Jihadi Rehab


This week’s Economist (Dec 13) contains a short article (“a jihadist recants“) on the efforts of Arab countries to rehabilitate terrorists back into society as non-violent, productive citizens. The programs include reeducation and financial incentives.

Some governments claim these have been very successful. Saudi Arabia says that out of perhaps 3,000 terrorist suspects and sympathisers arrested since 2003, some two-thirds have agreed to re-education programmes. Of these, 700 have renounced former beliefs and been released. Beyond religious reindoctrination, the Saudi effort also includes psychological counselling and, perhaps crucially, direct financial and social support to help woo radicals back to “civilian” life.

Yemen claims to have rehabilitated hundreds of former radicals, and points to the diminution of terrorist attacks as one result. Egypt has reduced its prison population of jihadist suspects from an estimated 20,000 in the late 1990s to below 5,000 today.

The Washington Post described similar reeducation programs implemented by the U.S. military in Iraq. Marine Major General Douglas M. Stone, the commander of U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, was pushing a shift from retributive detention to “religious enlightenment” programs.

Stone said such efforts, aimed mainly at Iraqis who have been held for more than a year, are intended to “bend them back to our will” and are part of waging war in what he called “the battlefield of the mind.” Most of the younger detainees are held in a facility that the military calls the “House of Wisdom.”

Other initiatives at the facilities include vocational training and basic education programs for about 7,000 detainees. Stone said he believes his approach is “compelling because it’s how you win this war, not only the one in Iraq, but the one on a greater basis.” He quoted Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi as saying that “America could win the war if they just applied the exact process that you’re putting in detention to the rest of the entire nation,” in Stone’s words.


Outside of the military, other high-level U.S. officials agree the programs are successful. State Department Ambassador for Counterterrorism, Dell Daile, recently stated, “The Saudi program is about the best program in existence today. … It is geared for the Saudi people, it is focused on their people and treats them as a victim, not a criminal.”

However, as Eli Lake writes in the New York Sun:

Reports in the Saudi press last month after Saudi Arabia released 1,500 jihadists in this program noted that those released only had to forswear jihad on the Arabian Peninsula. Al Watan quoted one of the program’s directors, Muhammad al-Nujaimi, as saying, “After several graded sessions with the committee, and having been convinced of their misguided vision, they renounced their erroneous ideologies, including the concept of driving out all infidels from the Arabian Peninsula.”

After counseling with psychologists and religious experts, and after a member of the terrorist’s family is asked to vouch for the newly released relative, the graduated ex-terrorist signs a statement against attacks inside the Saudi Kingdom, against joining a terrorist group and even attacking Western non-Muslims inside Saudi Arabia. But according to two American intelligence officials who have reviewed these contracts, the agreement carefully makes no mention of jihad outside of Saudi Arabia.

But on the other hand, the Islamic supremacist ideology that has inspired Al Qaeda known as Salafism is also the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Saudi charities throughout the 1990s and even in some cases after 2001 fund jihad at the borders of the Muslim world. In particular, the theological doctrine of Takfir, that allows adherents to murder, steal from and lie to non-believers is still a pillar of the state exported religious doctrine.

Skeptics of the Saudi re-education program argue that it fails to address these deeper doctrinal matters. The director of the Gulf and Energy Policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Simon Henderson, yesterday said, “The Saudi rehabilitation process is really being judged at the moment by what the Saudis say about it, and I personally look for a more neutral assessment. I remain to be convinced that the Saudi program is the best model for combating jihadists. Saudi Arabia has had a long tradition of exporting its radicals. Think Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia. It has also happened in Iraq. Has the tradition really ended? And has this program cured the problem? I am not yet convinced.”

The director of the Homeland Security Policy Initiative at George Washington University, Frank Cilluffo, however yesterday said he was keeping an open mind. “These kinds of programs could have great significance,” he said. “But we need greater empirical data. We need to know greater transparency, we need to track it further for recidivism.”

The Economist asks:

One important question is whether jihadist violence is primarily a product of religious ideology, or of geopolitical grievance. The feeling that Islam is “under threat” in many parts of the world is arguably a politically motivated cry of victimhood rather than a statement about the meaning of sacred texts.

I think it is both. As Bernard Lewis notes (Islam and the West. Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 135):

Modern Western man, being unable for the most part to assign a dominant and central place to religion in his own affairs, found himself unable to conceive that any other people in any other place could have done so and was therefore impelled to devise other explanations of what seemed to him only superficially religious phenomena…This is reflected in the recurring inability of political, journalistic and academic commentators alike to recognize the important of religion in the current affairs of the Muslim world and in their consequent recourse to the language of left-wing and right-wing, progressive and conservative, and the rest of the Western vocabulary of ideology and politics.

Psychology plays a role as well. What attracts specific individuals to these ideologies and organizations? And can psychological deprogramming be as effective in treating terrorists as it has proved with members of religious and political cults?


Time magazine visits a jihadi rehab camp.


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