Faith-Based Terrorist Rehabilitation

Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore have all had programs to rehabilitate terrorists by correcting their misconceptions about their religion and offering them religious guidance. In the case of at least Saudi Arabia, they are also offered jobs and goods as an incentive.

Here’s an article from the <a href=”“>Guardian online newspaper about the Saudi program.

In a few weeks or so it should be the turn of Hizam al-Ghatani to walk through the gates. Hizam, who has spent three years in prison and three months in the compound, went much further than Saeed, spending months fighting American forces near the Iraqi town of Falluja. Yet he too now insists he is reformed. ‘I am a very emotional man and I did not have a good understanding of Islam,’ he said. ‘Now I realise the wrong I did to my country and my family.’

The compound is the latest weapon of the Saudi Arabian government in the ‘war on terror’, a rehabilitation centre where young men spend months being ‘deradicalised’. The two al-Ghatanis will leave behind another 12 or so inmates – or ‘students’ as the psychologists, sociologists and clerics working with them prefer – who also travelled, or tried to travel, to Iraq. Under treatment are another dozen men who have recently been repatriated from Guantánamo Bay. No one will leave the centre until they are deemed no further threat to society.

‘To deradicalise them we need to gain their trust and we need to help them restart their lives,’ said Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, a Ministry of Interior official involved in the programme, under which former radicals are found jobs and helped to pay for cars, marriages and accommodation.

It’s almost as if they’re being rewarded.

‘This is not a reward. It is a necessary policy of containment.’

Al-Hadlaq has charted the lives of nearly 700 militants to help construct the programme. In common with other surveys of Islamic radicals, the Saudi research has revealed a very low level of religious knowledge, so lectures in jail concentrate on key theological areas – the Islamic theory of jihad, takfir, or excommunication, and relations with non-Muslims. On their release, the ex-prisoners are sent to the new rehabilitation centre – seven others are planned as well as a series of purpose-built prisons with capacity for 6,400 militants – where they undergo further religious instruction, psychological counselling, do team sports and even art therapy.

‘The aim is to stop them reacting in such an immediate way to images they see on the television or internet by giving them different visual languages,’ said Awad Alyami, who runs the art therapy course.

According to Otayan al-Turki, a Swansea-educated psychologist working at the centre, many of the prisoners have very poor reasoning capacity and poor communication skills. ‘Most are young, many come from large families,’ he said. ‘Many come from a non-Islamic background. Some have led sinful lives and were looking for a shortcut to paradise.’

The programme, which is just over a year old, is part of a wide range of such strategies in countries as diverse as Indonesia and Iraq, Egypt and Yemen. The UK and other Western nations are watching with interest. Though few such initiatives are on the scale or have the resources of the multi-million-pound Saudi effort, all are part of a new approach by governments and intelligence agencies to extremist violence. After focusing first on al-Qaeda ‘the organisation’, then on al-Qaeda ‘the ideology’, they are now attempting to identify the factors drawing someone into extremist violence.

Admired though it may be among the counter-terrorist community, there are some misgivings. Though recidivism to date has been negligible, for the moment the programme is being used only with relatively easy cases. The hard core of convicted terrorists responsible for strings of bomb attacks and shootouts in Saudi Arabia face decades of jail or execution, not rehabilitation, and it is far from clear the initiative would work with them.

The considerable sums that former prisoners receive have raised some eyebrows, as has the fact that they are not told jihad in Iraq is wrong in itself but that such an undertaking is only allowed by Islamic law with the assent of the sovereign ruler of the fighter’s country, the ruler of the country for whom he is fighting, and his parents.

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