One of the latest fads in counterterrorism strategies around the world is deradicalization. Although these attempts to rehabilitate terrorists in custody have been described as either a novel, effective tactic or a sham with grave security ramifications, these programs have become a must-have element for any country serious about national security. In the years since 9/11, as non-kinetic counterterrorism approaches gained importance, officials from Saudi Arabia to Yemen to Singapore to Indonesia have made concerted efforts to rehabilitate terrorist prisoners. Over the past 18 months, formal deradicalization programs have also surfaced in Kuwait, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates, with more on the way elsewhere in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
In the United States, recent public interest in this approach reflects a heightened concern over homegrown terrorism and radicalization. And yet, for U.S. policymakers aiming to address challenges of domestic radicalization, long-term detention, Guantánamo, and U.S counterterrorism efforts in general, it remains unclear whether deradicalization is a useful tool. Is it really possible to convince a committed terrorist to reject extremist ideology and eschew violence? If so, which methods work best? Can programs that are effective in one country be replicated in others? How should these efforts fit into broader counterterrorism strategies? To answer these questions, we must look to the impact that existing deradicalization strategies have had thus far, particularly in Muslim-majority countries where al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have been most active.
Nearly a decade after 9/11 and nine years after the first formal deradicalization strategies were developed, the public debate about these efforts remains complicated and confused. While some governments have met with relative success, the price of failure is high. Releasing just a few terrorist prisoners who have not been effectively rehabilitated is a serious risk, even for countries with a vast security apparatus. Furthermore, it remains difficult to measure the influence of a deradicalization program on the subsequent actions of a released terrorist. Scholars still struggle to assess the long-term effect of various deradicalization initiatives. Given these uncertainties and the inherent risks of this approach, many wonder why deradicalization programs should play a critical part in any comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.
The answer lies in the secondary benefits of such programs, particularly as regards their ability to support counter-radicalization initiatives that aim to forestall radicalization among vulnerable groups, including the friends and families of imprisoned terrorists. There are also hidden benefits to detention and intelligence collection efforts, all of which can greatly improve the impact of U.S. counterterrorism operations. These often-underappreciated second-order effects make deradicalization essential for the long-term success of any comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.
What’s What in Deradicalization
Even though it has spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia, deradicalization remains largely misunderstood by the American public and many U.S. officials. Occasional stories of terrorist rehabilitation initiatives in Saudi Arabia and Iraq have given Americans partial snapshots of different programs, but there is little appreciation for commonalities across worldwide efforts or, more importantly, what makes a program effective. Addressing this knowledge gap requires a crosscutting review that aims to demonstrate the most critical components of terrorist deradicalization in various countries. Such analysis underscores the importance of education and vocational training, family engagement and helping detainees reintegrate into society after release. Religious engagement also plays a role, though this depends largely on cultural norms at play in a given country and on the particular detainees involved.
Moreover, it becomes clear that no single model of deradicalization is universally applicable. To be effective even in small degree, efforts must be highly tailored to the country involved, the individual detainees participating and the environment into which a detainee is ultimately released.
Education and vocational training.
Like many prison-based rehabilitation programs aimed at common criminals, education and vocational training are key elements of any systemic deradicalization strategy.
Consider, for example, developments in Saudi Arabia’s program since it was established in 2004. Developed as one of the most robust, well-funded terrorist rehabilitation programs in existence, the Saudi deradicalization and rehabilitation program initially focused largely on religious re-education. However, the Saudis gradually became more intent on changing behavior over ideology, and they now place a greater emphasis on educational programming intended to modify a detainee’s actions after release. While religious context is important—particularly insofar as Islamic teachings can help legitimize the Saudi government’s authority—Saudi officials seem to have concluded that the best way to influence captured terrorists is through secular programming. Saudi professors, psychologists, security officials and religious scholars teach a range of classes to prisoners, but courses on psychology, sociology, art therapy, politics and history now greatly outnumber lessons on religion, sharia law and Islamic culture. Vocational training and “life skills” classes are also central to helping a released detainee become a well-adjusted member of Saudi society.
Education is also a core element of many other deradicalization programs. In 2007, the U.S. military revamped detention strategies for Iraq and introduced “Counterinsurgency Inside the Wire” at many of its detention centers. This included a massive educational push for individuals held in Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, then the largest detention facilities in Iraq. Classes included reading, writing, English and even lessons on Iraq’s government, while voluntary vocational training covered masonry, cabinetry and textile or agricultural skills.
A similar approach was introduced for U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan. In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy for winning Afghan “hearts and minds” prompted the development of a targeted rehabilitation-oriented program for U.S. detention facilities in Bagram. Daily classes covering basic reading and writing in Pashtu and Dari are intended to raise the literacy of each detainee in his native language to a third-grade level. Vocational training is also offered and now includes lessons in tailoring, baking and farming.
To varying degrees, these initiatives also include religious education, from one-on-one meetings with local religious leaders who discuss ideological sources of radicalization to group sessions that review the Quran and Islamic law. In Iraq, the “Countering Extremism with Enlightenment”, or Tanweer program, was modeled after early efforts in Saudi Arabia. Clerics and social workers led a religious dialogue to advance moderate views of Islam while promoting civic duties associated with Iraqi democracy. U.S. efforts in Afghanistan have included occasional religious engagement by a local moderate clergyman, though ambitions in this regard seem fairly modest.
Singapore’s deradicalization program likewise balances secular and religious engagement. Since 2002, the government has processed more than sixty prisoners associated with Jemaah Islamiya, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Southeast Asia, through a state-managed deradicalization program that addresses three key areas: psychological, social and religious concerns. Alongside psychological counseling, prison-based classes and vocational training, volunteer clerics from the independently-run Religious Rehabilitation Group attempt to address detainees’ misinterpretations of Islam, specifically tackling Jemaah Islamiya’s ideological arguments for jihad. This balanced approach recognizes both the needs of the individual detainees and of a secular city-state with a minority Muslim community.
In contrast, Yemen’s “Committee for Religious Dialogue” intended to focus solely on religious engagement. The program’s leader, Judge Hamoud al-Hitar, and three Yemeni sheiks conducted one-on-one meetings with imprisoned terrorists to “correct” their vision of Islam. As described by one Yemeni official, “It was an attempt to turn their anger into quiet.” In actuality, the dialogue consisted of short meetings during which religion was discussed but where the central objective was encouraging a prisoner to pledge obedience to President Saleh as a precondition for release. Ultimately unsuccessful, the program was discontinued in 2005, after only three years.
Another critically important element of effective deradicalization is family engagement. In Riyadh, family members visit detainees, sharing meals and celebrating holidays with them throughout the rehabilitation process. Saudi officials also arrange short, monitored furloughs with a detainee’s family to help assess an individual’s progress and offer extensive financial support for family members. The Saudi Ministry of Interior has been known to cover everything from school fees for the child of a detainee to his mother’s medical bills. Despite concern that these financial inducements create incentives for citizens to engage in terrorist activity, they do help ensure that a stable home life awaits a prisoner upon release. They also encourage family members to support the regime’s detention and security efforts. In recent years, such family involvement has been expanded further, reflecting the Saudis’ belief that family can have the most significant impact on an individual’s path away from violent radicalism.
Though implemented on a smaller scale, Singapore uses similar financial inducements even as the government’s “After Care Group” provides social support to counter any influence that Jemaah Islamiya ideology may have had on the detainee’s family. In Iraq and Afghanistan, resource and logistical constraints necessitate more modest family engagement, though family visits have been actively supported. More than 220,000 family members visited Iraqi detainees between September 2006 and November 2008. Fewer such visits occur in Afghanistan, though family members are encouraged to meet with a detainee every two months.
In many instances, family members or respected representatives from a detainee’s tribe or village are also asked to take responsibility for a detainee after release. Yemen and Saudi Arabia required that elder male relatives of a detainee sign contracts to this effect, guaranteeing that the individual would not return to terrorist activity. In Afghanistan, U.S. military officers work with tribal elders to arrange shuras or release ceremonies that publicly welcome detainees home. While it is unclear whether these contracts or ceremonies have any significant, long-term impact, the process nonetheless reinforces the prominent role that family, community and cultural traditions have in deradicalization.
This brings us to perhaps the most critical and challenging element of any program: reintegration. Depending on the country, post-release initiatives range from parole-like reporting requirements and monitoring by security services to programs that help ease detainees into a stable social network after release, finding them jobs and providing ongoing counseling. This aspect of the Saudi program is heavily resourced, reflecting the beliefs that stability helps reintegration and that, “If we don’t help them, someone else will”—presumably, someone from a detainee’s illicit past. Officials from the Saudi Interior Ministry continue to offer financial support, counseling and schooling well after release, and translate vocational training into job placement. They even help detainees find a wife and “settle down.” To publicly demonstrate this ongoing support, Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef sometimes attends the weddings of ex-detainees, ceremonies often paid for by the government. In parallel with these efforts, Saudi security services continue to monitor former detainees, require periodic reports and conduct occasional home visits.
Singapore likewise augments a robust security element with community-based after-care programming that focuses on reintegration and stabilization. Making use of non-profit groups already operating in the country’s minority Muslim community has been essential, and is one way the government collaborates with local religious leaders on prisoner reintegration and more general deradicalization efforts. However, Singaporean officials say that this process “never ends”, conceding that security and support must persist long after release to ensure a former terrorist does not return to violent activity.
Though constrained by resources and practical considerations, U.S. programs in Iraq also recognized the importance of reintegration support and, in small amounts, tried to provide educational and employment opportunities for detainees after release. While U.S. and ISAF officials are working on similar initiatives in Afghanistan, post-release support has been hampered thus far by logistical hurdles and other constraints inherent with operating in a deradicalization program in an active combat zone and in coordination with the still struggling Afghan government.
By contrast, although Yemeni officials claim that deradicalization efforts included reintegration support, job placement and a post-release stipend, program graduates contend that they received no such assistance and had difficulty adjusting to life outside of prison. This is often cited as one reason why former graduates “went back to the fight” after release.
Case-by-case approach. All of these elements—education and vocational training, religious engagement when appropriate, family involvement and post-release support—are most effective when highly tailored to the situation at hand. At the lowest level, this includes a significant amount of individual attention for each detainee. While not practical in Iraq, where deradicalization programming was administered to thousands of detainees, officials involved in small and medium-sized programs describe the importance of tailoring efforts to a detainee’s particular situation—whether to address how they were radicalized and why they supported terrorism in the first place, or to deal with psychological trauma, family issues, or practical concerns about their economic and social stability after release. Anecdotal evidence suggests that mentoring relationships between detainees, on the one hand, and the prison guards, psychologists and teachers running the programs, on the other, also have a significant influence before and after release. Staff from Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Advice tell stories of detainees calling them after release to voluntarily check in and ask advice. Singaporean officials likewise testify to the benefits of promoting mentoring relationships that might continue after release.
Counterterrorism experts suggest that this one-on-one focus also helps improve a detainee’s negative opinions of authority figures that may have played a role in his initial radicalization. At the U.S. detention facility in Bagram, Afghanistan, a small sign once read, “Turning Taliban into productive citizens of Afghanistan one detainee at a time.” This lofty goal remains a long way off, but anecdotal reporting suggests that initial efforts have been well received. One story describes how a detainee granted release after a year in custody, without any prompting by U.S. officials,
spent over an hour walking from cell to cell telling his fellow detainees how compassionate his American captors were . . . [and] implor[ing] his fellow detainees to exercise good behavior, to follow the rules of the guard force, and to use their time in the Bagram. . . [to] attend education classes.
Viewed from a strategic perspective, this emphasis on a tailored approach underscores the fact that no single model will work around the world. Though the Saudi program is considered one of the most successful, attempts to replicate it in other countries often face serious problems, whether due to ideological concerns, resource constraints, or difficulties with implementation. Beyond the nature of individual detainees, a country’s political, economic and social situation will have a significant impact on how a deradicalization program is received and may determine whether it has a lasting impact. Cultural norms can bolster or undermine counseling, art therapy, financial inducements for family members and post-release follow-up, just to name a few. This focus on the effect of local context is a critical point for policymakers looking to evaluate deradicalization efforts across various countries.
Do They Work?
Even with a thorough understanding of how deradicalization programs are implemented around the world, it remains unclear whether these programs really work and how they help the United States meet its broader counterterrorism objectives. To date, the primary measure of effectiveness has been a program’s recidivism rate, or how many graduates return to terrorism after release. Using this metric, the Saudi initiative was lauded for years as 100 percent successful for its approximately 4,000 prisoner participants—until January 2009, when the Saudi government announced that 11 former Guantánamo detainees had left its Riyadh-based deradicalization program and returned to terrorism. Saudi officials overseeing deradicalization today estimate an 80 to 90 percent success rate. However, they have also privately conceded that the most committed terrorists, particularly those with ideological motivations, are unlikely to respond to deradicalization.
U.S. officials monitoring detention efforts in Iraq before and after the introduction of detainee rehabilitation also recount the program’s positive impact. Reports indicate that, before “Counterinsurgency Inside the Wire”, the rate of recapture for released detainees was 17 percent. Just two years later, that number—a subset of the recidivism rate that includes ex-detainees killed on the battlefield and those confirmed by intelligence assets as having “returned to the fight”—reportedly dropped to nearly 1 percent. While dealing with a much smaller terrorist population, Singaporean efforts also appear highly successful when judged by recidivism. Approximately two-thirds of the prisoners who started the program have been released from government custody, and none are reported to have been involved in any terrorist activity.
However, while recidivism rates provide a helpful snapshot and quantifiable assessment of a program’s results, they are often misleading. Yemeni officials reported that 364 terrorist prisoners were successfully processed through their state-run program and that none committed further terrorist acts in Yemen. This calculation omitted the fact that many are believed to have fled to Iraq, where they became “freedom fighters” joining operations against U.S. forces. Recidivism rates can also be inaccurate because they rely on intelligence that is not readily available, and only reflect negative trends if a former detainee’s terrorist activities are discovered and publicly exposed, as in the Saudi case. Furthermore, most deradicalization programs have not been operational long enough to determine whether graduates’ behavioral changes are lasting. Assessing a program’s long-term impact takes many years and does not help U.S. officials hoping to refine counterterrorism efforts in the immediate future.
Perhaps most important, relying on recidivism figures largely ignores the political and social context in which a deradicalization program operates and the security environment into which a program releases graduates. In Iraq, the significant drop in recidivism between 2006 and 2008 likely reflects the country’s vastly improved security condition as much as it reflects the impact of new deradicalization efforts. In Singapore, the combined influence of social and political stability with a vast state security apparatus cannot be ignored. The post-release monitoring function of security forces plays a large role in Saudi Arabia, too.
On the other hand, the failure of Yemen’s weak deradicalization program must be considered within the context of the country’s problematic political and security situation, a scenario that likewise permitted the expansion of al-Qaeda in its borders. The influence of the post-release environment becomes particularly important when reviewing ongoing deradicalization efforts in the Middle East, given heightened instability in the wake of recent Arab revolution movements.
Even where recidivism suggests moderate success, high-profile failures continue to raise questions. Confidence in Saudi Arabia’s program was shaken when Ali al-Shihri, an ex-Guantánamo detainee who graduated from the Saudi rehabilitation program in 2008, appeared in Yemen as the deputy commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Is an 80–90 percent success rate enough when the risks of releasing even one committed Islamist terrorist are so high but when continuing to detain him presents significant political or legal challenges?
Despite this mixed review, deradicalization remains an essential element of any comprehensive, long-term counterterrorism strategy. It deserves the broad support from U.S. officials. While even the most robust, well-implemented deradicalization programs will never be 100 percent effective, they nonetheless help mitigate the threat posed by a non-trivial number of imprisoned terrorists, decreasing risks associated with their release from government custody. Given ongoing battles about the legal framework under which many transnational terrorists, including those at Guantánamo, are held, this factor should not be ignored.
More important may be the ancillary benefits of these programs. If implemented effectively, discrete elements of the rehabilitation process play a quiet but significant role in supporting broader counterterrorism efforts, particularly as regards counter-radicalization. Saudi officials consider the country’s deradicalization program a key tool in engaging individuals who are vulnerable to domestic radicalization and recruitment, including a detainee’s friends and family. Saudi security officials insist that this group, many of whom were once considered a serious potential threat, often appear more supportive of government-run counterterrorism initiatives after being involved in deradicalization programming for their loved one. The Saudis also report positive results from deradicalized detainees participating in media campaigns aimed at young Saudis throughout the country.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that rehabilitation efforts at detention facilities in Bagram may also influence opinions at the district or provincial level. Conversations with Afghan village leaders, ex-Taliban and former detainees indicate that recent detainee rehabilitation efforts are well-regarded and have helped make U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan—previously a serious sore spot among the local populace—more acceptable to some Afghans.
The deradicalization of key operational or spiritual leaders can also have a significant impact on potential al-Qaeda recruits globally. After Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (otherwise known as Dr. Fadl, a founding member of al-Qaeda) was deradicalized in an Egyptian prison, he wrote an influential manifesto attacking al-Qaeda’s jihadist ideology and calling terrorist attacks in the West unjust according to Islamic law. His book, Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World, was widely read, helped undermine al-Qaeda’s rhetoric and forced senior al-Qaeda leaders to defend their ideological position in a 200-page response written by Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s second in command. A similar story is found in Indonesia. Nasir Abbas, a former Jemaah Islamiya leader who was deradicalized in an informal program run by the Indonesian National Police, now visits prisons, meets with the radical group’s supporters and tries to convince them to renounce violent radicalism. According to Abbas, “it’s all a process”, but there are positive signs so far.
Other benefits not often discussed include the influence that rehabilitation programs have on detention operations. U.S. officials in Iraq reported that the positive impact was immediate. Until 2006, Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper were plagued by serious incidents of detainee violence, even massive riots and murders that posed a serious threat to both the detainees and the guard force. After deradicalization programs were introduced, incidents of major violence and misconduct dropped by more than 65 percent. This was especially remarkable given that, due to the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, the number of detainees held in these facilities increased significantly. The detainee population reached nearly 24,000 at one point.
Similar positive results have been anecdotally reported in Afghanistan. U.S. detention officers relate that many detainees at Bagram appeared more willing to cooperate after rehabilitation initiatives were introduced. Some detainees with a history of being especially abusive toward guards caused less trouble once distracted by new rehabilitation programming. Other detainees responded to a violent outburst among fellow prisoners with a new approach; they brokered a “cease-fire.” Officials also suggest that the resulting improved relations between detainees and the guard force may enhance intelligence collected from these detainees, a critical but little-discussed side benefit. Ultimately, secondary results like these may prove most significant, allowing deradicalization to serve larger, long-term counterterrorism goals.
Deradicalization is no panacea. Its long-term impact remains difficult to assess, particularly when dealing with the most committed terrorists. Its role in reducing recidivism may never be entirely distinguishable from the influence of larger factors like a country’s political, social or economic context. But hidden, strategic benefits cannot be ignored. In the end, policymakers should remember that deradicalization is important not simply for the individual detainess but for the entire national security coummunity.