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The Lebanese sisters talking to jihadists: ‘Islamic State promises them money, a car, a gun, and a passport’

Over the past decade, Nancy and Maya Yamout have worked with more than 150 prisoners in a Beirut prison. Their experience sheds light on the causes that lead young people to enlist in extremist organizations

Nancy and Maya Yamout
Nancy and Maya Yamout, founders of the Lebanese organization Rescue Me, on July 6 at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona.Zahida Membrado

Since 2011, sisters Nancy and Maya Yamout have met with jihadist prisoners in block B of Beirut’s high-security Roumieh prison for more than 20 hours per week. In these 12 years they have worked with more than 150 members of the Islamic State and other groups through the Rescue Me organization, which they founded. Funded by international NGOs, their aim is to try to rehabilitate these men so that, when they are released, they do not fall back into the clutches of the extremists. In 2019 they were accused of being a “danger to the community” and for two years they were not allowed to continue with their work. They are cautious about talking about this episode, but after winning the trial, they were able to re-enter the prisons. In an interview granted to this newspaper last month, in the framework of a presentation organized by the Institute of Mediterranean Studies (IEmed) and the research project CONNEKT, they say that extremist groups are searching among the thousands of stateless young people living in Lebanon to recruit future jihadists.

Question. How did this project begin?

Maya Yamout. At the age of 19, I started working in the social field after the armed conflict between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Armed Forces [2007]. My job was to raise awareness about the presence of mines and other booby traps scattered in the Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee camp, north of Tripoli. I was finishing my master’s degree in social work and decided that I wanted to do the final project on the rehabilitation of jihadists. Nancy wanted to participate in the project and my school, the Modern University for Business and Science, accepted. We handed over the paperwork to the police office to apply for permission and they turned us down three times in a row. They said it was too dangerous.

There are those who join the jihad to avenge a murdered relative. They are moved by pain and resentment. Approximately 30% are psychopaths, impossible to rehabilitate. They enjoy killing”
Nancy Yamout

Q. How did you succeed in the end?

M. Y. We met with the Director General of the Lebanese Security Forces, Ashraf Rifi, currently a Member of Parliament. We explained that we wanted to know why Lebanese youths join extremist groups. He told us, “Because of poverty.” And I said, “Several students in my class at the university have joined al-Qaeda and they are not poor. There has to be something more.” He was thinking for a while and then he said, “Go ahead.” And he signed the papers so we could enter one of Lebanon’s maximum-security prisons.

Q. Do you remember the first prisoner you met?

M. Y. Absolutely. When I sat in the cell in front of him, he asked me, “What are you doing here?” I told him I was conducting an investigation into prisoners accused of terrorism and he blurted out: “Bonne chance [good luck].” I asked him why he was locked up and he told me that he was part of Osama bin Laden’s circle for several years. Afterwards, he told me that he was not in the mood to talk and to come back the next day and without having had breakfast.

Q. And you went back?

M. Y. Yes. He greeted me with a cup of Turkish coffee and asked me what I wanted to know. I told him I wanted to understand why he joined jihadism, what his childhood and adolescence had been like. He told me that he began by relaying information about Fatah al-Islam to al-Qaeda. After years of activity, he was arrested at the Syrian-Lebanese border. After his release, he was still involved with terrorism and was locked up again. Many more convicts followed on from him: in 12 years we have met with more than 150 prisoners of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, Fatah al-Islam and other jihadist cells, small extremist groups operating in Syria and Lebanon.

Q. What is the rehabilitation process?

M. Y. The strategy we adopted to rehabilitate prisoners has four pillars. The first is individual therapy. One-to-one with the prisoners, we inquire about their past life and try to redirect their thoughts to modify his emotions related to hatred, anger, and pain. For this we mainly use cognitive behavioral therapy, which is very effective, and aggression replacement therapy. We also do group sessions with other prisoners. There we share what they have learned. Then, we carry out a psychosocial intervention with the families, to find out if they have their support or they have disengaged. If they remain at the prisoner’s side, we also work with them to help with their reintegration once they leave prison. And finally, we intervene in the community, where there are more families, and which is often a breeding ground for extremism.

Q. Do prisoners readily agree to meet alone with a woman who asks them about their criminal activities?

M. Y. At first they are distant. To facilitate the approach, we dress in modest clothes, put on the veil, do not use makeup or paint our nails. That’s how we started to earn their trust. In each session we ask them how they are doing and how they feel. They are always surprised that we ask them these questions. Over the months, we establish a relationship of trust and mutual respect, and we can begin the rehabilitation process with a view to reintegrating them into society.

Q. Have you identified a personality trait or common behavioral patterns among the prisoners you work with?

M. Y. All the prisoners we spoke to, without exception, have had a childhood with a parent who was either absent or abusive. They grow up with that brand, which makes them vulnerable to extremism. For us it is very important to find out what the radicalizing trigger is, the moment when they cross the line and commit a terrorist act.

Q. And what causes them to commit these acts?

N. Y. There are several causes. Many of the prisoners locked up in Roumieh prison are Syrians who have fought against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the war. There are those who join the jihad to avenge a murdered relative. They are moved by pain and resentment. To others, it’s money and what they consider privileges in these organizations, such as the rape of women. Then there are the religious extremists who firmly believe in the idea of the shahid (martyr). And approximately 30% are psychopaths, impossible to rehabilitate. They enjoy killing.

Q. Is it possible to rehabilitate this type of extremist?

N. Y. Yes. It is possible and necessary to end the cycle of violence. One of the prisoners I have treated for years is Bilal Mikati, a member of the Islamic State convicted of the beheading of Ali al-Sayyed, a sergeant in the Lebanese Armed Forces. The court sentenced him to death. After many sessions, one day he called me and told me that he no longer made sense of what he had done. He had become disconnected from the violence. It was like a confession. He won’t get rid of the penalty, but I know something has changed in him.

Q. Have you never had a traumatic experience during a session?

M. Y. I have met with prisoners accused of mass rape. You can see that they enjoy humiliating a woman, but I never allow myself to be provoked. I have been trained and I know how to shield myself from this. Still, I go to therapy every week to be able to channel so much tension.

I have met with prisoners accused of mass rape. You can see that they enjoy humiliating a woman, but I never allow myself to be provoked”
Maya Yamout

Q. Aren’t you required to report information about your conversations?

N. Y. Only if we are informed of a future attack. If they confess a past crime to us, we don’t report it, even if it’s valuable for the trial. We cannot do it, it is part of the professional confidentiality.

Q. Has this close contact with those accused of terrorism caused you any problems?

N. Y. Yes. We were accused of being a danger to the community, and had our credentials taken away for two years and we could not work. They never explained to us the cause of this complaint. No lawyer wanted to defend us. In the end, one agreed to take our case and we won. Seven months ago, we went back into the prison.

Q. Do you work alone?

N. Y. There are 15 of us in Rescue Me, the organization that we founded. Only we enter the prison. The rest are responsible, among other things, for prevention in areas with very vulnerable populations, especially in refugee camps, which are full of stateless people. There are about 100,000 undocumented Syrians and Lebanese in Lebanon. The Islamic State tells them, “If you join us, we will give you money, a car, a gun, and a passport.” And the guys accept very easily.

Q. What is life like for a jihadist after prison?

N. Y. Miserable. Stigma and background prevent them from reintegrating. Organizations seek them out and tell them that no one will hire them, to rejoin their ranks. We try to follow up to prevent this from happening.

Q. Do you see yourself doing this work all your life?

N. Y. No. We would like to be able to study a PhD abroad. We have valuable experience and field knowledge. We would like to be able to combine this work with teaching. But we have applied for a PhD scholarship at many European universities, and they all have rejected us. They are interested in our research, but they won’t grant us scholarships. They say it’s too dangerous. They don’t want to take any chances.

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