BEIRUT — Armed with their black veils, open ears and expertise in forensic psychology, two young Saudi-raised Lebanese sisters spend hours each week tapping deep into the lives and minds of terrorists of the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda and other groups imprisoned in Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison.
“We went in with modest clothes, no nail polish, no perfume. We listened and finally gained their trust — it can take a very long time, but they will eventually open up,” said Nancy Yamout.
Over Arabic coffee at her family's apartment in Beirut, she told Al-Monitor, “No one, not even the guards, thought we’d last past a day, or could take it for this long. But somehow we did, because it’s important work.”
Nancy and her younger sister Maya are both Beirut-based social workers. They emphasize the lack of support for any kind of social work in Lebanon and say that there are no official “psychosocial profiling programs” for suspected terrorists and others detained in Lebanon — a country of over four million that continues to struggle with regional conflicts and sectarian violence from within.
Nancy said they now understand how “terrorists think religiously and politically, and how they have and may move around and maneuver locally and internationally after their potential exit.”
In a rare effort in Lebanon, the two sisters continue to risk their safety with the goal of understanding why these men and some women chose jihad and the culture of extremism, in the hope that their findings may help introduce alternative narratives that could help not only their own community but the region at large.
“Almost all the people we interviewed have some type of an ‘absent father’ syndrome,” Nancy said, adding that they were all either extensively humiliated and abused, or abandoned by their fathers at a young age.
“He grew up being an ashtray for his father for 17 years. He still has some marks on his hand,” said Maya about a 40-year-old al-Qaeda member, one of the masterminds behind the 2007 car bombing in south Lebanon that killed six UNIFIL peacekeepers. The man told Maya that one day when he was 17, he just gave up and left school and was approached by a 60-year-old man who he said offered him a sandwich and Pepsi — the first man who ever seemed to care for him.
It all started three years ago as a social work master’s thesis project at the Modern University for Business and Science, where the sisters were studying the management of social institutions. But their efforts have now evolved into unprecedented research in Lebanon in collaboration with forensic psychologist Raymond Hamden, also a consultant on political psychology in the United States.
In 2011, the sisters started a nonprofit organization called Rescue Me with money from the United States Agency for International Development and the US Embassy. Its aim was to prevent crime and violence in schools, communities and the prison system. However, that financial support ended, and as of now, the sisters do not have sufficient funds to continue the organization's work.
Explaining their vision for crime prevention at Rescue Me, Nancy said: "We even have a partnership with Interpol. We have all the paperwork to operate as a legal NGO, and all the partnership and access to work in the prison system. But we don't even have a website, as we can't financially afford it. So for now, everything is dead, but we are trying to reach out for help and funding."
“The child grows up looking for a father figure, [and] is exploited by exploitative and manipulative people in political or religious leadership roles,” said Hamden, adding that almost all these individuals want to “belong and be part of something.”
He also explained that not all terrorists share the same psychological motivations and that people have to be punished for their wrongs, noting, “but our effective communication leads to a better understanding of them that may create opportunities to gain cooperation.”
Maya recalled how in August 2014, only days after the death of American journalist James Foley, she asked a former al-Qaeda member, now IS militant in Roumieh: “For God’s sake, this slaughtering is so ugly, why do it?”
According to Maya, the young man calmly replied, “Slaughtering takes only five to 10 minutes and then they die, but what about Guantanamo prisoners? The US government tortures them every day and then says they died because they were sick — no, they die because of torture. In fact, we are giving them mercy.”
“Their intelligence is often underestimated. They know exactly what they are doing and why they’re doing it.” Maya said. She has spent hours with this man, who said that the reason IS militants dress Western hostages in orange is to continuously commemorate the “victims of the Abu Ghraib prison and what the Americans did to us, and to remind them that we will never forget what you have done.”
“He respects me and makes my coffee every time I go in, but he is filled with grudge, they all are.” Maya said as she described how the man explained to her the prolonged preparation process for each IS killing.
“For days, he told me they continuously watch the Abu Ghraib videos and pictures of American soldiers torturing and raping the prisoners during the Iraqi war. Then, they take their time to mentally prepare themselves and get filled with anger, to then justify their own act. Some even take drugs to get mentally ready,” she said, adding that these men see themselves as “heroes with purpose.”
A little over a hundred miles away in Jordan, a young man named Suleiman Bakhit shares the sisters’ vision to better understand the underlying causes of extremism in an effort to help replace the “hostile imagination with nonviolent narratives.”
“The biggest threat in the Middle East is terrorism disguised as heroism,” Bakhit told Al-Monitor over Skype. He began to draw superhero cartoons in his hometown of Amman to help introduce new narratives to the youth susceptible to extremism.
He met with many young Jordanians and Syrian refugees who told him they have no heroes or figures to look up to, except extremists. “They say, ‘We hear about [Osama] bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and how they are going to save us' — that’s the cool thing,” said Bakhit.
Matthew Levitt, counterterrorism expert and the director of the Washington Institute's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, also emphasized the significance of introducing a “counternarrative” in a person’s “cognitive opening that can be filled by violent extremism.”
During a phone interview with Al-Monitor, he added, “Someone needs to be there to provide alternative narratives and ideas.”
After a three-year operation in Roumieh, the sisters now have a solid grasp of the challenges from the extremists’ end and of the lack of infrastructure that could help support their mission. However, in collaboration with their fellow social workers, they are working to create a plan to set up youth programs and workshops in schools, libraries and community centers to open a conversation about psychological issues, the needs of teenagers and vulnerability among youth and the disenfranchised members of Lebanese society who may at one point — similar to those they have met in Roumieh — turn to extremism.
“Bravo to them,” Levitt said, but suggested, “The effects of such programs cannot be seen in the short term and it will also be difficult to illustrate, but it's absolutely important.” He also pointed out the difficult task the women face, especially in Lebanon, “where sectarianism is the air we breathe in the country and the region.”
But for the sisters, the mission weighs more than the heavy burden of potential challenges. “Unfortunately, we have had friends from our own neighborhood who were dragged into extremism — so we need to help address the issue from its roots," Nancy said. "We have to; someone has to do it.”