As part of an effort to de-radicalize captured ISIS fighters, the Syrian Democratic Forces are using a tactic that has seen success around the world: Art therapy.
About two dozen prisoners at an SDF detention center in Qamishli, Syria, are taking an art class in which they produce”papier-mâché models of birds, flowers and trees” as part of a plan to rehabilitate and reintegrate ISIS prisoners into society to prevent them from returning to the fight after being released, Liz Sly of the Washington Post first reported
It is not a unique situation. According to experts, art therapy has been an increasingly useful tool to induce extremists in Saudi Arabia, Africa, and elsewhere around the world to reject hateful ideologies they once embraced.
Art therapy can help deradicalize extremists by fostering a sense a self-identity that is separate from the collective identity at the core of many extremist ideologies, said Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute in Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies. The technique can also be used as a way to approach extremists' traumatic experiences and help those responsible for de-radicalization better understand the mindset of the people they are treating.
But despite evidence that art therapy could serve as a counterterrorism tool, the practice “remains largely hypothetical and is not yet based of solid scientific evidence,” Koehler told Task & Purpose. “As with all tools used in deradicalization work, one cannot speak about the effectiveness or lack thereof of tools as such or in general, but only relating to specific participants and their personal situation.”
“Use of art therapy, as any other tool, must be based on a thorough individual risk and needs assessment,” he continued. “For some, arts therapy might make sense and for others not.”
While the goal of the SDF art therapy is to keep detainees from returning to the ISIS fold, that may prove extremely difficult. In March, then-U.S. Central Command chief Army Gen. Joseph Votel warned lawmakers that most of the ISIS fighters and their families who were surrendering to the SDF remained “unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized.”
“We should be clear that what we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization – but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge,” Votel said.
Still, United States and its allies urgently need to find ways to deradicalize ISIS prisoners, said Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for Understanding War think tank.
In the run-up to ISIS' victories in 2014, the terrorist group was able free more than 1,000 fighters from Iraqi prisons. Now ISIS plans to once again attack prisons in Syria and Iraq, Cafarella told Task & Purpose.
“It's a matter of time before ISIS starts to make the attempt,” Cafarella said. “We have a limited time window here to secure this population and to implement measures to de-radicalize or contain the further radicalization of other prisoners in these areas.”