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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour in Pakistan. When it comes to fighting terrorism, few places are as complicated. The fact that Osama bin Laden was able to hide there raises disturbing questions about the country's ability and willingness to confront extremism. But one program in northwest Pakistan is doing just that.

NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on an effort in the scenic Swat Valley to de-radicalize a new generation of Taliban fighters.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The same Pakistani military that routed the Taliban from the Swat Valley two years ago is now trying to deprogram some 200 young militants from that conflict. Most were picked up by the army in post-operation sweeps, some turned themselves in. In this army-produced video, boys age 12 to 17 tell a neuropsychologist how they were pulled into the Taliban's orbit.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) I used to meet them at the mosque.

Dr. FERIHA PERACHA (Neuropsychologist) (Through interpreter): Did they have weapons at the mosque?

Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) Yes. They had their own weapons at the mosque.

Dr. PERACHA: (Through interpreter) So what were all these weapons doing in a mosque? Something to think about, isn't it?

Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) It is.

Dr. PERACHA: (Through interpreter) The mosque is Allah's house. What are weapons doing in a mosque?

MCCARTHY: Dr. Feriha Peracha is the gentle inquisitor. She says her young charges cannot be named for their own safety. They had spied on the local population for the Taliban and extorted money from shop owners. Some had been involved in fighting. Dr. Peracha begins her questioning with assurances that the boys will not be punished, but it's a painstaking process before the young men reveal the full extent of their involvement. This boy begins by saying he happened upon a group of men whipping a girl.

Dr. FERIHA PERACHA: (Through interpreter) And why were they whipping her?

Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) I don't know, madam. I was just passing, joined the crowd, and was watching the show. Then, unexpectedly, one of them came up and handed me the cane and ordered me to whip her, and I did.

Dr. PERACHA: (Through interpreter) If you hadn't whipped her, what would have happened to you?

Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) They would have killed me.

Dr. PERACHA: (Through interpreter) They would have killed you?

Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) Yes, ma'am.

Dr. PERACHA: (Through interpreter) Did you see any other member of the crowd beating her?

Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) No, I didn't.

Dr. PERACHA: (Through interpreter) But you hit her 20 or 30 times. Did the poor girl die?

Unidentified Man #1: (Through interpreter) No, ma'am. I was hitting her gently, but he told me off and wanted me to use more force.

MCCARTHY: These young men are now residents of this de-radicalization center known as Sabaoon, or New Dawn, an isolated retreat in the Swat Valley. Dr. Peracha runs it with funding from UNICEF and support and security from the army. It's treated over 180 young men since opening in 2009.

Dr. PERACHA: Some of them are trembling when they come here. And I heard one say to the other once, they're going to kill us, they're gonna kill us. Because they have been involved in acts that were very serious.

MCCARTHY: Including training as suicide bombers. Few admit to doing anything wrong, but standing in a classroom of his peers, each wearing a neat green pin-striped shirt, this 16-year-old candidly recalls how he got involved with the extremists. He had abused alcohol so badly that in desperation his mother turned to the Taliban.

Unidentified Man #2: I was beating my mother and my brother. And my mother told the terrorists, show him a good way and help him from intoxication.

MCCARTHY: Did they help you at all?

Unidentified Man #2: No. They kidnapped me and beat me.

MCCARTHY: The militants?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, very badly with sticks. They showed me the way of suicide.

MCCARTHY: They tapped him to be a suicide bomber.

They wanted you to become a bomber?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, yes.

MCCARTHY: Did they teach you anything about being a bomber?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, they teach me that you want to try to do - fight.

MCCARTHY: The Taliban could exploit these young men because they were poor, illiterate and in many cases without a father. These teenagers, says Dr. Peracha, are all too susceptible to becoming suicide bombers.

Dr. PERACHA: An adolescent, libido high, and you tell him that, look, to kill a Pakistani army guy, you are going to get 70 beautiful women immediately. Immediately, you do it and there they are waiting for you. And there is milk and honey. Why is he not going to do that? He has no logical reasoning in any case. His rational thinking is at five percentile, so why should he not do that?

MCCARTHY: Treatment is individually tailored to the needs each young man. Deprogramming includes basic education, reading, writing, arithmetic and English. Boys who never attended school before get vocational training to become electricians or repairmen.

When they are finished with the de-radicalization program, the army places them in its schools, where they are closely monitored. The boys also receive instruction that focuses on correcting confused notions about Islam - from misconceptions that the Koran condemns anyone who is not a Muslim to more mundane matters, like Western clothing for men.

Dr. PENACHA: They believe - would you believe it, they thought that anybody who wears trousers is a sinner or (unintelligible).

MCCARTHY: An unbeliever.

Dr. PENACHA: You will see they're all wearing trousers. They will not take their trousers off now. So symbolically that is one kind of intervention.

MCCARTHY: What makes a militant? It's a question that resonates throughout Pakistan as the country grapples with growing fundamentalism. Notables from Pakistan and abroad took up the question at a recent forum in Mingora, Swat's main city, about an hour's drive from Dr. Peracha's center for young former militants.

Unidentified Man #3: Let's go to the last line just before the cameras because the gentleman over there raised a hand.

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Members of the audience call for closing any mosque or madrassa that encourages fundamentalism of the sort the Taliban espouses as it recruits boys and young men. Swat Valley resident Ehsanullah Khan rises to say a decrepit judicial system that denies speedy justice is sowing the seeds of radicalism.

Mr. EHSANULLAH KHAN: (Unintelligible) get rid of this corrupt system. When that doesn't happen in over 60 years, what do I think and dream? Radical thoughts, sir, radical thoughts.

(Soundbite of applause)

MCCARTHY: The prime minister makes an appearance.

Prime Minister YOUSUF RAZA GILANI (Pakistan): What we've witnessed today is the consequence of history.

MCCARTHY: And he blames the wars waged by the West in Afghanistan for spawning a militant culture that spilled over into Pakistan.

But under a white tent outside the meeting hall, political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais says Pakistan's own leadership is responsible for the country's tangled web of extremists. He says Pakistan's rulers haven't even developed a counter-narrative to the militants' anti-Western, pro-jihad message.

Mr. RASUL BAKHSH RAIS (Political Analyst): My view about the ruling groups in Pakistan is very simple. They don't belong to people. They don't belong to this country. They're here to plunder the resources of this country. And they have created this mess in which Pakistan is going through.

(Soundbite of children playing)

MCCARTHY: Here in Swat Valley, where men in black turbans once lured young recruits, boys are back on the soccer field and life again seems normal. But Swat resident and educator Ziauddin Yousafzai says despite the army presence, peace is fragile and the people are scared. One of the elders of the area who had been on the militants' hit list was recently murdered.

Mr. ZIAUDDIN YOUSAFZAI (Educator): Muzaffar Ali Khan, he was martyred just a month ago at his home at midnight. So the ideology of militancy, the ideology of terrorism, it is still there.

MCCARTHY: In recent weeks, hundreds of militants have staged cross-border raids from Afghanistan into neighboring districts of Swat. Army spokesman General Athar Abbas says the same Pakistani militants who were pushed over the border appear to be roaring back. Not long ago, Pakistani intelligence trained militants to fight India in Kashmir, the disputed region between India and Pakistan. Ziauddin Yousafzai says that was like releasing dangerous snakes. But he says the army deserves credit for de-radicalizing extremists today.

Mr. YOUSAFZAI: We created serpents. You know, snakes. And we thought that this snake will bite my neighbor and it will not bite me. Now they have come to their senses. So it's good, we support it. We support it.

MCCARTHY: And in Swat, Dr. Feriha Peracha quietly continues her effort to rehabilitate young men. She says the best way to undo their Taliban indoctrination is to give them back their childhood.

Dr. PERACHA: Even yesterday there was a big brawl apparently. They're teenagers, for heaven's sake. You know, they are going to get into brawls and that's all right. They're children, in the end.

MCCARTHY: Since her de-radicalization program began nearly two years ago, just 32 young men have been fully reintegrated into Swati society. Organizers say the process is slow and arduous, but are hopeful that there will be many more successes in the coming year.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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