Can Jihadis Be Rehabilitated?

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Hassan Ammar / AFP / Getty

Young Saudi men released from Guantánamo Bay as well as prisons in Iraq and Saudi Arabia listen to a Muslim cleric during a course at a rehabilitation center near Riyadh

It's been described as the Betty Ford Center for terrorists: Saudi Arabian officials boast that the Care Rehabilitation Center, outside Riyadh, has successfully deprogrammed scores of former jihadis, including more than 100 ex-inmates of the U.S.'s Guantánamo Bay military prison. As recently as last fall, Saudi officials claimed the program had a 100% success rate.

That claim was dashed last week, when two alumni of the rehab program proudly announced to the world that they had returned to the jihad. In a video posted online, Saudi nationals Said al-Shihri and Abu al-Hareth al-Oufi — former detainees at Guantánamo Bay — boasted that they had become leaders of al-Qaeda in Yemen. (See pictures of the Care Rehabilitation Center.)

The video could hardly have come at a worse time for the Obama Administration, which has just announced that it will close Gitmo within a year and is already being accused by some Republicans of jeopardizing U.S. security. But it is doubly discomfiting for the Saudi government. Officials in Riyadh now say they have rearrested at least nine other men who had previously been rehabilitated; it's not clear how many of those are ex-Gitmo detainees.

Many observers claim that this means the rehab program is a bust, but both U.S. and Saudi officials argue that its successes far outnumber the handful of recidivists like al-Shihri and al-Oufi. "These things are never going to be perfect, but when you look at the big picture of rehabilitation, it's a remarkable story," says Christopher Boucek, a Carnegie Endowment scholar who has closely studied the Saudi program.

The Pentagon says it will not change its policy on repatriating Gitmo detainees to Saudi Arabia. "There are never any absolute guarantees," said Navy spokesman Commander Jeffrey Gordon. "There's an inherent risk in all detainee transfers and releases from Guantánamo."

Brigadier General Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, which runs the rehab program, claims the program's success stemmed from its guiding principle that jihadis are victims, rather than villains. "We think these people can be turned into normal human beings and be reintegrated into society," al-Turki told me when I visited Saudi Arabia during the Ramadan fast last summer. (Ironically, it was at the end of Ramadan that al-Shihri "disappeared," his father Jaber told the Saudi Gazzette newspaper.)

That's not to say the jihadis aren't punished. Indeed, before they can be rehabilitated, many must first undergo jail terms of varying lengths. The "hardest of the hard-core" militants are not allowed in the program, al-Turki told me. "With some people, there is just no cure."

Once admitted to the center, the jihadis are put through a rigorous program of religious discussion — designed to wean them from misconceptions about what the Koran does and doesn't permit — and sessions with psychologists and sociologists. Some receive vocational training to prepare them for a "normal" life. The center is guarded by Saudi police, but it doesn't look or feel anything like a prison. TIME's Scott Macleod, who visited the center in fall 2007, says it's akin to a college campus or country club, where the detainees play Ping-Pong and sip Pepsi. It could hardly be more different from Gitmo.

At the end of the program, the men are returned to their families and given a monthly stipend of $700 to help make ends meet. Some are given cars, and single men are encouraged to get married — the Saudi government pays $20,000 toward wedding expenses. "The important thing is that these men should not be idle and frustrated, because that could send them back to their old haunts, their old friends," said al-Turki.

The recidivism of al-Shihri, al-Ousi and the nine rearrested men suggests that the program needs some tinkering — especially in the monitoring of those who are released into society. Although the police monitor the men, the main burden of keeping them on the straight and narrow falls to their families. "The best way to make sure they don't go back to their bad habits is to recruit their families," al-Turki said. "We can't watch them every second of the day, but their parents or siblings or wives ... they can alert us if they suspect anything." (According to reports in the Saudi media, Jaber al-Shihri did inform the authorities after his son went missing for two months. He has denounced his son as a "deviant member of society, who must be removed.")

Another area that needs re-examination, says scholar Boucek, is the assessment of the risk of recidivism. "There's a lot of research on, for instance, when you should release a child molester from jail," he says. "But there's been no study on terrorists. When do you let a head chopper out of rehab?"

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