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.
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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.