After spending six years at Guantanamo Bay and passing through a Saudi rehabilitation program for religious extremists, Said Ali al-Shihri has emerged as a top leader of al-Qaida in Yemen. Al-Shihri is suspected of involvement in a 2007 bombing of the American Embassy in Sana, Yemen, but the Saudis claim that none of its rehab graduates have returned to terrorism. What happens in terrorist rehab?
They mellow you out. Detainees selected to enter Saudi Arabia’s counseling program—usually Saudis who committed terror-related crimes and don’t repent of their extremist beliefs in one-on-one interviews—are sent to a former desert resort outside Riyadh. There they swim in a pool, play soccer and volleyball, use Playstation, do art therapy, and learn to practice a more moderate form of Islam. They also take classes taught by clerics and social scientists. Coursework covers 10 subjects, from religious concepts like jihad (religious struggle) and takfir(calling someone an unbeliever) and walaah (loyalty) to psychological courses in self-esteem. The clerics impart the laws of Wahhabism—the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia—which prohibit jihad unless there is an official fatwa. At the end of six weeks, students take an exam. If they pass, they may be approved for release. (That is, if they have already served out their original jail sentence.) If not, they have to take the class again.
The goal of the rehab program is to give the “students” a stable social network that doesn’t rely on terrorist organizations. Detainees eat and cook communally and live in rooms with fellow prisoners. Family members visit regularly, and detainees can phone them whenever they want. They can even request furlough for weddings and funerals. Families also receive generous stipends, since prisoners can’t earn money.
Once prisoners get released, the Saudi government tries to smooth the transition. The Ministry of the Interior, which organizes the rehabilitation program, often helps graduates find a job, a car, and an apartment or house. The government will also pay for their weddings. If the former extremists have family obligations and financial means, the logic goes, they’re less likely to cause trouble. The government also keeps tabs on prisoners to make sure they don’t fall in with the wrong crowd.
Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country to offer rehab to terrorists. Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Sinagpore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and now Iraq have similar programs. But none of these are as elaborate or well-funded as Saudi Arabia’s. They have different approaches, too. In Indonesia, they bring in reformed extremists to talk to detainees. (The highest profile convert was Nasir Abas, who split from the group Jemaah Islamiya after the Bali bombing in 2005 and has since become the poster child for rehabilitation.)
So, does rehab work? Recidivism figures come from the local governments, so they aren’t particularly reliable. The Saudis claim that, since 2003, they have converted and released 1,400 participants; as of 2008, only 35 of them—or 2 percent—had been rearrested. Of the 121 or so prisoners repatriated from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabia, six have been rearrested. These are, of course, cases of known recidivism. The real numbers may be much higher.
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Explainer thanks Zachary Abuza of Simmons College and Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.