BEIRUT: Nancy and Maya Yamout make sure to brush their teeth before interviewing accused terrorists in Roumieh’s notorious Block B. The sisters, both social workers, say that their subjects associate tobacco- and coffee-scented breath with interrogators and officials.
Paying keen attention to detail, the Yamout sisters spent two years cultivating professional relationships with 20 prisoners in Roumieh prison accused of terrorism-related offenses. Their research sheds light both on the lack of criminal psycho-social profiling in Lebanon and the complex society which has emerged on the third floor of Roumieh’s Block B, where suspected terrorists are held.
As they began conducting joint research for their master’s program at the Modern University for Business and Science, it became clear to the Yamout sisters that little was being done to develop profiles of criminals in Lebanese prisons.
“No one went through the minds of the terrorists to extract an accurate analysis on a behavioral level, or, in other words, on the psycho-social level,” Nancy explained.
After gaining effectively unfettered research access to Roumieh inmates suspected of involvement in terrorism activities, the sisters set out to see what makes terrorists tick.
As social workers not officially affiliated with the state security apparatuses, they gained the trust of several high-profile prisoners who they interviewed at length.
Over time, they became privy to the complicated micro-society forming on Block B’s third floor.
The men on the third floor of Block B, who number around 150, are highly organized. An elected committee manages the floor’s social, judicial, religious and financial affairs.
Using laptops and cell phones, most prisoners are in regular contact with family members and associates outside Roumieh.
Some incarcerated Islamists maintain an active presence on blogs and social media from within the block.
Much time is spent dwelling on religion. “They have religious competitions like who said which hadith. They go to other floors [of Block B] and preach and take some people up to the third floor,” Nancy said.
Many of the inmates work out every day, explaining to Maya and Nancy that they were preparing their bodies for jihad.
Working in conjunction with American forensic psychologist Dr. Raymond Hamden, Maya and Nancy organized interviews with 20 individual prisoners.
Using a standard questionnaire Maya and Nancy were able to determine several common themes in the histories of the prisoners.
They discovered, for example, that many of the inmates on the third floor of Block B suffered severe childhood trauma, and many had abusive or absent parents.
One prisoner, suspected of involvement in the 2007 Nahr al-Bared conflict, killed a man who attempted to rape him when he was 7 years old.
Another, older inmate, who is accused of selling his vehicle to the perpetrators of the Iranian Embassy bombing, was trained as a soldier at 14 during the Lebanese Civil War and became a bomb maker at an early age.
A man suspected of being involved in the 2007 blast which killed six UNIFIL soldiers was raised by an abusive father who regularly burned him with cigarettes as punishment.
The majority have antisocial personalities, according to Nancy and Maya, and therefore do not respond well to harsh interrogation techniques. During the exhausting one-on-one interviews, however, many of the prisoners opened up.
A suspect from the Nahr al-Bared clashes broke down in tears when he recalled that his daughter didn’t recognize him after he shaved his beard.
A man arrested in 2012 for supporting the Nusra Front became teary-eyed when he admitted to committing adultery as a young man.
“It’s like Criminal Minds stuff, focusing on their behavior,” Nancy said, referring to the popular American crime TV show.
Some of the inmates have divulged valuable information. The interviews often spanned multiple hours and, by the end, “their brains [got] really exhausted and information start[ed] flowing without thinking,” Nancy said.
During a long interview, a prisoner believed to have been involved in the 2011 kidnapping of Estonian cyclists was caught in several lies.
A well-known female terrorism suspect who maintains her innocence blurted out, “Why did I get involved in that!” during an interview with Nancy before quickly changing the subject.
Other prisoners admitted that they would re-engage in militant activities upon their release from Roumieh.
A prisoner who claimed to have been a former student of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan explained Al-Qaeda’s sophisticated online recruiting techniques in which “desperate souls” are cultivated in cyberspace to fight jihad in the real world.
“Our research has helped us to understand how they [terrorists] think religiously and politically, and how they move locally and internationally,” Maya added.
But there is no official psycho-social profiling program for suspected terrorists in Lebanon, and the Yamouts have been forced to fend for themselves.
“Behavioral analysis [in Lebanon] is totally new. We’re doing things from scratch as social workers,” Nancy explained. The sisters order books on forensic psychology and behavioral analysis from abroad, as Lebanese bookstores don’t typically stock such material.
Moreover, while they are in regular contact with Lebanese security services, the Yamouts have few guarantees for their personal safety.
They expressed concern that associates of the prisoners could seek revenge if the sisters divulged too much information. “We’re two kamikazes,” Nancy professed.