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Possibilities of Peace-Building in Iraq: Questions of Deradicalization and Reintegration amidst Sectarian Conflicts

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Stefanie Mitchell

Daily gains against ISIS in Iraq and the imminent fall of Mosul signal the end of ISIS held territory in Iraq, however, writing in 2017, from Erbil, the conflict here appears as clearly sectarian, if not more so, than it was ten years ago in 2007 when the authors were also present in Iraq and witnessed the failures that happened then that seem about to repeat themselves. Present are the old shadows of al Qaeda, alongside the new specter of the Islamic State and the grotesque escalation of sectarian killings which have been present since they were first sparked by Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq during the U.S. led coalition invasion of Iraq, and now carried on by ISIS. As territory is increasingly liberated, important questions rise regarding if the terrorist ideology implanted among the Sunni population that lived under ISIS will continue strong and if the retaliations now coming from the Shia side—as Shia militias liberate and take control over several formerly ISIS held areas in Iraq will escalate or fade away. The need now is for peace-building toward enduring stability and security in the country without repeating the past failures in Iraq or allowing repeated circumstances to form the basis of another iteration of al-Qaeda in Iraq—the 3.0 version. The question now is how to get from here to there?

Today the U.S. supported Mosul Offensive and Operation Inherent Resolve, seems to be tackling decade old operational issues in the intervention process; dealing with terrorist groups and militias pouring gasoline into inflamed sectarian divides and flashpoints which threaten to derail the success of intervention efforts at any moment. Shia militias— now promoted and emboldened with legal status, and heavily supported by Iran—presently control the camps and facility areas in the north, which hold largely non-Shia populations including many Sunnis from Anbar and previously ISIS held territories. These camps and facilities in the north are theoretically being supported by US military forces, forces that do not have equal access to detainees or internally displaced personnel. Moreover, Kurdish Peshmerga forces are at odds with Iraqi government and internal Shia led-security forces and are loathe to give up control when being asked to leave areas they paid a high price to help clear, hold and subdue.

Currently, distrust is evident at every level of life in Kurdistan, from the normal day-to-day, to the camps where personnel are separated according to religious and ethnic background mirroring social and sectarian divides throughout the country; to Kurdish politics where internal strife is effecting coherent governing; to the regional politics of a divided Iraq and Kurdistan throwing political rockets each other’s way. Complaints of torture, human rights abuses, spontaneous killings, political abuse and general lack of humanitarian support come from all sides of the conflict. And still enduring, are the endless rumors and propaganda that the U.S. supported the creation of ISIS for its own nefarious purposes.

How to peace-build in this context and rehabilitate and reintegrate those who lived under, or actually served, the so-called “Islamic State” is a looming question. Likewise there is the question of how to hold in check tendencies for revenge among the Iraqi Army military units as well as the Shia and Peshmerga militias taking control of these areas and populations.

The rise of ISIS and homegrown extremism has spurred increasing research in the field of terrorist disengagement and deradicalization, although the latter has taken on a tarnished reputation with some researchers claiming that deradicalization is not a feasible task. That said, if one can go through the psychosocial processes of radicalizing and in many cases taking on an ideological mindset, is it not also possible to reverse that process using psychosocial supports to do so? Practical knowledge of how to achieve genuine and enduring deradicalization on a community wide scale, however is still in its nascent phases with many unanswered questions of its own.

What became in 2007, the Detainee Rehabilitation Program (DRP) to be applied to the 20,000 detainees and 800 juveniles held in Iraq during the U.S. invasion there relied on both imams and psychologists working with detainees to talk them out of a commitment to violent extremism and the belief that terrorism is supported by Islamic scriptures, as well as searching for the psychological underpinnings for resonating to and joining a terrorist group with redirection to meet needs the group met, while also backing out out of it . While that program was never effectively tested, the concepts underpinning it may be correct for intervening in Iraq today in a manner much broader than simply trying to address detainees—many of whom back in 2007 were held in Camp Bucca but never treated and who later became the backbone of ISIS leadership today (Speckhard 2012).

In the last two years, substantial research gains were made about the phenomenon of deradicalization with some growing support for the concept and the use of deradicalization programs as a means of rehabilitation and reintegration of persons sucked into the vortex of extremism. Recently, there are also major research gains outlining possible program methodologies and program evaluation methods for use in multiple settings (Koehler 2016; Williams, Horgan and Evans 2016; Mastroe and Szamania 2016; Mitchell 2016; Southers and Heinz 2015; Williams and Kleinman 2013; Barelle 2015; Romaniuk and Fink, 2012.). Researchers have also created assessment tools and scales for rating vulnerabilities to radicalization as well as actual radicalization that may be of use in tracking an individual’s progress in such programs, such as Structured Professional Judgement, and the Violent Extremist Risk Assessment developed by Elaine Pressman and a new model using an in-depth, comprehensive philosophy of deradicalization with a multi-tier approach, developed by Daniel Koehler (Koehler 2016; Pressman and Flockton 2014; Pressman 2009).

A major finding in deradicalization research, is the importance of psychological and ideological counseling within treatment programs and the apparent lack of success of programs that relied on only the latter (i.e. Yemen, early Saudi efforts, etc.). The latest program efforts and research supports the idea that psychological counseling which addresses the ideological components, as well as the trauma, disillusionment and identity crisis at the individual level is critical to the success of any rehabilitation intervention (Koehler 2016; Mitchell 2016; Speckhard 2012; GCTF 2013).

However, while understanding the need for both psychological and ideological counseling is substantially helpful for program planning it highlights a new and enduring issue: the lack of appropriately trained personnel to conduct these programs—in particular—the lack of trained credible personnel with the cultural and linguistic skills to take the role of Islamic or psychological mentors and counselors in this highly sectarian conflict.

So yet another question is posed: Where are the mentors who can effectively mediate and counsel a traumatized population, in a location that has internalized such a deeply sectarian and suspicious worldview? What we found in putting together the Detainee Rehabilitation Program (DRP) in Iraq in 2007 was that many of the highly-qualified psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers had fled the country, relocating to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere. Those who were left, were young and inexperienced and many highly traumatized themselves, so much so that they often blanked out or “dissociated” when hearing about the traumas of others—not the best trauma treatment response. Likewise, sectarian politics were so in turmoil that hiring Shia psychologists was problematic, if not impossible in gaining trust with Sunni detainees, and hiring Shia imams was a total no-go when dealing with al-Qaeda related extremists who saw the Shia as the greatest of all apostates (Speckhard 2012). The same is true today with ISIS.

Despite these difficulties, we also found that highly motivated and caring, but inexperienced, psychologists and social workers could be mentored and given lesson plans to carry out under the mentorship of much more experienced practitioners. Likewise, Sunni imams could be trained to be more psychological in their approach and to work closely with the psychologists in dealing with both the Islamic challenge portions and psychological portions of a rehabilitation program (Speckhard 2012). So, we do know that it is possible to mount a program even with less experienced staff on the ground if one commits to training to begin to address the traumas, disillusionment and identity crises as well as the ideological indoctrination that occurs with having joined, or lived under, a terrorist group.

Any peace-building program of this type would be a sizable endeavor, in order to treat the hundreds of thousands of individuals coming from ISIS held territories—families, detainees, and individuals who lived under, are related to, or actually served ISIS. Without the right and well-trained mentors, the research shows that success is less likely (Speckhard 2012). Furthermore, in the context of any intervention, using poorly trained practitioners who interface with the population can actually add to the protraction of the trauma and conflict, such as was seen in the DRP in Iraq in 2007, Abu Ghraib prison and cases of Middle Eastern deradicalization programs, such as Yemen (Speckhard 2012). The vulnerable status and traumatic backgrounds of the detainees and displaced persons under government and security forces care, requires the highest level of ethical treatment. Well trained non-governmental personnel can have a special role in this process.

It’s a gargantuan effort to train and equip the right persons with the appropriate expertise to navigate the trauma and complexity of these particular Islamic communities and also requires that anyone receiving such counseling is living with some daily assurances of security—additional challenges posed to reintegration and peace-building efforts in Iraq. We can hardly expect someone to back off of a commitment to terrorism and sectarian strife, no matter what type of treatment they are offered if they or their family members are currently being victimized or live under daily fears of revenge or general sectarian attacks. When putting together the psychological and Islamic challenge portions of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in 2007 in Iraq, Speckhard warned General Stone who was in charge at the time, that alcoholism treatment programs that have been studied for decades in the West have only a 2/3’s success rate with 1/3 of those having undergone treatment going right back to drinking and another 1/3 falling off the wagon as soon as they hit a rough patch in the road, so we should not expect better success in a newly tried program releasing detainees back into an active conflict zone. Likewise, she warned that those who encountered any unjust arrest, torture, harm or killing of a family member will likely respond by turning back to terrorism (Speckhard 2012). The same is true today—security is paramount to building an enduring peace in Iraq.

An additional interesting problem is the lack of internal cultural support for counseling programs in general. Stigma in the Arab world is high for anyone who seeks mental health counseling. Psychological treatment of those effected by conflict is not a priority, nor is it a cultural norm. Currently, in Iraq there are very few non-governmental organizations conducting psychological counseling for those effected by ISIS and the Mosul offensive, and one of the most critical non-governmental organizations which was providing this kind of support was shut down in the first week of January 2017, due to internal Kurdish political strife. This type of service is also not broadly valued locally. Perhaps religiously trained counselors can provide a quasi-psychological religious style of counseling and support as the final solution?

These issues present important questions to address and if answered correctly may provide critical and immediate means to resolving the current conflicts, even help to provide relative stability, if security assurances can also be achieved. These solutions require substantial commitment however to long-term peace-building, reconciliation, rehabilitation and reintegration efforts—efforts that don’t come without a substantial price tag. War also costs a lot of money. Perhaps peace is also worth paying for?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, Georgetown University, and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). Dr. Speckhard has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Gaza, West Bank, Chechnya, and many countries in Western Europe. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counter-terrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and frequently appearing on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She is the author and co-author of seven books including: Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers and “Martyrs”, , Bride of ISIS, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate, Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18—Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the West and Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming out Transgender. Website:

Stefanie Mitchell, currently based in Iraq, is working as a research fellow at ICSVE where she is working on peace-building initiatives and focus testing the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand videos. Stefanie previously served in the U.S. military as a counterterrorism professional, with deployment and fieldwork experience in the Middle East and Africa. She is completing her Masters in International Relations and Conflict Resolution, with published works focusing on deradicalization, sectarian conflict resolution and transnational security issues. She is also the Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors of United Humanitarian Solutions, an Iraq based local non-governmental organization, focusing on post-conflict rehabilitation and development.

Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne & Mitchell, Stefanie (January 16, 2016) Possibilities of Peace-Building in Iraq: Questions of Deradicalization and Reintegration amidst Sectarian Conflicts, ICSVE Brief Reports,


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