Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | March 13, 2009

Terrorist Rehabilitation in Saudi Arabia

I hear people saying all the time, “why aren’t Muslims doing anything about the terror problem?”  The fact is: they are.  It is not a failure on the part of Muslims, it is a failure of the US mass media to report on anything other than sensationalistic, inflammatory events, because that equals ratings, which equals money. 

For example, recently on NPR I heard an interview with Christopher Boucek about a terrorist rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia, described in his Carnegie Paper titled “Saudi Arabia’s ‘Soft’ Counterterrorism Strategy: Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Aftercare“.  Why, aside from NPR, is this information buried in a Carnegie Paper instead of broadcast on the evening news?  Why is our unprecedented-in-human-history mass communication system used, so much more often, to tear down rather than to build trust?  I could rant for days about the mass media’s contribution to violence through their persistent omission of reporting on anything good about anyone outside the US.  But, more useful than such ranting, I think, is for me to provide a summary here of what this paper says.  The following is quoted by permission from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Saudi Arabia is conducting “a concerted effort [to eradicate support for extremism] by the entire state apparatus, from schools and mosques, to local and provincial administrations, the mass media, and social service providers and organizations.” 

At its core, the strategy features a decentralized campaign to combat terrorism, extremism, and the ideological infrastructure that supports and breeds violent Islamist extremism. In addition to the Ministry of Interior, a number of governmental ministries and agencies have been involved, including the Ministries of Islamic Affairs, Endowment, Da’wah, and Guidance; Education; Higher Education; Culture and Information; Labor; and Social Affairs. While not exhaustive, this list illustrates the breadth and scope of the strategy; were this not a serious endeavor, the state would not expend as many resources as it has. […]

To deter the radicalization and recruitment of young men, activities have been created to keep them busy and away from radicals. Research has shown that many young people have been drawn in with extremists during unsupervised free time, such as after school and during term breaks. This recruitment has been facilitated by a scarcity of social outlets for young Saudis. The government now supports a series of activities, such as sporting events, car racing, camel racing, and desert 4×4 excursions, to compete with the summer camps and questionable religious retreats that had been more frequently organized in the past by extremist groups to expose young men to their ideologies. Sporting clubs in particular have been identified by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs as playing an important role in impeding recruitment to extremism. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education ordered in July 2007 that outside volunteer seminar leaders with questionable credentials be kept out of summer camps to prevent the propagation of “deviant” interpretations of Islam.

In other programs aimed at prevention, the Ministry of Culture and Information has initiated a series of projects—some for youths and some for adults—utilizing television, newspapers, and other forms of communication. Experts are loaned out to schools and mosques to speak about the dangers of extremism. Similarly, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs sponsors lectures and classes at mosques throughout the country, utilizing speakers and materials recommended by experts on extremism. Also, weeklong evening discussion and lecture series have been organized around different themes, featuring different sheikhs every evening. […]

Schools also run writing contests and art competitions in which all students are encouraged to participate. In these exercises, students depict different topics such as the impact of terrorism on the population or the role of the public in protecting the country from terrorism. Typically, at the beginning of the week a topic is announced that will be the focus of the activities, and at week’s end awards and recognition are given to the best essays or pictures. […]

Under this broad campaign, programs and activities are going on in Saudi schools every week. By some government estimates, about seven different activities aimed at reducing the tacit and implicit support for extremism occur at thousands of schools throughout the kingdom each day.

The government has also taken steps to combat recruitment inside schools. Saudi officials often assert that the greatest source of extremist radicalization within the education system comes from “deviant teachers” who abuse their time with students by discussing extracurricular issues such as politics and religion and by advocating extremist positions. A teacher monitoring process has been implemented, under which problematic educators are eventually sent to King Fahd Security College for retraining. After attending a series of five classes about extremism and terrorism, teachers who continue to stray from the curriculum in dangerous ways are placed in administrative positions away from students, and those who cannot be retrained at all are apparently dismissed. […]

An essential aspect of the Saudi prevention program has been a large-scale public information and awareness campaign. The goals of these efforts are to foster cooperation between the state and the public; highlight the damage done by terrorism and extremism; and end public support and tolerance for extremist beliefs. […]

The centerpiece of Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation strategy is the counseling program, a comprehensive effort to rehabilitate and reeducate violent extremists and extremist sympathizers through intensive religious debates and psychological counseling. The counseling program is based not on punishment or retribution but on a presumption of benevolence; that is, the state does not seek to exact revenge through this program. It begins from the assumption that the suspects were lied to and misled by extremists into straying from true Islam. Saudi security officials assert that extremists prey on people who want to know more about their faith, then corrupt them through exposure to violent extremist ideologies. The manipulation of naive individuals—including those who merely seek to become more pious—is a recurring theme in Saudi counterterrorism programs.

Nathan, a caller to the NPR program discussing Mr. Boucek’s paper, had served in the military in Iraq, working in an internment camp for security detainees.  He confirmed this viewpoint, saying that in his experience, many of the detainees he supervised were very uneducated – to the point of being illiterate – and had been taken advantage of by the Islamic extremists.  The internment facility had instituted a program to teach these inmates to read, “so they can read the Koran for themselves”.  This program had a recidivism rate of less than 1%, at the time the caller left Iraq.  Another example comes from a conversation Paul Watson had with a man named Harun in Somalia, recorded in Watson’s book Where War Lives, p. 311-312:

“I joined Al-Ittihad not because I wanted to, but because I was manipulated through religion,” Harun told me. “The reason I never mentioned it to you, honestly, is that I never took them seriously. I just didn’t want to go to hell.”

In the Saudi Arabian program, and those like it in many other countries, these men are engaged in dialogue and brought to a new understanding of their religion.  They are then extensively supported in this new understanding:

The Psychological and Social Subcommittee is also responsible for determining what support the prisoner and his family may need during and after release to offset physical and social hardships caused by incarceration and to lessen the chances that other family members will become radicalized. The government also wants to demonstrate that it is not seeking to punish detainees or their families. This attitude reinforces the benevolent perception of the program and is considered a critical aspect of its success. To preserve the framework of compassion and rehabilitation, the government is very careful in how it engages with family members. According to Prince Muhammad, [director of the kingdom’s counterterrorism campaign,] the family needs to feel that everything is being done for them and their loved one; the more a family is involved in the rehabilitation process, the more likely it will participate in it.

Through this program and others, the Saudi government works hard to drive home the point that the extremists do not care about the individual, that they seek merely to use misled youth to advance their own—frequently violent—agendas. Conversely, the Saudi government works hard to demonstrate that it cares deeply about each person and that it will therefore do whatever it takes to support and care for someone. This is an essential aspect of the program, and it is a central argument that the government makes in its “war of ideas.” […]

Though started in 2004, the Saudi operation is the most expansive, best funded and longest continuously running counter-radicalization program in existence. When Singapore developed a program to combat extremism, its approach was based in part on the Saudi model. The strategy employed by the U.S. Marine Corps in its Task Force 134 “House of Wisdom” project, which deals with insurgent Iraqi detainees, was devised, in turn, with input from Singaporean officials. In only a few years’ time, Saudi Arabia’s soft strategy to combat extremism and terrorism has generated some very promising results. It warrants greater evaluation, especially as other nations struggling with extremism look at what is being accomplished in the kingdom for lessons they can apply in their homeland. Throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, similar programs are starting to emerge. That other nations emulate the Saudi program is ultimately based upon the recognition that the defeat of extremism cannot be achieved through hard security measures alone. That, in itself, is a major accomplishment.

 When we use violence to counter the efforts of terrorists, we actually provide evidence for their worldview – that violence is the way to get what you want.  Effective solutions are always those which address the root cause of a problem.  Where the root cause of terrorism so often is ignorance, making people who sincerely wanted to become better Muslims susceptible to extremists, the answer is to educate them. 

Traditional security measures are aimed at physically stopping people who want to hurt others.  But as long as they continue to want to, they will continue trying, and eventually, get through.  Programs such as these stop people who want to hurt others, by making them not want to.  Then, there is no security problem to worry about.  Which makes a lot more sense!


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