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Lebanese Social Worker Sisters Tackle Radicalization and talk about their Fears, Hopes and Regrets

The sisters are tireless in their work, but the challenge they face is daunting, while their funding remains threadbare

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Nancy (left) and Maya Yamout have been visiting Islamist militants in Lebanon's Roumieh prison for the last five years. VOA

Within the confines of Lebanon’s Roumieh prison they gathered together as men recounting lives led before they became seen as terrorists.

Inmates whose affiliations spanned across Islamic State (IS) and a gamut of other Islamist groups were in discussion and, for once, religion and politics were not on the agenda.

Instead, led by two pioneering social workers, the talk was to be of their fears, their hopes, their regrets.

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“The moment you refer to religion or politics it becomes an endless debate,” explained Nancy Yamout, who along with her sister Maya has been overseeing sessions that also include art therapy.

“Religion is part of it, of course, but we’re not sheikhs, we’re social workers. We want to look at how they have reached this point socially and psychologically.”

For five years they have worked within the prison as they search for a new way to respond to radicalism, a search that is now taking them from the Islamists of Roumieh prison into neighbourhoods of the dispossessed.

Beyond the sectarian

A country deeply divided along sectarian lines, Lebanon’s instability has increased with the Syrian war.

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Struggling with an influx of Syrian refugees, the country also finds itself under threat of bombing – the last deadly blast took place this June in the northern border town of al-Qaa and state security services claim to have foiled numerous other IS attacks.

This neighborhood in west Beirut is the target of the Yamout's efforts to prevent radicalization. VOA
This neighborhood in west Beirut is the target of the Yamout’s efforts to prevent radicalization. VOA

Meanwhile some youngsters within Lebanon’s own borders are being lured by the likes of IS into the conflict.

Some of the main drivers behind this are well established.

Raphaël Lefevre, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told VOA that recruits were “young Sunnis who feel strongly about supporting the Syrian revolution.”

Referring to the role of the powerful Iran-backed Lebanese Shia group which intervened to support Syrian Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad, he explained they “also feel frustrated by Hezbollah’s intervention in the ongoing conflict there and domination in Lebanon.”

The same year the war began, 2011, the Yamout sisters entered Roumieh prison for the first time.

A bar of soap, one of many items the Yamout sisters bring in to Roumieh prison for the inmates. VOA
A bar of soap, one of many items the Yamout sisters bring in to Roumieh prison for the inmates. VOA

They had both lost friends to radicalization, and persuaded the authorities to let them in as they sought to understand what it was that drove people into the arms of islamist militants.

But, as social workers, they wanted to look beyond the religious and political context of their subjects.

Building trust

Nancy and Maya Yamout have slowly built trust among inmates in Roumieh’s Block B, exclusively home to the prison’s 680 Islamist militants, as they go about conducting interviews rather than the more usual interrogations.

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“We don’t ask them why they are accused of terrorism,” explained Nancy.

“We ask them how they are doing, what are their happy memories, what kind of food do you like?”

The latest art sessions were created as a form of therapy, though the sisters had limited material at their disposal — the prison would not allow chalk because it could potentially be smeared by inmates across the prison’s CCTV camera lenses.

One of the artworks created by an inmate in Roumieh Prison after art therapy. Some refused to draw or paint, considering it against Islam, but used photos instead. The words "I'm tired" and "tomorrow we will meet" are drawn over the work. VOA
One of the artworks created by an inmate in Roumieh Prison after art therapy. Some refused to draw or paint, considering it against Islam, but used photos instead. The words “I’m tired” and “tomorrow we will meet” are drawn over the work. VOA

Such workshops act as a gentle entry into discussions exploring the circumstance that created men seen as monsters by much of the outside world.

The Yamout’s findings led them to explore the role of family, and the support mechanisms available.

“If they’re between 15 and 20, they are developing their ideology, and if the parents are not creating a sense of self worth, or even something like the Scouts or Red Cross is, others will,” explained Nancy.

“It’s about a sense of belonging, of being wanted,” added her sister Maya.

And now, armed with their findings, they have moved beyond Roumieh in an effort to stop the cycle before it destroys more lives.

Reaching out

Having come to Lebanon from Manbij, the Syrian town controlled by Islamic State until August, Amal* has left one nightmare to be confronted with another.

Living in a poverty-blighted neighborhood in west Beirut, she fears for the safety of her children in a place she says is rife with crime.

“Maybe children here will reach drug dealers, or extremists – I don’t know,” she told VOA.

The Yamouts were pointed in the direction of the neighborhood by their contacts within Roumieh.

Here, claim the sisters, is a toxic mixture that contributes to radicalization – poverty, but more importantly broken social structures and familial relations.

Many here also lack Lebanese citizenship, making them vulnerable, according to the sisters, to those offering a new sense of identity and purpose.

In response, the Yamouts and their NGO Rescue Me have set up workshops for youngsters, offering them therapeutic activities like mosaic-making and job training, and are also setting up an office in the neighborhood to offer more permanent support.

Nancy, Maya and their mother at their home, from which they run their NGO Rescue Me. VOA
Nancy, Maya and their mother at their home, from which they run their NGO Rescue Me. VOA

Oil on fire

“When you support these kids, and give them enough, their self esteem rises and they gain the tools to work,” said Maya.

The sisters are tireless in their work, but the challenge they face is daunting, while their funding remains threadbare.

Advocating for more focus on prevention of radicalism at its roots, with supporting families in vulnerable communities crucial, they argue that more effort needs to be made helping former prisoners leaving Roumieh’s Block B into Lebanese society.

Otherwise, they warn, no matter how many arrests are made, or how many end up in Block B, the cycle of violence and radicalization could continue.

“The message [of Islamist militants] can spread,” warned Nancy. “It’s like oil on fire.”

*Amal’s name has been changed to protect her identity. (VOA)

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Syrian Militia: End Is Near for Islamic State in Raqqa

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Syria ISIS
Smoke rises near the stadium where the Islamic State militants are holed up after an airstrike by coalition forces at the frontline, in Raqqa, Syria. voa

Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Syria’s Raqqa and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists Saturday or Sunday, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia told Reuters Saturday.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said around 100 of the jihadist group’s fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and had been “removed from the city,” but it still expected difficult fighting “in the days ahead.”

It did not say how the fighters had been removed or where the fighters had been taken.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said remaining Islamic State fighters were being transported out of Raqqa by bus under a deal between Islamic State, the U.S.-led coalition and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG. There was no immediate comment on that report from the coalition or the SDF.

Fighting since June

Civilians who escaped from Islamic State
Civilians who escaped from Islamic State militants rest at a mosque in Raqqa, Syria. voa

The SDF, backed by coalition airstrikes and special forces, has been battling since June to oust Islamic State from Raqqa city, formerly its de facto capital in Syria and a base of operations where it planned attacks against the West.

The final defeat of Islamic State at Raqqa will be a major milestone in efforts to roll back the group’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year the group was driven from the city of Mosul.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (Islamic State) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone.

In emailed comments to Reuters, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon said about 100 Islamic State fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and were “removed from the city,” without giving further details.

“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think (Islamic State) will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” he said, adding that around 85 percent of Raqqa had been liberated as of Oct. 13.

Some civilians escape

Around 1,500 civilians had been able to safely make it to SDF lines within the last week, he added.

Omar Alloush, a member of a civilian council set up to run Raqqa, told Reuters late Friday that efforts were under way to secure the release of civilians and “a possible way to expel terrorist elements from Raqqa province,” without giving further details.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page Saturday that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight, having traveled from the northern Raqqa countryside.

The Observatory said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families. It did not say where they would be taken.

During the more than six-year Syrian war, the arrival of buses in a conflict zone has often signaled an evacuation of combatants and civilians.

The campaign against Islamic State in Syria is now focused on its last major foothold in the country, the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which neighbors Iraq.
Islamic State is facing separate offensives in Deir el-Zour by the SDF on one hand, and Syrian government forces supported by Iranian-backed militia and Russian airstrikes on the other. (VOA)

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Iraqi Army continues Offensive on Islamic State to Regain Hawija, Anbar

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IS clamed territory Hawija in Iraq
A black sign belonging to Islamic State militants is seen on the road in Al-Al-Fateha military airport south of Hawija, Iraq.

The Iraqi army and its allied Shi’ite militias continue to press for the last pockets of Islamic State in Hawija and Anbar.

In a news conference held in Geneva, on 3rd October 2017, U.N. spokesperson Jens Laerke, said that an estimated 12,500 civilians have fled their homes in Hawija since the start of the Iraqi operation on September 21 and nearly 78,000 people could still be trapped in their homes as the fighting reaches densely populated areas.

Hawija

Hawija is a Sunni-majority city in the al-Hawija district with a population of about 100,000. It had a population of 500,000 before IS took control in mid-2014 as many residents fled the violence.

Iraqi army and allied Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces claim the fight for Hawija has entered its final stages as they recently gained a strategic foothold in the district by capturing an air base from IS on Monday. The base, known as Rashad air base, is about 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of Hawija and serves as a training camp and logistic base for IS in the region.

Anbar

In western Iraq’s Anbar province, where the Iraqi army launched a separate offensive last month against IS, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration said it has identified more than 8,500 newly displaced people, raising the number of displaced in the province to more than 54,000 since January 2017.

“People newly displaced from their homes often arrive dehydrated, suffering from hunger and thirst,” said IOM’s Hamed Amro. “Many require psychosocial support and need medical care. Some have chronic illness and exacerbated conditions due to a long-term lack of care, and others suffer from malnutrition. We have also received a few trauma cases.”

Commanders on the ground say IS has set fire to oil wells and has forced civilians who remained to serve as human shields to inhibit airstrikes. (voa)

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Islamic State (ISIS) Militant Group to Soon have a Strong Hold in Southeast Asia : Report

Analysts say as Islamic State (IS) militants are losing ground in Syria and Iraq, the terror group is attempting to expand in Southeast Asia

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An Islamic group member covers his face with Hizbut Tahrir flag during a protest against the decree allowing the government to disband organizations deemed to run counter to the secular state, in Jakarta, Indonesia
An Islamic group member covers his face with Hizbut Tahrir flag during a protest against the decree allowing the government to disband organizations deemed to run counter to the secular state, in Jakarta, Indonesia. VOA
  • A number of IS affiliates from Indonesia have reportedly crossed into the Philippines to support the local militants
  • In the Philippines, Islamic State (IS)  has endorsed Isnilon Hapilon – the country’s most-wanted man who has a $5 million bounty placed on his head by the US
  • Ridwan Habib warned that the situation could get worse if the ongoing conflict in Marawi is not tackled and managed properly

Philippines, August 30, 2017: Government security forces in the Philippines city of Marawi have been fighting for the past three months to rout militants suspected of ties to the Islamic State (IS) militant group in the region.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in May declared the country’s restive south under the martial rule for 60 days – which, in July, was extended through the end of the year – after an attempt by security forces to capture an Islamic State (IS) -linked militant leader failed. That set off clashes that left the city under siege.

A number of IS affiliates from Indonesia have reportedly crossed into the Philippines to support the local militants who are fighting against the Philippines military in the Marawi region.

Analysts say as Islamic State (IS) militants are losing ground in Syria and Iraq, the terror group is attempting to expand in Southeast Asia, which is home to a number of separatist and militant groups.

“This is an evidence that the people under Jamaah Islamiyah in Indonesia now have a new ‘flag’ operating under ISIS, in this case, ISIS of the Philippines,” said Ridwan Habib, a terrorism analyst at the University of Indonesia.

“Something serious is brewing and the government needs to anticipate what could happen next,” he said. “We‘re worried that this new identity.”

Extremist militant group

Jammah Islamiyah is an extremist militant group in Southeast Asia with links to al-Qaida and has carried out numerous bomb attacks in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region, including the 2002 Bali attacks that killed more than 200 people.

Islamic State (IS) has already shown signs of expanding in the region through local affiliates and sympathizers.

The group has been recruiting in Indonesia, with more than 380 people joining the terror group by January, according to the country’s counterterrorism agency. Most of those recruits have traveled to Syria and Iraq.

Greg Fealy, an associate professor at the Australian National University who studies terrorism in Indonesia, said the IS terror threat in the country has been on the rise since mid-2014.

Islamic State (IS) has reportedly tapped a leader in the Abu Sayyaf group – an extremist militant group in the region known for kidnapping and beheading foreign tourists – as its Southeast Asia chief.

Indonesian authorities also confirmed that IS posed a threat to their country.

The terror group claimed responsibility for a coordinated bomb and gun attack in central Jakarta in January that killed eight people, including the four attackers.

In March, U.S. Treasury authorities added Bahrun Naim, a prominent Indonesian militant, to the global terrorist list, saying he provided financial and operational support for IS in Indonesia and funneled money through Southeast Asia to recruit people to IS battlefields.

Also Read: UN Human Rights Chief Urges Iraqi Government to help Victims of Islamic State (ISIS) Sex Abuse

In the Philippines, Islamic State (IS)  has endorsed Isnilon Hapilon – the country’s most-wanted man who has a $5 million bounty placed on his head by the U.S. for alleged terrorist acts against American citizens – as the leader of a loosely affiliated association of small groups that have sprouted in the past three to four years around the central and southern Philippines.

Hapilon swore allegiance to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a July 2014 video, according to the U.S. State Department.

Philippines as a new destination

Some analysts say that many extremists in Indonesia who wish to join IS are now heading to the Philippines instead of Syria and Iraq because conditions in the terror group’s former strongholds have degraded due to the ongoing multi front military campaign against the group in the region.

“In terms of costs, distance, and access, the Philippines is more feasible,” Ridwan Habib of the University of Indonesia said. “Therefore, many jihadists from Indonesia chose to go to Marawi instead of going to Syria.”

Habib warned that the situation could get worse if the ongoing conflict in Marawi is not tackled and managed properly.

The analyst claimed that Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian militant in the Philippines who has studied in Islamabad, Pakistan, has been attempting to help establish an IS presence in the Southeast Asia region.

Ahmad was reported to have been killed in the Marawi battle in June, but Khalild Abu Bakar, a Malaysian police chief, told media that he believes Ahmad is still alive.

Gen. Eduardo Ano, chief of staff of the Philippines armed forces, said Ahmad channeled more than $600,000 from the IS group to acquire firearms, food and other supplies for the attack in Marawi, according to The Associated Press.

Also Read: Sudanese Children of Islamic State (ISIS) Militants Released in Libya

Returning IS fighters dilemma

Many fighters from Southeast Asia who had traveled to fight with IS in Syria and Iraq are returning to their home countries as the terror group is losing ground in the Middle East.

Indonesia’s government reported last year that between 169 and 300 Indonesians who fought for IS have returned home.

“Though I have said there are 50 (IS affiliates) in Bali, 25 in NTT (East Nusa Tenggara) and 600 in NTB (Nusa Tenggara Barat), their whereabouts are known to us and under control,” Major General Simandjuntak, a military commander in Bali, told reporters last week.

“They are in a sleep or inactive mode,” he added.

Abdul Haris Masyhari, chairman of the committee on defense and foreign relations in Indonesia’s parliament, worried that returning IS fighters could set up cells in their hometowns.

“In reference to Bali, I hope law enforcement would take action and preventive measures to thwart terror plots,” Masyhari said.

Opposition to Islamic State is growing in Indonesia amongst the public.

In May, a survey of 1,350 adults suggested nearly 90 percent of the participants viewed IS as a serious threat to their country. Meanwhile, several surveys conducted in the country indicate an increase in extremist ideology among the youth, who are idolizing radical figures. (VOA)