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Past Special Report
SPECIAL REPORT
Rehabilitation and Deradicalization: Saudi Arabia’s Counterterrorism Successes and Failures
Rob Wagner
August 01, 2010
Journalist Rob L. Wagner examines Saudi Arabia’s “soft” rehabilitation program to return Islamic extremists to the “true Islam.” Although the program in its seven-year history has suffered setbacks, its 10 percent recidivism rate points to potential long-term success. The program mixes religion and tough love to return reformed militants to Saudi society in a culture that guards its privacy and values its dignity. With more than 3,000 men successfully passing through the program, Al-Qaeda sees the Saudi government’s efforts as a threat to the group’s recruiting efforts to win the hearts and minds of young Saudis.


Since Saudi Arabia implemented its rehabilitation program to combat extremist ideology among Al-Qaeda captives and released Guantanamo Bay detainees, Western counterterrorism experts have been divided over the program’s long-term effectiveness.

Characterized as “soft’ rehabilitation, the Saudi government has seen only a 10 percent recidivism rate among program graduates returned to Saudi society. The Saudi program and its related counterterrorism efforts appear remarkably successful given that the recidivism rate in Western nations – specifically the United States and the United Kingdom – ranges from 60 to 70 percent.[1] [2] But is seven years long enough to accurately gauge the success of a program that is novel, if not radical, in its concept? The answer is no. Yet it appears that Saudi Arabia is pursuing a path to stem Islamic militancy that could achieve long-term positive results.

The Saudi program, combined with its expansive counterterrorism policies, renews the debate of rehabilitation versus incarceration as the most effective means to deter criminal activity. Rehabilitative efforts in the United States criminal justice system gave way to stiffer prison sentences in the 1970s. Little consideration for rehabilitation as an alternative has been given since then. The key component in the Saudi counterterrorism efforts is religious instruction to return militants to the right path of Islam. Secular nations have long been skeptical of using religion as a tool to rehabilitate prisoners, but critics fail to appreciate the role Islam plays in Saudi society.

EARLY SUCCESS AND FAILURES

The Saudi program of intense religious instruction, counseling, and post-release monitoring has kept the recidivism rate low. The Kingdom has taken its rehabilitation cues from Egypt, which had originated the concept in the 1990s.[3] Singapore and Indonesia, most notably, have followed Saudi Arabia’s lead with their own versions of rehabilitation.

Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group program, which uses religious instruction as a primary teaching tool, has been deemed a success by the government. About 40 prisoners – approximately two-thirds of the militant prison population – graduated from the program with none returning to extremism. [4] The Indonesian government, however, acknowledged that its program failed. More detainees returned to militancy than those who renounced extremism. But Indonesia did not follow the Saudi and Singapore models. It instead opted for a scheme conceived by the police. Program officials eschewed the religious approach and did little to challenge militants’ ideological beliefs. Rather, the program focused on non-violent alternatives and turning detainees into informants. [5]

ADVISORY COMMITTEE

Following the May and November 2003 residential compound bombings in Riyadh, the Saudi Ministry of Interior created its rehabilitation program by establishing an advisory committee containing four subcommittees. [15] The subcommittees are the Religious subcommittee, the Psychological and Social subcommittee, the Security subcommittee, and the Media subcommittee. Perhaps the most important panel is the Religious subcommittee that consists of about 100 scholars, clerics and Islamic studies professors from the Kingdom’s top universities. Subcommittee members engage in fierce ideological debates with prisoners in an effort to steer them towards the proper interpretation of the Holy Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Religious subcommittee members discovered that many prisoners never had formal religious training. Detainees relied on non-government approved literature, friends and acquaintances, and extremist websites for information on Islamic interpretations. [6]

The Psychological and Social subcommittee comprises of psychologists and social scientists who investigate the prisoner’s family dynamics and psychological fitness for release. The committee also provides financial assistance to the prisoner’s family. Financial assistance for former prisoners is a common cultural tradition to ease re-entry into Saudi society. This subcommittee also illustrates a remarkable advancement in Saudi society since psychological examinations are deemed socially unacceptable and are relatively rare in the medical community.

The Security Subcommittee is the function of the Ministry of Interior. Ministry personnel determine whether a candidate for release poses security risks and establishes a monitoring system to ensure freed prisoners behave responsibly. It should be noted, however, that direct evidence linking prisoners to murder usually precludes them from release.

The Media Subcommittee distributes literature, educational materials and DVDs to schools, mosques, and media outlets. The materials target young Saudi men about the trap of extremist ideology with resources available to channel their tendencies towards militancy. [7]

RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION

The relative success of Saudi Arabia’s “soft” deradicalization program is primarily due to its religious instruction. [6] A lack of understanding of Islam by Western counterterrorism experts has given short shrift this aspect of rehabilitation. To understand why the Kingdom’s program has worked to date is to understand Saudi society. Saudis live their lives according to principles of the Holy Qur’an, which not only serves the spiritual needs of Muslims but is also looked upon as a behavioral guide. Even the most secular or liberal Saudi engages in the basics of Islam: prayer, performing Umrah, and practicing moderation and tolerance.

This is not to say that being a Saudi Muslim is easy. Conflicting fatwas, confusing interpretation of the Qur’an among the Kingdom’s leading Islamic scholars, and unemployment conspire to push young men away from the true Islam. Some Saudis even point to the Kingdom’s education system, which places an emphasis on wars won during the time of the Prophet instead of the Prophet’s message of peace and tolerance, as a potential contributor to young Saudis embracing extremism.

The Religious Subcommittee identified these issues as among several reasons for Saudis embracing militancy. Committee members deconstruct prisoners’ religious justifications for committing terrorist acts through six-week courses. Discussions focus on takfir (such as denouncing prominent Islamic scholars as unbelievers), bay’at (allegiance), walaah (loyalty to the Ummah, or Muslim community), the definition of terrorism, and jihad (military and personal struggles). Discussion, for example, may address how to wage jihad, which can only be undertaken by government order that is executed only by the country’s ruler. A fatwa issued by an ideologue aligned with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula does not have the government or religious endorsement to wage jihad.

The ultimate goal is for the militant prisoner to recant his ideology and brace the true Islam. But from a practical standpoint recanting one’s ideology may not be as important as behavior modification.

Part of the problem of determining whether the Saudi program can be successful in the long run is whether a militant prisoner recants his destructive ideology. Jessica Stern, the counterterrorism expert and faculty affiliate at the Belfer Center's International Security Program, noted earlier this year that veteran militants may simply tire of the lifestyle. “Since terrorism is generally a young man’s profession, some ex-detainees might deradicalize when in fact they have simply chosen to retire from violent activity. In such cases, deradicalization programs may get credit they do not deserve.” [8]

Stern suggests that “extensive post-release surveillance” of ex-prisoners may be a better deterrent to resuming terrorist activities than a deradicalization program.[8] It’s not unreasonable, however, to place less emphasis on ideological change and more on behavior modification. Certainly some Muslims may sympathize with some of Al-Qaeda’s objectives, but they would never think to act upon those sympathies. Likewise, a former militant may keep his extremist ideology but never act on it.

THREE-PRONGED CAMPAIGN

Saudi Arabia was criticized following 9/11 for its slow response to condemning terrorism. Although clerics did indeed condemn terrorist acts, these condemnations were largely underreported in the Western media in the months following the attacks. By the same token there was reluctance among Saudi clerics to issue strongly worded fatwas because the fight against terrorism was perceived as a political and military matter and not subject to religious comment. That changed following the 2003 Riyadh bombings and the subsequent bloody battles in 2004 between Saudi security forces and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. During this period Al-Qaeda cell was led by Abdulaziz Al-Murqin, a charismatic high school dropout who cut a bloody swath of violence from Riyadh to Yanbu to Al-Khobar.[9] [10] [11]

Whatever reluctance Saudi religious leaders exhibited in the early years after 9/11 disappeared once Al-Muqrin arrived on the scene. The Saudi government waged a three-prong attack on militants: Engage in combat with Al-Qaeda in which taking prisoners was less important than quick elimination of the threat to protect innocent lives; arrest and detain individuals supporting Al-Qaeda; and wage a public relations “naming and shaming” campaign that publicly identified militant fugitives. [12]

Further, the Saudi media as a matter of editorial policy published graphic photographs of Al-Qaeda’s dead victims to illustrate the group’s barbarity. Widespread and virtually uncensored coverage of Al-Muqrin’s attacks coupled with an aggressive government policy to reward tipsters to report militant activity strengthened Saudi public sentiment against extremists. [12]

When Al-Muqrin was killed in a shootout with security forces in Riyadh in June 2004, much of Al-Qaeda’s momentum was further eroded. Al-Muqrin’s death allowed the Ministry of Interior to focus more on capturing prisoners to gain valuable intelligence. [12]

Between 2003 and 2007, more than 9,000 individuals suspected of being terrorists or supporting terrorists were arrested. In 2008, 56 individuals accused of funding terrorists causes were arrested. Twenty were prosecuted. [14]

Perhaps the most surprising element of the Kingdom’s war against extremists was the launching of its “Most Wanted” list in 2004. Multiple lists consisting of scores of suspected militants were issued. Arabic- and English-language newspapers and television news stations published and broadcast photographs and brief biographies of all men on the “Most Wanted” lists. Saudi society is intensely private and naming and shaming criminals is not part of the culture. Indeed, the Saudi judicial system does not permit defendants in criminal cases to be identified in the media because it may bring shame to innocent families. The Saudi government not only broke this unwritten policy, but had some detainees recant their extremist ideology on national television. [9] [12] [15]

The campaign appears to have worked. More than 3,000 young men have participated in and successfully completed the rehabilitation program. The caveat, however, is the less well-known fact that an unknown number of Al-Qaeda operatives have refused to participate in the program and will not renounce their ideology. Those men remain in custody. [2]

TROUBLING SIGNS

In June, Western skepticism of the rehabilitation program was intensified when the Saudi Ministry of Interior announced that 25 of the 120 Guantanamo Bay detainees who graduated from the scheme resumed extremist activities. Eleven are believed to have joined Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. Following Al-Muqrin’s death, the cell’s leadership quality was poor. The group moved to Yemen to reconstitute itself with released Guantanamo Bay detainees and rehabilitation program graduates. [12] [13] The cell’s operational leader, Othman Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, is a former Guantanamo detainee. Yet, when viewed in the context that more than 3,000 men have successfully completed the program, the recidivism rate among is hardly a blip.

But the core of the revived Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is made up of what are considered veteran, if not quality, leaders devoted to waging a sustained war against Saudi Arabia and the West. Accompanying Al-Ghamdi are former Guantanamo detainees and Saudi recidivists Said Al-Shihri, Al-Ghamdi’s deputy, and Ibrahim Rubaish, the cell’s chief theologian and ideologue. Also included in the cell is Abu Hareth Muhammad Al-Awfi, who returned to Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo in 2007. [16] [17]

Not unexpectedly, Al-Qaeda, with its now intimate knowledge of the workings of the rehabilitation program, sees the scheme as a threat to its existence. The group announced in August 2009 that it is targeting a successful component of the program that allows for voluntary surrender of extremists. By voluntarily surrendering to Saudi authorities, militants are eligible for rehabilitation, post-detention counseling, and financial assistance to return to Saudi society. Al-Qaeda hopes to convince the fence-sitters longing to give up the militant lifestyle to remain in the fold. Al-Qaeda also hopes to disrupt the ideological underpinnings of the program by attempting to reassert their own interpretation of what is the right path of Islam. [18]

Although it’s unclear how Al-Qaeda will attack the program, the cell’s strength continues to be its propaganda machine via the Internet to reach wavering extremist sympathizers and fugitive militants.

LONG-TERM SUCCESS STILL A QUESTION

It takes decades to accurately chart recidivism rates. To characterize the Saudi rehabilitation model as an unqualified success is not correct. Yet a 10 percent recidivism rate is enviable by any criminal justice standard. The long-term success of the program will depend largely on the program’s aftercare of released detainees. Aftercare not only includes ongoing counseling, but consistent and sustained monitoring of individuals to determine who the person keeps company with and who is his spiritual guide and mentor at the neighborhood mosque. Healthy family relationships and emotional support also are key factors. Not addressed specifically by the Saudi government is what will be done with captured repeat offenders. However, as of July 2009, 327 accused terrorists were tried, convicted in Saudi courts and sentenced up to 30 years in prison.[19]


[1] U.S. Department of Justice Recidivism Statistics http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=17 (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[2] Saudi-US Relations – “Rehab the Terrorists, With Love” by Robert Lacey http://www.saudi-us-relations.org/articles/2009/ioi/090522-lacey-rehab.html (Retrieved 04-07-2010)

[3] Dawn – “We Must Reclaim Islam”: http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/08-We-must-reclaim-Islam-ts-01 (Retrieved 06-07-2010)

[4] Carnegie Endowment – “The Best Guide For Gitmo? Try Singapore” By William J. Dobson: http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=23126 (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[5] The Jarkata Globe – “Terrorist Rehab a Failure” 26 June 2010: http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/home/terrorist-rehab-a-failure-minister/382698 (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[6] Saudi-US Relations – “Extremist Reeducation and Rehabilitation in Saudi Arabia” by Christopher Boucek: http://www.saudi-us-relations.org/articles/2007/ioi/070817-boucek-reeducation.html (Retrieved 06-07-2010)

[7] Carnegie Endowment – “Saudi Arabia’s “Soft” Counterterrorism Strategy: Prevention, Rehabilitation and Aftercare” by Christopher Boucek http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/?fa=view&id=22155 (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[8] Foreign Affairs – Jessica Stern on Deradicalization: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66227/marisa-l-porges-jessica-stern/getting-deradicalization-right Retrieved 05-07-2010 (Retrieved 04-07-2010)

[9] Author interviews with clerics, Saudi journalists and Saudi counterterrorism officials in Saudi Arabia, April 2004 to April 2007.

[10] “5 Westerners Slain in Yanbu” by Edgar C. Cadano, Saudi Gazette (print), 2 May 2004

[11] “Carnage in Al-Khobar” by Joe Avancena, Saudi Gazette (print), 30 May 2004

[12] “Wanted: SR7M Bounty Hunt” by Rob L. Wagner, Saudi Gazette (print), 29 June 2005

[13] “Bitter High School Dropout Who Became a Flamboyant Killer” by Rob L. Wagner, Saudi Gazette (print), 20 June 2004. http://folio.reporterist.com/robwagner/article/a31c3c746ce8695e30e57bd007f3acbd#Bitter-School-Dropout-Who-Became-a-Flamboyant-Killer

[14] Country Reports on Terrorism 2008: http://www.saudi-us-relations.org/articles/2009/ioi/090502-saudi-collaboration.html (Retrieved 05-07-2010)

[15] Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia – Initiatives and Actions to Combat Terrorism: http://www.saudiembassy.net/files/PDF/Reports/Counterterrorism.pdf (Retrieved 08-07-2010)

[16] Long War Journal – Saudi Recidivists: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2010/06/saudi_gitmo_recidivi.php (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[17] Fox News – “Al-Qaeda Commander in Saudi Custody May Still Pose Threat From Prison”: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,495984,00.html (Retrieved 03-07-2010)

[18] Asharq Al-Awsat – “Al-Qaeda Targeting Saudi Rehabilitation Program” 9 August 2009, by Turki Al-Saheil: http://www.aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=1&id=18039 (Retrieved 07-07-2010)

[19] Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia – New GAO Report Commends Saudi Arabia’s Efforts to Fight Terrorism and Terror Financing, 30 September 2009 http://www.saudiembassy.net/latest_news/news09300901.aspx (Retrieved 08-07-10)


Rob L. Wagner is a California-based journalist and author who served as managing editor of the Jeddah-based Saudi Gazette in Saudi Arabia from 2004 to 2007.
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