To deprogram a Jihadist

Rehab didn’t work for al-Qaeda’s deputy in Yemen. Can it work for any terrorist?

To deprogram a Jihadist

News last week that Said Ali al-Shihri, a former inmate of Guantánamo, has emerged as al-Qaeda’s deputy leader in Yemen intensified debate on how to deal with prisoners held at the U.S.-run detention camp in Cuba. But al-Shihri’s narrative raised other interesting questions as well. In 2007, the U.S. released him to Saudi Arabia, where he underwent a much-trumpeted religious “deradicalization” program for jihadists that clearly didn’t take. In the past, Saudi authorities have consistently claimed that none of the program’s graduates have returned to terrorism in the five years since the program was established. But after al-Shihri’s story began unfolding, authorities admitted that nine others have been rearrested. Despite the failure, Time has reported, the Pentagon won’t change its policy on repatriating Gitmo’s most dangerous detainees to the kingdom even though the Saudi program has been called into question.

Saudi Arabia is one of several countries running ambitious deradicalization programs in which Islamic scholars try to lead radicals to moderation. Similar initiatives are running in Egypt, Singapore, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Malaysia, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Indonesia. Canada could be next. Omar Khadr’s lawyers have filed a proposal with the military commission at Guantánamo to have the alleged terrorist undergo a specialized deradicalization program should he ever return to Canadian soil; they’ve asked Hamid Slimi, chair of the Canadian Council of Imams, to create a rehabilitation plan. Even without a request from Stephen Harper for Khadr’s repatriation, the proposal (which includes years of psychological treatment and a formal education) is a step closer to reality now that Guantánamo will close. Khadr’s fate may be discussed when President Barack Obama visits Harper in the coming weeks.

All of which raises a question: deprogramming a bomb or a missile is possible—but can you deprogram an extremist? Andrew Silke, a leading forensic science expert who has worked with agencies like the FBI and London’s Metropolitan Police, believes it’s possible—in some cases. “Most extremists are mentally stable people. They are from a variety of backgrounds, [people] who feel their violence is a just reaction to provocative global events like civilian deaths in Iraq,” he says.

In the aftermath of 9/11, when the West became captivated by the psychology of suicide attackers, Silke says a good portion of terror research funding was directed at defining the personality profile of a terrorist. “A profile is something governments want as a simple solution to the complex problem,” he says. The problem is, there’s no indication one exists. Instead, current research examines how environmental and psychological factors combine to radicalize people in the first place. “It’s a gradual process,” says Silke. “For most, radicalization takes two or three years.” Undoing that process should also be a matter of social and environmental factors. And there is evidence, Silke says, that rehabilitation is possible for soft-core members.

The largest deradicalization initiative is the coalition-run program in Iraq, which began in 2007 to handle more than 24,000 detainees. Singapore’s program, though, is regarded as the most successful, and the model on which the others are loosely based. The initiative began in the face of a rising internal security threat from Jemaah Islamiyah (an al-Qaeda arm in Southeast Asia) in 2002, after volunteering imams set out to stifle recruitment to the group. Detainees are encouraged to better themselves with access to a library and academic courses.

But of any of the soft-power experiments to disarm human bombs, the Saudi program has by far been the best-funded and most ambitious. Even the most violent militants housed at the Hayar Care Centre, an Interior Ministry prison-turned-halfway-house an hour outside of Riyadh, enjoy table tennis, PlayStation video games, soccer, swimming, room service and art therapy in exchange for attending religious education classes where clerics challenge their deep-rooted ideology. For the ones repatriated from Guantánamo, the privileges are shocking compared with life at the U.S. naval base, where hunger strikes and suicide are familiar.

Family members of Saudi detainees are included in the rehabilitation process—the graduate and the head of the family both have to sign a pledge renouncing extremism. What’s also unique is the thousands of dollars given to some graduates to encourage the prospect of a new life; it helps pay for weddings, furniture, a new Toyota.

One of the poster boys of the Saudi program is Ahmed al-Shayea, a failed suicide attacker who killed nine people and maimed over 60 more—including himself—in Baghdad using a truck bomb five years ago. Al-Shayea says he began to change his thinking when a cleric told him the jihad he went to Iraq for wasn’t religiously sanctioned. “There is no jihad. We are just instruments of death,” Al-Shayea told the Associated Press in 2007.

But there are questions. The program’s turnaround time is astonishingly short. Most complete it in 8 to 12 weeks. And how do authorities know a conversion is sincere given the rewards: a shortened sentence, a new car. That is one of the hardest questions about this campaign to fight ideas with ideas.

Repeated requests by Maclean’s to get comment from the Saudi government regarding the program were ignored, but authorities say roughly 3,000 inmates have voluntarily participated, and only nine have been arrested for returning to jihad, and another 35 for security offences since leaving the centre, which opened two years ago. This figure contradicts other reports; indeed, data measuring the effectiveness of the programs in many countries is unavailable.

The other big problem in assessing their efficacy is that the programs themselves vary wildly. Yemen’s, a bare-bones and poorly funded effort, was suspended temporarily in 2005 over a shameful failure rate after a number of the “rehabilitated” turned up in Iraq, where they had merrily joined the insurgency. Singapore, by comparison, has been quite successful in crippling the Jemaah Islamiyah network after authorities conducted two major arrest sweeps in 2002. Of 55 members detained, at least 32 have been released after undergoing religious counseling and meeting regularly with psychologists, case officers and their families to discuss progress.

Some experts acknowledge the Saudi program is more holistic in its approach, compared with programs where the only thing addressed is ideology. But not everyone is impressed. “It gives me no confidence that the Saudis are equipped, let alone seriously disposed to bring about a shift in the behaviour of supremacist thinking,” says David Harris, a terrorism expert and former CSIS chief of strategic planning. Harris believes deprogramming is possible but questions the kingdom’s commitment to eradicating extremism, citing as an example the government appointment of Abdur Rahman al-Sudais, chief imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Al–Sudais is hostile toward non–Muslims and has called Jews “the scum of the Earth,” and “monkeys and pigs.”

“With our conditioning we think: what could be more admirable than fighting evil with ideas and not violence?” says Harris. “It sounds progressive. But then I wake up.” He points out that the motivation for establishing these programs varies widely depending on the country, and that the Saudi program is a face-value measure to placate the West after the 9/11 inquiry identified the kingdom as the primary source for al-Qaeda’s funding. Transparency is also an issue, he adds: knowing who the 150 scholars are who interpret the Quran with detainees is crucial, because their own ideology is highly influential.

Singapore, in contrast, is much more open. Ustaz Mohamed bin Ali is charged with rehabilitating prisoners there. His conversion technique starts by examining which texts prisoners use to justify violence before asking them to look beyond their tafsir, or literal Quranic interpretation. Verses are often taken out of context, says Ali, a graduate of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the foremost seat of learning for Sunni Muslims. He says a fanatic may have whole sections of the Quran memorized but can struggle to interpret their meaning. “Jihad itself has several meanings. One of them is to fight, but to fight on a legitimate battlefield. So what these guys are doing is not jihad,” he says. “Jihad is to strive for anything good in yourself. To fight your own desires.”

Nasir Abbas is a firm believer in what such programs can achieve with low-ranking group members. Abbas knows the other side of the battle line well. Whether it was an M-16 or a Quran in his hand, the former weapons instructor for Jemaah Islamiyah believed Allah was on his side. One of the most wanted men in Malaysia, he felt justified fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan and training Islamists in how to use weapons. (His past students include the three men executed in November for killing 202 people in the Bali nightclub bombing.) He never went through a rehab program himself, but following his departure from the militant group—they had begun “terrorizing civilians,” something he says he never supported—and his release from prison in 2004, his “new jihad” is rehabilitating extremists in Indonesia. “Violence cannot be fought with violence,” he says. “Fire can only be extinguished by water.”

For al-Shihri, soft power didn’t seem to work. But there are no guarantees a dip in the pool is any more effective than a waterboarding exercise in inspiring a change of attitude. And in the battle to win over “hearts and minds,” governments seem keen on trying something beyond just catching and killing terrorists. However, experts like Silke warn that environment dictates what happens next, and the marginalization or mistreatment of groups will continue to be extremism’s most powerful recruiter.

“A lot of the time when we look at a terrorist we put the responsibility of violence on the individual. We don’t look at the environment around them,” says Silke, using an extreme scenario to make his point. “But if Saudi Arabia has all these deradicalization programs and America invades next week—what do you think is gonna happen to those prisoners that have gone through the program?”