Success Factors for Terrorism Rehabilitation

The concept of prisoner rehabilitation is not new. Several European countries, in addition to their regular closed prisons, also have open prisons where prisoners are called clients, there is little security, the living conditions are rather luxurious, they can leave the facility for short periods of time and have provisions for conjugal visits. In some of these countries the open prisons also include rehabilitation programs (e.g. Sweden, Finland, Greenland, Denmark, Norway and Netherlands) whereas in others (e.g. UK) open prisons are just prisons with very limited security.

The difference between the rehab programs in the Scandinavian countries and what Saudi Arabia is implementing is the type of person who ends up going to each. The former tends to house the mildest, least dangerous criminals compared to the latter that are working on people who are intent on killing others based on hatred.

Given the “clientele” of the Saudi rehab program it is imperative that they succeed. As reported by CNN, Libya has implemented a similar program, Yemen will be building a facility (US funded) and Pakistan is considering setting one up as well.

Some issues that need to be addressed include (in no particular order):

  • Program length – this was covered in my previous post on the topic
  • Religious legitimacy- Saudi Arabia is considered the home of Islam by many and thus scholars/professors/teachers educated in KSA have enormous respect and legitimacy across the globe. Having Saudi educated instructors at these rehab programs would actually be helpful as a counter-balance to the militant recruiters who carry similar credentials.
  • Funding- this is a tricky issue as the source of the funding impacts the perception of who is driving the initiative and if it respectable. A US funded program to rehab Muslims to not hate the US after being imprisoned by the US for 5-6 years without charges smacks of pandering to US interests alone. However, countries like Yemen and Pakistan do not have sufficient resources to natively implement such programs without external assistance. Maybe President Obama should send money for relief efforts in Gaza and Saudi Arabia can send similar amounts to Yemen and Pakistan instead!
  • Psychological help- many of these militants have developed mental/psychological issues due to the conditions they have endured and what they have seen. Several of them have attempted suicide. This is a huge red-flag as suicide is considered a major sin in Islam and for a person who was willing to die and kill others in the name of religion, it takes an unthinkable amount of despair, hopelessness and depression to want to commit suicide (it is the opposite end of the spectrum from being a martyr).
  • Post-completion assistance. Prisoners at these programs need assistance to be able to succeed in life after they are released:
  1. Education (literacy)
  2. Vocational training
  3. Job placement
  4. Assistance in getting married
  5. On-going support groups and sessions to ensure they do not fall off the bandwagon again.
  • Phased release. This will be important to ensure that when the prisoners are first released they do not flail around trying to find a place for themselves in society. They need to gradually integrate with society, with support instead of being left to fend for themselves. Part of this could include having working villages that can be manned by prisoners (close to being released) where they can live with their families.

2009 Gloom & Doom Update: Outlook Playing Out- Iceland Govt Collapse

Remember my previous post on what 2009 will look like?  One of the things I had mentioned was growing unrest in Europe.

Yesterday, Iceland’s government collapsed and there are demonstrations across Europe. Spain, Greece, Lithuania, Latvia and Iceland have all seen protests. France, Germany and United Kingdom have been spared the demonstrations- they are also countries that have invested the most in stimulus packages.

As a reminder of what I had said:

2009 will be a year of despair for many.

The upcoming year is going to be hard on many people. The global financial situation is going to get worse before it gets better. SAVE! SAVE! SAVE! Everything you save will be needed later. If you have a miserable job, don’t quit yet. If you do not have a job, grab what you can. It will be worse than many of us remember. None of the indicators are pointing towards anything good.

Expect an escalation in crimes like theft. Expect an increase in riots and protests in various Asian hotspots. Expect growing unrest in Europe. North American social welfare systems will get taxed to their breaking point.

Cracks will emerge that will over the next 5 years result in the changing of some national boundaries.

More of these will be playing out as the year progresses.

Rehabilitation, Brainwashing and Terrorism

Several years ago I was one of two speakers at a government workshop on methods for threat anticipation using social complexity theories. One of the interesting nuggets my co-speaker mentioned was that it takes two years to brainwash a person.

Apparently two years is about the time it takes to physically rewire the brain to think in a particular way without needing external reinforcement. By the way, this is also about the same time one needs to gain fluency in a new language. We also know that it takes a minimum of  three weeks of constant repetition to make any action into a habit however it needs continuous reinforcement to stick (think of Marine boot camp). 

Saudi Arabia has a rehabilitation program for ex-Guantanamo bay prisoners and others who have been captured and classified as militant jihadists. It is supposed to provide a place where people are taught “correct” Islam and provides a step towards social integration into normal life.  9 of the 218 attendees (109 from Gitmo) have been re-arrested, with two more rather infamous (ex-gitmo 333 and 372) as they have surfaced as heads of Yemen terror cells. The government claims the program is still successful and there is no reason to doubt them except for the issue of program length.

Is the rehab program long enough? We know as a fact that it is shorter than 1 year as prisoner 372 was released from Guantanamo in 2007, released from rehab and plotting attacks in Yemen by September 2008. Even if we ignore the theories on time to brainwash/program/deprogram people, common sense prods us towards longer rehab.

After captivity in cages for four/five/six years everyone who was taken to Gitmo, whether already a militant or not, is certainly going to come out as a potential militant. Several of them have mental illnesses caused by the conditions of their imprisonment. The Saudi rehabilitation program has to reverse the effects of both the hatred of Al-Qaeda and the inhumanity of the US government.

This uphill task requires intense psychological treatments, longer deprogramming, extended rehab and a phased approach to release. Integration into society should be gradual with support groups provided for the person released as well as for the family. Vocational training needs to be provided as well as job placement. Society has to recognize that they all have a responsibility towards rehab of militants, not just the government.

Yemen is planning on starting a similar program that will be funded by the US. Let us see how they fare.

Categorizing Change in Society

Disclaimer: these are thoughts stewing in my head for a little bit. This can eventually become a white paper by refining the following ideas and adding modes of dealing with each.

Change tends to sweep in at different speeds depending on the trigger. A rough way to categorize it is the following:

  • Evolution- this is small, continuous change that happens in systems over long periods of time. Depending on the system being examined evolution plays out over decades and centuries.
  • Reform– this takes generations before it is fully entrenched in peoples mind-sets (a generation is around 20-25 years long). One generation is enough to implement changes and it takes about another generation before the memories of “before” are mostly gone, or at least irrelevant. This tends to start at the top; it requires strong leadership with a long term vision, adequate planning and implementation. This is a proactive role that is necessary to ensure a smooth transition from one status quo to the next.
  • Revolution– this takes years to achieve. This is a word that most governments fear as it is usually assumed to be violent. The connotation is that change will OVERTHROW the status quo. Revolutions are often bottom-up and occur when the status quo gets too oppressive and there is apparently (too) little happening at the top. The conditions for revolution fester when reform is not iterative and the status quo stagnates in a bad place.
  • Crisis– this takes weeks to months to play out. It can cause serious (sometimes irreparable) social fractures. How it is dealt with often sets the tone for other scenarios to play out as they are invariably the catalyst for other types of changes. What is interesting about crises is that they are a consequence of the interaction between internal and external factors. Inadequate anticipation, ignoring causality and avoidance of feedback tend to aggravate crises.
  • Catastrophe– these happen in days to weeks and are often precipitated by external factors. There are limited response options available once events have started playing out.

Each of these modes of change is roughly an order of magnitude smaller than the previous one in the list (decades, years, months, weeks etc).

Saudi Patience: USA and Iran

Prince Turki al-Faisal wrote a strongly worded letter on Thursday to President Obama regarding Gaza/Israel and the impact it can have on the special US-Saudi relationship.

The content can be seen at the Financial Times web-site. One of the things it mentioned was a letter President Ahmedinejad of Iran wrote to King Abdullah,

explicitly recognising Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds

Clearly something I had missed seeing in the news last week.

This was surprising as both KSA and Iran have been bandying for regional hegemony in the past. An open declaration that unites the Shias and the Sunnis could be a harbinger of more cooperation in the future as well. It can also change the stakes and influence that can be exerted on international politics to seriously and fairly address the conflict.

It turns out that what President Ahmedinejad wrote was slightly different. As per the Irani Press TV what he actually called King Abdullah was his official title/position :

the Saudi Arabian King and the Custodian of the Two Holy Places, i.e Makkah and Medina

Sighhh, my excitement was premature. President Obama, King Abdullah and President Ahmedinejad are no closer to each other today as they were yesterday. But hope springs eternal , after all, tomorrow is another day!

Images of Saudi Arabia: Camel Crossing



Watch out for camels! Sometimes they will stroll across the highway and sometimes they will simply stand 🙂

Martin Luther King, Jr Day

Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr day in the US. It is the third Monday each January, commemorating the birth of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr on January 15, 1929. He was an iconic civil rights leader who would have been 80 years old this year if he had not been assassinated at a young 39 years of age.

America would have been a different place if the civil rights movement had not happened. In fact, much of the moral high ground that the US claims nowadays is because of what America became after the 60s because of leaders like MLK, Jr.

One year ago around this same time, we were participating in an MLK interfaith peace walk in Leesburg and talking to Obama supporters about voting for change. This year has been considerably less eventful in sunny Riyadh as we watch inauguration activities on television . Let’s see what next year will bring!