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Ahmetspahic, however, is unique; he is the only repatriated Bosnian fighter to be medically certified in court as ‘deradicalised’.
Experts say his case offers hope for state efforts to ‘deradicalise’ returning fighters, but caution against over-optimism, saying that the process of radicalisation and deradicalisation are complex and unique to each individual.
“On the basis of examinations, we… determined there was no tendency towards simulation; his statements were genuine,” said neuro-psychiatrist Abdulah Kucukalic, whose presented his findings to the court at the request of the prosecution.
“He was saying what he felt,” Kucukalic told BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina. “He could have tried to soften his words, but he did not.”
Nothing happens ‘overnight’
Bosnia outlawed fighting in or recruiting for foreign wars in 2014, in response to the flow of Muslim Bosniaks joining militant groups such as Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The fall of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate early last year has seen dozens returned along with, in many cases, their wives and children. Authorities are currently investigating seven people who returned to Bosnia by plane on December 19.
In 17 separate cases, more than two dozen have already been jailed, but only Ahmetspahic was deemed to have ‘deradicalised’.
Authorities hope a special program of deradicalisation will help address a big part of the challenge posed by the return of dozens of former fighters from Syria.
Psychologists are cautious about the potential impact of the deradicalisation program in Bosnia, however, and of the lessons the Ahmetspahic case might provide.
“It is very important to understand that neither radicalisation nor deradicalisation can happen overnight,” said psychologist and family therapist Tanja Tankosic-Girt.
Deradicalisation must involve social workers, sociologists, psychologists and psychiatrists who can assess whether a person has really been deradicalised and to what extent, Tankosic-Girt told BIRN BiH.
It “cannot be confirmed by just saying ‘I regret and I think what I did was wrong’. We must be careful when dealing with this phenomenon, when saying that someone has been deradicalised.”
Ahmetspahic, via his lawyer, agreed to be interviewed for this story but the Justice Ministry turned down a request to visit him in prison.
‘Brutal reality’ of war
Ahmetspahic’s turnaround indeed appears dramatic, his legal battles beginning long before ISIS emerged with a bang in 2014.
Born in 1990, on the eve of Yugoslavia’s collapse, Ahmetspahic was acquitted in 2013 of charges that he destroyed evidence connected to a gun attack on the United States embassy in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in October 2011. The gunman, Mevlid Jasarevic, was jailed for 15 years.
Rusmir Karkin, Ahmetspahic’s lawyer, said he had felt aggrieved by the state’s handling of him in the case and that it had, “in a certain way, motivated him to go to Syria.”
“His motive for going to Syria was to help Muslims,” Karkin told BIRN BiH. “I consider that his departure was not motivated by any radical Islamic idea, but a simple wish to help other Muslims in their fight in Syria.”
Kucukalic, too, said Ahmetspahic appeared to have been convinced by others of the need to help “the brotherly Syrian people so they could defeat the undemocratic regime that was in power in Syria,” and that jobs were offered to residents of Gornja Maoca, the village in Bosnia where Ahmetspahic lived and which has long been notorious as a stronghold of Islamic extremism.
Travelling to Syria with his brother, Ahmetspahic “faced the brutal reality,” Kucukalic said.
“He saw hundreds of different fractions, groups of armed people, all of whom were pursuing their own interests and goals, while they were just objects of exploitation, but there was no way back,” Kucukalic said. After his brother was killed and he was wounded, Ahmetspahic’s “illusions fell apart.”
Ahmetspahic left for treatment in Turkey, got married and became a father. Working as a car mechanic, he eventually earned enough to get himself and his family back to Bosnia, his lawyer, Karkin, said.
“We had been manipulated,” Ahmetspahic told the court. Soon after arriving in Syria, “I realised how naïve we were and it was in no one’s benefit.”
‘No patented deradicalisation procedure’
Neuro-psychiatrist Omer Cemalovic is currently involved in assessing a number of returnees from Syria. He said the lessons from Ahmetspahic’s case were limited given little can be done if an individual has not already come to question their own actions.
Deradicalisation, Cemalovic said, requires systematic measures in society and religious communities.
“I am not aware of any patented deradicalisation procedures proven by experts and applied,” he said.
Dubravko Campara, the prosecutor in charge of Ahmetspahic’s case, told a hearing at which the defendant’s plea agreement was being considered that the prosecution was particularly interested in the expert assessment of his deradicalisation and the level of his prior radicalisation.
“It is evident that the defendant is completely deradicalised,” Campara said.
“The circumstances that led to his wounding and the fact that he got children afterwards have led to his complete deradicalisation. It could be noticed during his first interviews following his return, in which he admitted his mistakes and regretted having gone there at all. He wants to live a normal life in Bosnia and Herzegovina; he wants his children to grow up with their father.”
Kucukalic said he believed Ahmetspahic would never have gone to Syria had he found work in Bosnia, a problem facing many in the country, where unemployment and emigration are widespread.
“He tried to get a job in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He tried to get a job in Germany, but, unfortunately, with no success. A third option, i.e. departure to Syria, came to him,” Kucukalic said.
Preventive measures were missing
Ahmetspahic was arrested on landing at Sarajevo airport in November 2018. His wife and two children had already returned to Bosnia.
Admitting his guilt and offering to testify against others, Ahmetspahic told the court that his marriage to a Bosnian woman and becoming a father “gave me the strength” to work for their return to Bosnia.
“Now he is in the third phase,” said Kucukalic. “Regret, feeling guilty for what happened to him, of having been used, misused.”
“He realised that the reality was different from what was presented to him in Maoca,” he said.
“Had our experts organised themselves preventively, had they gone to Maoca, as a small, closed community, and talked to people, given them certain pieces of information, confronted them, had religious leaders been there too to tell them there was one view of Islam, but there was another one too, those young people would not have departed to Syria so easily.”
“We let those persons go and we are now applying repressive measures. But, if we had done it this way, there would be no repressive measures. We would have saved the young people and their mental health.”