Journalist Shiraz Maher has an interesting article in today’s Sunday Times looking at Saudi efforts to rehabilitate captured Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants.
Although the Saudi programme’s emphasis on rehabilitating and releasing captured terrorists back into society makes it controversial in some quarters, there is increasing appreciation among COIN practitioners of the importance of ensuring detainee operations are consistent with the wider strategic goal of winning the war of ideas and securing the support of the population – a concept now often referred to as ‘COIN inside the wire’.
As such, the Saudi model – itself inspired by the success of a similar programme run by the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) in Singaporean prisons with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) detainees – is increasingly being implemented by US detention programmes in Iraq (see The Financial Times article linked to below).
It has been called the Betty Ford clinic for jihadists and within minutes of arriving at the Care Rehabilitation Centre on the outskirts of Riyadh, you can see why. The small complex, where the Saudi Arabian government is exploring a new way of reforming its wayward radicals, feels more like an exclusive boarding school than a Saudi jail.
Inmates have access to swimming pools, table tennis and PlayStations. In the evenings, guards and prisoners play football. An air-conditioned tent sits adjacent to the sports field, serving as a dining hall and common room where, when I visited, the prisoners were tucking into rice and lamb with fresh fruit for pudding.
In return for this privileged treatment, the prisoners – Islamic extremists, some of whom are convicted murderers – are obliged to attend lessons based around Islamic law and the jurisprudence of jihad. A team of psychologists teaches detainees how they should manage their emotions, particularly when reacting to world events.
The Saudi government insists all this is necessary to promote genuine rehabilitation and foster a meaningful relationship with the jihadists. But in the easy-going atmosphere of the “resort” – nobody calls it a prison – where inmates are referred to as “beneficiaries”, it is easy to forget the seriousness of some of their crimes.
The centre is divided into six areas, four of which hold Saudi nationals who fought (or tried to) in Iraq. The other two hold returnees from Guantanamo Bay.
The government has realised that the use of force alone will not contain Al-Qaeda. It has created an ideological security unit that coordinates the kingdom’s efforts in the war of ideas against its native jihadists. Those arrested in connection with terrorism are routinely subjected to attempts to reform their thinking.
Five jails, each housing 1,200 prisoners, have been built specifically for jihadists with the purpose of promoting ideological reform through dialogue and debate. Religious instruction in these prisons is directed by an advisory committee, which is also closely involved with the care centre.
The new prisons are far from the relaxed environment of the Care Rehabilitation Centre. Housing some of the most senior Al-Qaeda leaders in the kingdom, they are maximum security with sophisticated systems to deter any militants hoping to target them, including the use of buried seismic cables and microwave detection equipment.
CCTV also operates in the prisons, including cells and interrogation rooms. Most prisoners have a cell to themselves or occasionally share, although the rooms have been designed to minimise contact with other prisoners and are largely self-contained. Cells are fitted with their own televisions, encased behind toughened glass, and are centrally controlled by the guards. They are used to transmit religious education lectures prepared by the advisory committee directly into cells where inmates later have an opportunity to debate ideas and ask questions using an intercom.
After serving their sentence in these jails, prisoners are moved to the rehabilitation centre, which opened 18 months ago. It is designed to be a halfway house where ideas first introduced by the advisory committee in prison are consolidated and developed. The men are also given extensive support to help to reintegrate them into society after they leave, the thinking being that so doing makes them less likely to reoffend.
The initiative was largely inspired by circumstance after a senior Al-Qaeda figure surrendered in response to a royal amnesty. Unsure about what to do with him, the government asked a local sheikh, Ahmad Jilani, to live with him and ensure that he did not abscond while it searched for a more permanent solution.
“We discovered that after living with the sheikh, who challenged his ideas, he began telling us everything about how he was recruited, what attracted him [to jihad] and how Al-Qaeda is operating in the kingdom,” said General Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the interior ministry.
Families are encouraged to make regular visits to the centre, allowing inmates to socialise with spouses and children. Families have a crucial role to play in reforming the radicals and the centre offers advice on how to help prisoners to readjust after release. The emphasis on preparing both the families and the inmates for reintegration is particularly relevant to those returning from Guantanamo Bay.
How successful the centre is being in challenging jihadist ideas is hard to measure. The majority of men I met there were not Al-Qaeda’s ideologues but its foot soldiers. Most had answered the call to jihad without fully understanding the Islamist world view and, although religiously motivated, were fuelled by events.
Since its inception none of the inmates from the care centre has reoffended, but a visit to the home of Mohammed al-Fawzan, who tried to join the Islamic army in Iraq and was arrested on the Syrian border, reveals a more intriguing reason why some of those released from the care centre might want to sustain their good behaviour. Parked outside his modest one-bedroom apartment in a poor district of Riyadh is Fawzan’s new Toyota Camry, costing just under £15,000. The flat has been renovated and modernised with a fitted kitchen and bedroom furniture installed in preparation for his wedding. Fawzan’s living room hosts a 37in high-definition television with surround sound and a Blu-ray player. All this has been provided by the government, including an additional £15,000 for his wedding. And incentives are not limited to financial aid. The government also ensured that Fawzan was reinstated in his old job.
In addition to the above article, Shiraz Maher has produced a documentary segment about the care centre that will be broadcast on Wednesday’s Newsnight (BBC2 10.30pm).
Also of interest on the subject:
The Business End
Andrew K. Woods, The Financial Times
Provides a detailed profile of Major General Douglas Stone’s efforts to apply similar principles to the US detention programme in Iraq.
Extremist Reeducation and Rehabilitation in Saudi Arabia
Christopher Boucek, Terrorism Monitor
Singapore’s Muslim Community-Based Initiatives against JI
Muhammad Haniff Hassan, Perspectives on Terrorism
Update (18 July 08):
Indonesia’s Approach to Jihadist Deradicalization
Kirsten E. Schulze, CTC Sentinel vol.1 no.8
Also relevant is the following extract from pp. 94-5 of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategies, Approaches, Results, and Issues for Congress [PDF]:
The broad “reconciliation” intent extends to an additional subset of the Iraqi population — those who have been detained by coalition forces.
Accountability. By the beginning of 2008, coalition detainee operations had evolved markedly from the days of the formal occupation, when they were characterized by under-staffing, limited facilities, and — due to ongoing aggressive military operations — a large and quickly growing detainee population. In the early days, it was common to find local communities frustrated first by detentions they perceived to be groundless, and then by the difficulty of determining the location and status of those detained.
One important, gradual change since then, according to coalition officials, is much better accountability, based on the introduction of biometrics, better information-sharing throughout the detention system, and simply better cultural familiarity with the multi-part names commonly used in the region.
“COIN Inside the Wire” Detainee Program. A second major change, introduced by the current MNF-I leadership, is a set of “COIN inside the wire” practices, designed to identify and separate the truly “irreconcilables” from the rest of the detainees.
This new approach is based partly on a better understanding of the detainee population, which apparently includes far more opportunists than ring-leaders — for example, under-employed young men who agree to emplace an IED in exchange for a one-time payment. The opportunism seems to be corroborated by the low recidivism rate — about 9 out of 100.
According to coalition officials, in the past, the coalition used its theater internment facilities simply to “warehouse” detainees. Those facilities effectively served as “jihadist universities” where detainees with extremist agendas could recruit and train followers. Today, the coalition cultivates the majority of the detainee population by providing detainees with voluntary literacy and vocational training, and bringing in imams to offer literacy and religious education. A family visitation program allows about 1,600 visits per week. According to a senior coalition official, “Now detainees themselves point out the trouble-makers.” To support this effort, two Theater Internment Reintegration Facilities are under construction, in Taji and Ramadi, to provide further education and skills training.
Detainee Releases. A third initiative is a planned release of detainees, projected to include a majority of the 23,845 current detainees in the coalition detention facilities. During 2007, the detainee population grew from about 14,000 at the start of the year to 25,000, due to surge operations and better incoming information from Iraqi sources. The release initiative is motivated partly by the overall emphasis on reconciliation, and partly by concerns that the forthcoming “security framework agreement” (see above, “Future Security Framework Agreement”) may place new constraints on coalition detainee operations. The targeted release program draws on the results of “COIN inside the wire” in separating the hardcore cases from one-time offenders. The program makes use of a guarantor system, in which tribal sheikhs and other local leaders may vouch for, and accept responsibility for, the future good conduct of detainees released back to their communities.
The release program calls for giving ground commanders the opportunity to comment on proposed releases. Some commanders have expressed concerns about the practical implications of the program, wondering in particular how jobs will be found for the released detainees, and what will restrain them from low-level, opportunistic criminality in the future if full-employment jobs are not found.