By: Mariam Mokhtar

On Nov. 24, a 26-year-old woman named Nur Afiqah Farhanah Che Samsudim was sentenced to eight years in prison in a Malaysian high court for attempting to enter Syria in a bid to die a martyr’s death.

Although she was on her way to the Middle East, Nur’s story has achieved disturbing relevance with the collapse of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as jihadis flee on their way back for sanctuaries in Southeast Asia.  How many Nurs there are – or their male counterparts – is unknown. But according to Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, regional groups such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Jemaah Islamiyah and others serve as what he called a “home away from home” for those fleeing the deteriorating situation in Mosul and other Middle Eastern cities.  Malaysia faces accumulating its own share of the fleeing returnees and what to do about them.

Nur’s father died when she was 17. She became a mistress until her lover died in 2014. Stricken by grief, she married her lover’s younger brother, a drug addict, but the marriage only lasted two months. She then resumed her studies in medicine before being befriended by a man on social media who agreed to marry her on condition she travel to Syria.

Having sold her car to fund her ticket to Turkey, Nur entered Istanbul on Aug. 30, 2016 and was finally caught trying to cross the border into Syria in February of this year, to be deported back to Malaysia.

Nur’s loneliness, the change in her personal circumstances and her vulnerability, made her easy prey for ISIS propagandists. Had she been persuaded by her internet lover that going to Syria would give new meaning to her life, help her overcome grief and her daily frustrations? What prompted her to tell her mother that she was migrating to Syria to have a martyr’s death? And can Nur and her fellow victims be turned around?

The Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi says yes, that his Home Ministry’s program to deradicalize former prisoners, is “the best in the world.”  The results, he told a crowd in Kuching in February of 2016, are encouraging and recognized internationally.

“We are not praising ourselves, this is a recognition by the United Nations, Interpol and others,” Zahid said, “which is why Malaysia hosted the International Deradicalization Conference last month.”

The Principal Consultant of JK Associates, Khen Han Ming, works in close collaboration with the media and law enforcement agencies on global security issues, intelligence and terrorism.  He is a skeptic.

The prevention of radicalization in prisons is all about damage control and, Khen said, “Inmates jailed for non-terror related offences meet other inmates who may have become radicalized, either as sympathizers or members of a wider terror network, prior to their detention.  Harsh conditions of confinement, overcrowding, racial divisions and isolation of inmates are to blame for radicalization.

“In a recent exposé by The Straits Times, a 53-year-old former ISA detainee was shown to have been actively recruiting inmates in Tapah Prison after he was arrested in February 2013, for terror offences.”

Radicalization in prison, isn’t just a Malaysian problem. It is a worldwide phenomenon. Khen lists those who were radicalized whilst in prison.

“Guantanamo Bay once housed Said Ali al-Shiri, the late al-Qaeda leader who masterminded the 2008 attack on the US embassy in Yemen,” he said. “The current al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was radicalized in Egyptian prisons, while the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi attempted to recruit fellow inmates to help him overthrow the government in Jordan.”

Richard Reid, the 2001 “shoe bomber” who attempted to blow up an airliner on a flight between Paris and Miami with explosives in his shoes, was radicalized while imprisoned in the United Kingdom.

Although the British, European Union and American governments have yet to find an effective strategy, in Malaysia, Zahid is all praise for his own program. Implemented under the Malaysian Prisons Department blue ocean strategy, steps so far used on 130 convicts were outlined by Zahid.

Convicts were separated during detention to stop their influence on other convicts, and 97 percent of those who have been rehabilitated, haven’t returned to their activities, he said. The department has close cooperation with the Malaysia Islamic Affairs Department (known by its Malay-language acronym JAKIM), psychology experts and NGOs.

“As a result, it makes Malaysia an example of the most successful country in the de-radicalization program, the best example in the world,” Zahid said.

However, Khen dismisses Zahid’s claim. “Zahid also said, in his entry in The Journal of Public Security and Safety, that “there is no formula by which one can measure the effectiveness of a given law, or in this context, the rehabilitation program. An effective de-radicalization program can be gauged by its rate of recidivism.”

Recidivism rates, he said, “can be very misleading because they reflect only what is known to intelligence services, which is limited to public knowledge. The 2004 Saudi de-radicalization program, also known as “PRAC” (Prevention, Rehabilitation, After-Care) was also described as one of the “best rehabilitation programs in the world,” and a role model for many countries.

It was considered a complete success until five years later, Khen said, when 11 former Guantanamo inmates and program graduates “were discovered to have returned to al-Qaeda.”

Another method for tackling radicalization is via community outreach programs involving both the private sector and NGOs. The aim is to take away the appeal of extremist groups like ISIS by disrupting radical and extremist narratives.

“We need a systematic program, which emphasizes inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness, and which delegitimizes extremist ideologies such as the “them against us” mentality,” Khen said. Citing the approach adopted from The Ministry of Home Affairs of Singapore, he added, “Community outreach clinics, or hotlines which offer help to people-at-risk, or individuals with information, widen the channels of communication and accessibility to information, which would otherwise be difficult.”

He strongly believes that local celebrities can help counter extremist views: “Malaysian sultans and members of the royal household are increasingly getting involved, by speaking up against the encroaching Talibanization of our country. Celebrities have a huge following and are sometimes considered more reliable than politicians. They also have the capability to break the barrier of political distrust. They are often the symbol of solidarity and unity, when we see a terror attack, overseas.”

Many in the field agree that terrorism and violent extremism is a battle of ideology that must be addressed at many levels, using a multilateral approach. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

Badrul Hisham Ismail, the Program Director for IMAN, an organization which conducts research on society, religion and perception, told local media that to achieve successful rehabilitation and reintegration  into society, “we need to regain or rebuild trust and confidence, not only in society, but also between governments, civil societies and communities, to ensure strong collaboration and cohesion across all levels.”

Badrul added: “It is not only the responsibility of government or authorities. Each of us must play a crucial role in maintaining and promoting social cohesion and inclusivity – the remedy for any form of extremism.”

Khen, who has been involved in the provision of security services for over a decade, agreed and said, “Private sector involvement helps to address these issues, which affect everyone. Radicalization is not limited to religious indoctrination, but includes socio-political groups and similar groups.  We need to combat radicalization and violent extremism by disengaging them at their source, by advocating moderation and activism, to disrupt the spread of radical ideologies.

“Unless and until the main source of the problem is addressed, we are doomed to repeat the cycle.”

The state, he said, shouldn’t waste its time and resources on de-radicalization programs but instead focus on addressing the root cause of extremism.

Despite this, the authorities can appear to contradict themselves. In September, the Turkish moderate writer and journalist Mustafa Akyol, who was invited to give a series of talks in KL, was detained, while the Indian fugitive ‘terror-mentor’ Zakir Naik was given a safe-haven in Malaysia and made a Permanent Resident.

A controversial preacher, Zamihan Mat Zin, who outraged Malaysians and the Malaysian royalty with his radical views on separate launderette facilities for “unclean” non-Muslims and his intolerance in race and religious matters, was found to be part of the deradicalization program.

Mariam Mokhtar is a Malaysian journalist and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel