Can terrorists really repent? What research says

By Law Mefor

The Nigeria military has been waging an internecine war against the Boko Haram terrorists for years.

Often, governments, in dealing with violent agitations and civil disobedience by citizens, deploy both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ to bring such ugly situations to an end.

The Nigerian military has employed the same measures in dealing with Boko Haram terrorists by combining the ‘Operation Safe Corridor’ policy with military offensives.

Meanwhile, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, up to 30,000 persons including soldiers have been killed and about 3 million have been displaced in the one decade of Boko Haram terrorism, which has shown no mercy, which some of them are begging for.

Among the displaced persons, many of whom now live in IDP camps in penury, squalor and disease are orphans, widows, widowers and others, many of who witnessed the gruesome deaths of their family members.

‘Operation Safe Corridor’ was put in place by the Nigerian military in 2016 to offer willing defectors from Boko Haram and ISWAP terrorist groups a chance to renounce terrorism, be forgiven and be reintegrated.

On the surface, giving the terrorists the option of surrendering and being forgiven and getting reintegrated into society after rehabilitation may not be a bad idea. After all, what the nation desires is peace. But there are issues to consider before embarking on such an uncertain and potentially dangerous policy.

Then perhaps the most important issue that needs to be factored in ‘Operation Safe Corridor’ borders on the process of determining whether the repentant terrorists have actually repented. Repentance is not a product of mere declaration of intent. It carries from the inner being, beginning with remorse, where remorse captures a feeling of guilt, regret and sorrowfulness.

There is a psychological defence mechanism called Reaction Formation. In psychology, Reaction Formation is when one replaces an anxiety-inducing feeling with its opposite. Reduced to the simplest explanation to connect to all, reaction formation is like where the real feeling, ‘I hate you’, is masked and presented as ‘I love you’, as a way of making the actual negative feeling of hate appear positive and socially acceptable.

The ability of humans to mask their actual feelings and present the opposite just to be socially correct has allowed real enemies to live together as friends, sometimes even as husband and wife, while the hating feeling simmers within the individual only to resurface when the victim least expects and is often defenceless.

With this human nature in mind, the claim of some Boko Haram terrorists to have repented and asking for forgiveness may have to be taken with a lot of salt, not just a pinch.

To begin with, forensic psychologists do not conclusive evidence that one who is ideologically grounded in a terrorist struggle can easily repent and not experience Recidivism (Recidivism is an ex-convict going back to crime).

The problem is because ideology operates at the final level of conviction. An ideology is stronger than opinion and attitude. Ideology is a belief, which would require greater efforts to change in anyone who has accepted something to that level.

Ideology operates like religion and religion is cemented in a belief system, which can make an individual to kill self or another, including one’s own children, parents and siblings when applied negatively.

Psychologists have not fully explained why a believer in a cause could kill his or her own parents, children and siblings.

Yet, that is the reality of human nature. The human mind is unfathomable and the Bible also says it is desperately evil. That’s why in the Shakespearean play, The Tragedy of Macbeth, King Duncan said,

“There’s no art to finding the mind’s construction in the face”. This means that one’s face can mask reality and make it impossible to tell what one is actually thinking unless he or she tells you.

In an attempt to objectively determine the man’s heart to be sure that one is telling the truth, some scientific tests have been designed by forensic scientists and psychologists.

For instance, Polygraph – the so-called Lie Detector – was designed and deployed to the purpose but has returned many inconsistent results.

Then forensic psychologists came up with the Test of Malingering, which helps to determine criminal responsibility and pinpoint those who can stand trial. DSM-IV-TR aptly defines malingering as the “intentional production of false or grossly exaggerated physical or psychological symptoms, motivated by external incentives such as avoiding military duty, avoiding work, obtaining financial compensation, evading criminal prosecution, or obtaining drugs.” From this definition, one can see that such tests can help in sifting the actual repentant terrorists.

But the question is: are these scientific and psychological processes being followed?

***Dr. Law Mefor is a Senior Fellow of The Abuja School of Social and Political Thought


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