Jail Terms Include Therapy for Ex-Militants at Syria Rehab Center
In a rehabilitation center in northern Syria, young men huddle over an innocuous game of chess and some cigarettes -- activities they once brutally suppressed as Islamic State (ISIS) group militants.
Based in the rebel-held town of Marea, the Syrian Centre for Countering Extremist Ideology is home to around 100 one-time ISIS fighters from Syria, the Middle East and even Europe.
"I used to dream of establishing an Islamic state... but now, we take courses that clear up what's wrong with what we once believed," 23-year-old Mohammad Haj Ahmad says.
Ahmad hails from Raqqa, the northern city that served as the de facto capital of a now-collapsed militant "caliphate" sprawling across Syria and Iraq.
He joined ISIS in 2014 and took part in one of its most gruesome battles at Tabqa airport near Raqqa, where militants executed more than 200 army troops.
"I was completely convinced by their slogans about jihad, that they were the only ones implementing religion correctly, and that everyone else was an infidel and an apostate," he tells AFP.
"My father was scared I'd be convinced to blow myself up."
Now, Ahmad and fellow ex-militants are undergoing intensive rehabilitation courses in Marea aiming to wash away extremist habits so they can ultimately reintegrate into society.
Ahmad doesn't know what he will do once he is cleared by rebel authorities to leave the center.
"Maybe I'll start a business, continue my studies, or go to Europe," he shrugs.
Therapy, civil rights
The two-storey center in Marea opened on October 27.
"We founded the center because of the many fighters coming to northern parts of Aleppo province after the collapse of ISIS, which created a security problem," says its head, Hussein Nasser.
Some lodgers checked in voluntarily, while others are undergoing therapy as part of the jail sentence given by rebel authorities for joining ISIS.
They are divided into three categories: short-term ISIS fighters, those who fought heavily or for an extended period and foreigners from Tunisians to Uzbeks.
Treatment lasts up to six months, which can be renewed, Nasser says.
The administrators, doctors, and activists who run the center coordinate closely with rebel authorities, particularly the court system.
"The center’s lecturers provide an assessment to relevant judicial authorities, who decide if the person can be integrated into society or not," Nasser adds.
He says the center is financed locally but seeking additional funds to take in more foreigners and open a branch for female ISIS members.
Inside, patients shuffle into classrooms for group and individual therapy sessions as well as courses on Islamic law, civil rights, and psychology.
Some sport beards and others are clean-shaven. Most wear an unofficial uniform of bright sweatshirts under sleeveless vests.
"The courses are similar to corrective treatment, giving them positive outlooks on themselves and their abilities," says the center’s psychosocial therapist Abdulkarim Darwish.
Darwish listens to their life stories, then runs therapy sessions to identify what social factors led them to join ISIS.
During breaks, the ex-militants pray, eat modest meals on mattresses lined around a windowless room, and play chess -- one of the many forms of entertainment ISIS considered un-Islamic -- or spend time with their wives and children, who also stay at the center.
'I didn't come from Mars'
"I never thought I would turn into a militant," says Hawas al-Ali, 26, who quit his job as a cook in northern Iraq in 2016 and moved to east Syria.
He joined an ISIS police unit deployed to bolster flailing militant fighting battalions.
"My aim was the victory of Islam, but after a while I began thinking about returning to civilian life, society, my relatives and children," says Ali.
He checked himself into the center and now says he is excited to return "to my life before Daesh (ISIS)."
"Of course I want to socialize and so on; I want to return to civilian life. I dream about this life."