Peace Heroes: Why Nancy Yammout Met with Extremists in Lebanese Prisons

When speaking of violent extremism in the international community, Lebanon barely comes to mind—but with its border to Syria, it has not escaped the scourge of extremist radicalization.

Lebanon’s prison cells are now home to many men who joined different militias. Nancy Yammout and her sister Maya, both forensic social workers, decided to reach out to them and see if they could be convinced to move away from their radical and violent pasts. Together, the Yammout sisters created Rescue Me, an organization of social workers and clinical psychologists who work to rehabilitate and reintegrate prisoners found guilty of terrorism. In 2017, Rescue Me became a member of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL), led by ICAN—the International Civil Society Action Network.

ICAN’s Aya Nader talked to Nancy about Rescue Me’s early efforts to reach these men—and how, over nine years, they’ve engaged with some 680 prisoners, and been pivotal in blocking their re-recruitment into terror groups. 

How was Rescue Me created?

Our work began when we started going into prisons in 2009, and we created a draft law for community service for adults. At the time, it was just Maya and I, and we really wanted to change society.

The law was approved by all political parties, but was never applied—the question of whether those responsible of monitoring the social work should be police or NGOs stopped the legislation from moving forward.

We then decided to look into extremists and do research to create a program specifically for them. We went to Brigadier Ashraf Rifie, who was responsible for the internal security forces. He refused our request three times, but the third time we told him: “You are a sociologist. You have to accept research, especially one that nobody has conducted before.” We were given permission, on condition that we give him a copy of our findings once we had completed our research and analysis.

We spent two years studying extremists. By 2011, we had our official Rescue Me papers.

What was the process of conducting research inside extremist prisons like?

It was difficult gaining the trust of the imprisoned extremists. They would test us—giving us some information and waiting to see if we would discuss it outside prison, which means we would be betraying them. They could easily send someone to kill us. The officers would also ask us about our findings, so we would tell them we were not done with the analysis. We were lucky that the warden was replaced frequently.

In the United States and Canada, a social worker would have police accompanying them in these cases. In Lebanon, we don’t have such protection. Our phone numbers and address are not private anymore. One day, we found two released prisoners at our house and we couldn’t ask them to go away. Lots of families do not accept former prisoners back—we had to give them food and money so they could buy their medication or take a bus to go home.

What is your approach?

We use a set of questions to profile extremists. Knowing the type of extremist a person is leads you to the kind of intervention they need. We also meet the family, if they are available, as some families are angry and want nothing to do with the extremist.

We used clinical psychologist Dr Raymond Hamden’s module to categorize into four types: psychopath, ethnogeographic political, ethnogeographic religious and retributional. Psychopaths have no remorse and enjoy the extremist activities they are involved in; the second and third types are similar to each other, in that their motivation could be religious, then switched to be political, or vice versa; the last type is revengeful—having lost people they love, they want to kill those responsible.

Most of the Syrian extremists are in this fourth category.

How does gender come into play? 

If I were a man, I would be respected more by the wardens—but because we are women, they would tell us to go to the kitchen, go get married, go to the women’s or juveniles’ sections.

But the prisoners wanted to talk to a woman. They wanted a mother, a sister, a daughter. We tried having a male researcher, and the prisoners refused to go talk to him.

What drives you to work on rehabilitation and reintegration? Why is it important among so many other issues?

People in general could have many psychological issues—but imagine people who go through wars, and have been pushed or brainwashed into extremist ideology. They come back with many more mental and psychological problems.

Intervention becomes crucial.

When we do talk to extremists, we stay away from religion and politics. These topics get them enraged and ready to quarrel. That would make us exactly like the police. When you avoid speaking about these two subjects, you are able to talk the extremist in a more humane way. We talk to them about their anxieties; about the quality of their sleep; their anger, fears, grudges and many other psychological issues. They would talk about how they got so angry, and how they acquired their anxieties and insomnia. We give them exercises and treatment solving all these matters. As such, they leave prison able to cope with anxiety and more confident, and this makes them less vulnerable to re-recruitment.

In Lebanon, former prisoners are prone to recruitment, and are indeed targeted, so intervention is really good for them and their families. We need to ensure that the former prisoner does not go back to sleeping on the streets or in mosques, because that would put them at greater risk of joining again. We work on the family embracing them upon being released, as it is such a crucial period.

Can you give an example of successful intervention?

Matters are usually congested between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon. On May 7, 2008, the Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah’s opposition fighters sparked conflict and battles in Beirut. The state and its security apparatuses failed to defend the Sunni Muslims who were attacked, and a Sunni extremist group operating in Northern Lebanon convinced a man working in one of Lebanon’s security agencies to draw a map against the police so they could plant bombs. He was caught with the drawings and was imprisoned for six years.

In 2011, we worked with him and his family. Families are usually one of three types: supportive of extremism and the movements, against extremism but supportive of their own relatives—by bringing them food, clothes and legal aid—and, finally, families that refuse to connect with the imprisoned. His family was the second.

He was to be released in a few months, so we worked on his case. We spoke with the wife, mother, father and neighbors. The moment he was released from prison in 2014, he was surrounded by a loving family. They were ready to embrace and protect him.

For the first few months of his freedom, we did rehabilitation work. Maya worked with the man, along with Dr Hamden. I worked with his family. When another extremist came to him and offered him $3,000 to rejoin them for his mining expertise, he refused. He has been a driver for an international NGO the past five years and is happy. Not only that: He is able to spot extremist activity and warns us.

How is your society treating women and girls returning from violent extremist groups?

The problem is that we do not have a law addressing this issue. We have loosely guarded borders; anyone can come and go as they please. Some women refuse to come back, and others come back with kids, having been impregnated by an ISIL member, and are unable to register them  because her “marriage” is not legal and was not registered on the Lebanese records. This makes them stateless and unable to go to school, travel or vote. They either become beggars, drug sellers or sex workers.

If a woman is known to have gone to join ISIL and returned, she would be investigated and imprisoned. These women ran away from ISIL, but they are afraid of the state, so they come secretly and never speak up. They sometimes speak to NGOs indirectly, because the government would target the organizations as well, but most women leave and do not come back to Lebanon. When it comes to families, they are more accepting of their women coming back from ISIL than their men.

How does terrorism reach Lebanon?

With Lebanon’s geographic proximity to Syria and Iraq, and with loose borders, terrorism seeps into my country easily. This also makes it easy for the Lebanese to cross over and join the ranks of ISIL. Lebanon has suffered from wars throughout its history, so unfortunately war is not new to its people. You find some Lebanese self-recruiting, from different religious sectors, eager to “help their brothers.”

How does ISIL recruit in Lebanon?

Children are being recruited and are referred to as “concealed records.” They have no IDs, so ISIL gives them passports and IDs, and they join them.

ISIL also taps into people’s grievances for example injustices they have experienced. There is no justice, especially for Sunnis—they have been stereotyped as extremists. This breeds hatred towards the government. Court trials take a long time and are constantly postponed. One person had his case going for eight whole years and then was found innocent, after having lost years of his life. His fiancé had left him, and his family no longer accepted him. He joined ISIL.

Recruitment varies for every person—based on what his or her weakness is, whether the children are rich or poor. They sometimes lure them with the idea of driving posh cars or handling guns. There are lots of hate speeches in mosques. Extremists also reach out via social media, Google+ and even less popular applications which cannot be tracked. They also try to recruit women. They attend gatherings which discuss the role of women in supporting their men who go to jihad. They study geographic locations, especially poor ones. Their moves are studied and are not random at all.

In fact, from the windows of our Rescue Me center, you can see flags of ISIL. Our center in Beirut is in an area called Al-Hay Al-Gharby, between the sports stadium and Sabra Shateela camp. Prisoners are the ones who tell us where things are taking place.

Rescue Me has a program for youth at risk. How does it operate?

Rescue Me intervenes in places where recruitment is happening so youth will not be dragged into violence. Our program guides them to other choices in life.

We had a case of a 13 year-old Syrian who said he wanted to have a gun and kill because someone killed his relatives. After many conversations with him, he revealed that he likes writing. We had another similar case, a 14 year-old who showed interest in photojournalism, so we organized a meeting with a famous journalist who held a workshop for boys, and included these two boys—and showed them how if they dislike something, they can write about it. The second child was also given a camera and is now snapping photos. It is wonderful how the program is generating change and providing other solutions.

This is called “breaking the cycle.” You break an extremist cycle when you intervene in every possible way: with the person, with their family, with the environment. When you prevent recruitment, you are breaking the cycle of hatred and injustice.

What would you have governments do differently to enable better rehabilitation and reintegration including for women and girls?

First thing: They should assess and categorize them to determine how they were motivated and radicalized. One way could be Dr. Raymond Hamdan’s four categories. In addition, Islamists, Daeshis and those who commit violent crimes are all placed in one building—they need to be separated. Prisons are densely filled up; a floor which takes 100 prisoners actually has 400.

Second: Open up research for graduate students, psychologists, psychiatrists and clinical social workers to work on those cases.

Third: We need to have specialized officers. We have a lot of officers who had studied criminology and forensic sciences, but not placed in the right positions. We need to hire people who can comprehend the state of prisoners, categorize and intervene with therapy and vocational training. If we have this for as little as a year, prisons in Lebanon would change. This can also be applied to women prisoners.

How can ICAN solidify your work?

My sister Maya told me about this reputable foundation that supports women all around the world. When I met the ladies, I saw the strength of ICAN and the WASL partners. You meet top-notch people in the field of peace and security. With an excellent mission, you can see where ICAN is going.


International Civil Society Action Network is a U.S.-based nonprofit whose mission is to support civil society activism in promoting women’s rights, peace and human security in countries affected by conflict, transition and closed political space. ICAN aims to support women’s efforts through bridging the divisions between activists and the policy community, elevating the voices and experiences of women activists, building skills and ensuring the exchange of knowledge and resources.