Rehab for Terrorists: Pakistan Tries Reintegration Program on Teen Extremists

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Once a terrorist always a terrorist? Not so, says Pakistani military officials, who are using psychiatry, education and religion to rehabilitate more than 150 teenage extremists.

Opinions on whether terrorists can be rehabilitated are still mixed. Saudi Arabia has tried to re-educate known jihadists for the past few years with limited success.

But the Pakistani military believes its program can teach the young men -- ages 14 to 17 -- how to think for themselves and become productive members of society.

"The basic concept is to provide them all their comparative education, where they are able to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong, that whatever was told to them previously is not true," Pakistani Col. Iman Bilal said. "It is not all about being radical. It is about being a decent human being first."

The teenagers are housed in a compound in Pakistan's Swat Valley, an area that just a few years ago was a Taliban stronghold, where beatings and beheadings were constant.

Today, Taliban headquarters is gone, destroyed by the Pakistan army, and the area is home to reopened schools and shops. But the half-million people who live there vividly recall the days of Taliban rule -- hundreds of them sided with the terrorists, many, the army says, out of fear.

The young men undergoing rehabilitation are kept in their compound 24 hours a day, meeting with psychologists, teachers and religious instructors. Security is a constant presence.

Some of the young men have killed or tortured their countrymen, and were ready to carry out suicide bombings. One of them told ABC News that the Taliban told him fighting the Pakistani army "was the right thing to do."

"There was a lot of fear among the people, among the populace," Pakistan Army Maj. General Ishfaz Ahmad said. "Not that everyone was with them, but most of them were with them out of fear."

A student in the reintegration program told ABC News that he thinks differently now and would never go back to the Taliban.

"I am going to spread and preach whatever I learn here and tell people that what they were doing is wrong," the student said.

Pakistan Army Vows to Monitor Rehabbed Extremists

Bilal said he's "pretty confident" that the first batch of one-time extremists is going to succeed. Yet only 11 of the 152 young men going through the program are considered ready for reintegration.

"We have come to a stage where our first batch is about to be reintegrated back into society," he said. "And we have a scientific test for that -- a polygraph test. A resident psychologist has been counseling them and analyzing them, talking to them throughout."

Bilal said his country has learned from the mistakes made in Saudi Arabia, where as many as one in five men put through rehabilitation returned to terrorism, some of them becoming al Qaeda leaders in Yemen.

In Pakistan, the army and the community will help to monitor the young men for a year or more, and help them to get jobs.

"We have tried our best to build the capacity to go back as confident citizens who get gainful employment," Bilal said, "and they do not recultivate that easily, so we are working on that also."

Ahmad said it was hard to tell how many Taliban were still in the area. He believes they have moved out of the Swat Valley for more tribal areas.

And even though funding for rebuilding has slowed, Ahmad said the low crime rate and efforts to regenerate the region would discourage the Taliban from returning.