A 19th-century church in Iraq holds the first mass since the defeat of Daesh

RABAT: As an Daesh fighter who left his native Morocco to join what he considered a sacred fight in Syria, Mohsin says he saw all the horrors of war. “A terrifying experience,” he says.

Now a prisoner, the 38-year-old says he is no longer the fanatic he was then.

Captured in Turkey and extradited to Morocco, he is serving a 10-year prison sentence for terrorism.

Today, the veteran graduated with 14 other prisoners convicted of terrorism offenses under a de-radicalization program from Morocco that could make them more eligible for early release.

The Associated Press and other media were invited to observe their recent graduation ceremony at a prison in Salé near Rabat, and to interview some prisoners under supervised and controlled conditions.

Prison officials picked three men they said were willing to be interviewed.

Officials stipulated that detainees should not be identified by their full names and that their faces should not be shown, citing privacy concerns.

But prison officials did not listen to the interviews or intervene to cut off media lines from questions or answers from inmates.

The 15 detainees dressed in crisp shirts and pants solemnly sang the Moroccan national anthem and received certificates.

Prison officials said the de-radicalization program consisted of three months of in-prison classes on religion, law and economics, and inmates also received training on how to start a business.

These most recent graduates were the ninth batch since the program began in 2017.

Moulay Idriss Agoulmam, director of socio-cultural action and reintegration of detainees at the Moroccan prison administration, said the program is entirely voluntary and works with detainees “to change their behavior and improve their way of life”.

“It allows inmates to realize the seriousness of their mistakes,” he said.

Graduating from the program does not automatically make inmates eligible for early release, but does increase their chances of obtaining a royal pardon or reduced sentence. This has been the case for just over half of the 222 graduates from the program so far, according to the prison service. Since 2019, the training has also been offered to women convicted under Morocco’s anti-terrorism law.

Ten women have graduated so far – all have since been released, eight of them with grace.

Called “Moussalaha,” which means “reconciliation” in Arabic, the program is offered to prisoners who have demonstrated a willingness to disavow extremism.

Mohsin said he went to fight in Syria in 2012. An out-of-school teenager, he said he was “virtually illiterate and could not tell right from wrong”.

He says he was radicalized by people who showed him extremist videos.

In Syria, “I saw massacres, rapes and thefts,” he says.

“I concluded after a while that the fight had nothing to do with our religion.”

He fled to Turkey in 2018 and was held there for a year before being extradited to Morocco.

He says he has now disavowed extremism.

“That period of my life has passed,” he said.

Many Moroccans have traveled to Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to join extremist groups.

Morocco has also experienced multiple attacks.

Five suicide attacks in Casablanca in 2003 killed 33 people. In 2011, an explosion destroyed a cafe in Marrakech, killing 17 people, mostly foreign tourists.

Al-Mustapaha Razrazi, a clinical psychologist and member of the programme’s scientific committee, said that of the 156 people who were released after completing the courses, only one was caught again committing a crime.

That person was convicted of a non-terrorism offence, he said.

Jerry B. Hatch