Soon after he had undergone the deradicalisation programme of the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) two years ago, the 33-year-old father of four from Aurangabad faced a daunting question: what next?
He had lost his job as a seller of mobile phones in 2016. And the ATS officers knew that without a secure future, there was a danger of him sliding back into the jihadi slipstream. They had a solution, though.
They got him to enrol at a rural government skill development centre and learn how to repair mobile phones. Next, they arranged for a public bank to give him a loan to set up a small shop in Aurangabad. Soon, he was back on his feet.
At least 120 youths, including six women, have undergone the ATS’s deradicalisation programme — the only one in India to be run by a state police force — over the last three years to return from the brink of jihadi recruitment.
ATS officers said the key factors behind their success, which has drawn the attention of other states, are the contribution of alert family members and a calibrated approach to counselling. But a vital component, they said, is ensuring that these youths have a safety net to go back to — either through employment or assistance to set up businesses.
“Those without employment should not be given an opportunity to stay jobless, as that makes them vulnerable to being radicalised again. So the idea is to provide training in fields of their interest — mobile repair, car mechanic, beauty parlour course, etc. — and help them start their own business,” a senior officer told The Sunday Express.
Some “candidates” were employed when the ATS found them being lured by IS. In the case of two, officers said, their employers had decided to sack them on the basis of their online activity. But by then, the ATS had taken them under their wing. Officers approached their employers, persuaded them to retain the two, and not make any changes to their workload or assignments.
ATS officers said they have so far placed around 350 such youths for training at rural self-employment institutes that are run by banks with financial help for infrastructure from the state and central governments. After the six-week training, about 70 who underwent the programme have set up small ventures with the help of bank loans.
Even after this, officers said, the ATS continues to track them because any event, local or international, could still act as a “trigger” for those trying to build a new life. “For instance, after the New Zealand mosque attack in March, a close watch was kept on those who had attended the programme,” he said.
Even after counselling, there were about 15 cases of potential re-radicalisation. “If we slip, anything can happen. But now, their movements are being watched by their families, too,” the officer said.
The Aurangabad youth is seen as one of the “waverers”. In February this year, he decided to set up a new business as a real estate dealer. “I ran into losses with the phone repair shop. I realised that e-commerce has taken over everything to do with phones. So, I shut my business and started working as a real estate agent… But I know that a friend officer is watching me,” he said.
The senior officer said the real challenge is to build a counter-narrative to the one that was being offered online by propagandists. “That requires a huge effort by 300-400 people over the next 20-30 years. We may have prevented a few hundreds from making the wrong choice but we know that the online recruiters are still at it,” he said.