daesh [ISIL] members can blend into other violent extremist organisations," said a security source of the effort to lure ISIL fighters into Al Qaeda's ranks.
Graeme Wood, author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, said the "re-education" effort would likely evolve around "who is a Muslim, and who is beyond the fold of Islam".
"There is a great deal of overlap between the official ideologies of HTS and ISIL," he added.
As a group, however, ISIL is considered more extreme in its use of Takfir — the act of declaring that other Muslims are non-believers and thus eligible for death.
Prior to the rise of ISIL, many countries began de-radicalisation programmes in an effort to turn Islamist extremists back into civilians who do not present a security risk.
Officials behind a programme in Saudi Arabia set up in 2004, that attempted to de-radicalise hundreds of extremists, claim recidivism rates of between 10 per cent and 20 per cent — significantly lower than regular crimes. Though there were several high-profile failures including two members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who returned to militancy after being enrolled in the programmes.
Earlier this month, Nigeria released some 244 former Boko Haram fighters whom it claimed to have “rehabilitated”, and similar attempts have been conducted as far afield as Yemen and Malaysia.
But the schools ran by HTS differ in that they "are attempting to convert people from one violent set of beliefs to another," said Mr Wood.
William Baldet, a counter-extremism practitioner who works in the British government’s Prevent programme, said that while his work tends to focus on a “disengagement from violence, and trying to dilute the influence of violent ideology. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were watching how other countries carry out de-radicalisation, and learning from that”.
Security sources told The National that the HTS programme had come into existence mainly because of recent events on the ground. In recent weeks, the Idlib based groups have seen the start of a significant offensive on territory under their control but now under pressure by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
But an increased role being played by HTS's most radical members is also to blame.
“Previously, the group had an execute on sight policy towards arriving ISIL fighters, but more recently hard-line elements have succeeded in persuading the group to assimilate some of these people," one source said.
Despite the crumbling of Isil's so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, there are thought to be thousands of its fighters dispersed across Syria, Iraq, Turkey and beyond. In October, it was reported that ISIL members and their families had been allowed to flee the Syrian city of Raqqa as it was recaptured by the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
ISIL and HTS remain fierce enemies on the battlefield. ISIL fighters have fought, and successfully captured more than 20 villages from HTS in Northern Hama in the past week. In other parts of Idlib and Hama the two groups have clashed on an almost daily basis over the past few months.