Ex-jihadist Tania Joya now fights to 'reprogram' extremists

Cyril JULIEN
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British-born former jihadist Tania Joya is in Washington as part of a program to prevent violent extremism

British-born former jihadist Tania Joya is in Washington as part of a program to prevent violent extremism (AFP Photo/SAUL LOEB)

Washington (AFP) - Tania Joya has devoted her life to "reprogramming" extremists and reintroducing them into society -- a process she understands well as a "former Islamic jihadist" herself.

"My aim is for them to feel a sense of remorse and to train them so that they can be good citizens once they are released from prison, so they can adjust to society," Joya said during a visit to Washington, to present a project on preventing extremist violence.

Born in 1984 near London to a Muslim Bangladeshi family, Joya grew up confronted by racism and the struggles of integration. She radicalized at age 17, after the September 11 terror attacks in New York and Osama bin Laden's call for a global jihad.

In 2004, she married an American Muslim-convert, Yahya al-Bahrumi (born John Georgelas). She began advocating for an Islamic state, for which her three children would be soldiers.

But in 2013, her husband took her and their children against her will to northwestern Syria to join jihadist insurgents. Joya reported her husband to US authorities and, after three weeks, fled Syria to the United States.

Joya settled in Texas, her husband's home state. There, she rejected Islam and changed her life, divorced and re-married.

- Re-programming, giving them hope -

Yahya, her first husband, joined the Islamic State group, which would soon control large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. He was in charge of the group's English-language propaganda, and Joya said he became the "highest-ranking American" in the IS group.

He died in 2017 during fighting in Mayadin, in northern Syria, as the so-called IS "caliphate" crumbled.

However this created a new problem -- Western jihadists or their spouses and children wanting to come home.

Joya realized that she had something to offer. "It's really important to de-radicalize them, rehabilitate" these people, she said.

"It's reprogramming them and giving them a sense of hope in the political process."

It's also important to "get them to understand the psychology and the patterns... what led them to extremism," understanding "the rejection many in the US and Europe faced growing up there, the cultural conflict, the crisis they went through," she said.

"Once it's all explained to them, very logically, they will accept it just as I did."

Joya favors repatriating foreign rebels from the Middle East so they can be judged in their countries of origin.

While that is the US policy, many European countries such as France are wary of taking in the jihadists.

In May and June, 11 French nationals were sentenced to die in Iraq for their affiliation to IS.

Joya has campaigned for the return of Shamima Begum, who joined the jihadist group when she was just 15 but now wants to return home to Britain. However Begum's lack of remorse has turned public opinion against her, and the British government stripped her of her citizenship in February.

Kurdish-run camps in northeast Syria have taken in some 12,000 foreign fighters from 40 different countries, including 4,000 women and 8,000 children whose fathers are jihadists.

- 'Inoculation' against indoctrination -

Countries with jihadists stranded in refugee camps "are responsible for these individuals," said Joya. "We can't just push them off to the Middle East, to the Kurdish people... the abuses they're facing in these camps are only confirming their beliefs of radicalization."

Joya is participating in the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) program organized by the Clarion Program, a US non-profit dedicated to educating people "about the growing phenomenon of Islamic extremism," according to its website.

The PVE program provides "communication models" that offer "workshops for youth so that before a child is even indoctrinated or introduced to radical ideologies, they've really been inoculated" against religious and ideological extremism, said national program coordinator Shireen Qudosi.

"That goes from gangs, to radical ideologies: antifa, neo-Nazi groups, Islamist extremism," she said.