From the June 2008 issue of Strategic Comments, journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)in London:
Rehabilitating the jihadists
Saudi Arabia tackles the radical threat from within
A programme aimed at reintegrating jihadists into society forms an important and innovative part of Saudi Arabia's efforts to deal with radicals. So far, it appears to be a success – albeit a qualified one.
Saudi Arabia's realisation that it was facing a threat stemmed not only from the activities of Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader and son of a Saudi construction magnate; in the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi.
In May 2003, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) launched a campaign of violence that resulted in nearly 300 casualties over 18 months. Among the victims were 90 civilians, including some Westerners, 40 police and 150 of AQAP's own militants, many of whom fought to the death or committed suicide rather than be captured by the authorities.
Facing the threat
Initially it appeared the Saudi security forces might be overwhelmed by the violence, which had been planned over several years by a group of Afghanistan veterans with a network of safe houses, funding and weaponry. But the Saudi Interior Ministry's intelligence and security agency, the Mabahith, underwent a change in leadership and focus, and received considerable US intelligence support. By the end of 2005 it was able to eliminate much of the AQAP leadership and to detain as many as 1,000 of the group's adherents and sympathisers.
However, the threat from AQAP was merely contained, not eliminated. In 2006 a car-bomb attack on Saudi Arabia's main oil refinery at Abqaiq, which failed but came alarmingly close to succeeding, served as a reminder of the scale of AQAP ambitions. Since then the Mabahith has made a stream of pre-emptive arrests and thwarted a major plot to fly hijacked aircraft into Saudi oil facilities involving more than 170 suspects. As a reminder that foreigners were still at risk, four French tourists were murdered in 2007 while travelling in the desert.
At the same time as dealing with an internal terrorism threat, the Saudi government was confronted with large numbers of Saudi nationals – estimated at anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 – making their way to Iraq to take part in jihad against the US-led coalition. Others were engaging in jihadi support activities such as fund-raising. As well as creating tensions with the United States, these activities posed a further security problem within Saudi Arabia, particularly as some jihadist volunteers who did not become suicide bombers returned to the kingdom.
However, of even greater concern to the Saudi authorities was their growing awareness of the radicalisation of large numbers of young Saudi men to the point where they were ready to embrace a culture of nihilism and death.
Alarmed by a threat that was hard to quantify and address, the Saudi authorities began both to research the phenomenon of radicalisation and to implement counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation programmes. The Saudi government has acknowledged that, as Keeper of the Two Holy Places (Mecca and Medina), it is obliged to show leadership in seeking to change perceptions within the Islamic world, and to this end it has begun to engage with other Islamic states, as well as Western scholars with appropriate expertise.
Distinct types of radical
There are two generations of Saudi extremists. The first comprises veterans of the Afghan conflict against the Soviet Union, whose actions enjoyed the support of the Saudi state. It was this group, some of whose members were professional jihadists in Bosnia and Chechnya, which comprised the AQAP leadership. The second group is made up of younger men, typically high-school graduates in their twenties, motivated by the US invasion of Iraq.
Mabahith studies of jihadist detainees suggest most are self-radicalised, often via the Internet, and recruited to undertake jihad by either friends or family members. Generally lacking a sophisticated understanding of Islam, their spiritual inspiration comes from individuals as diverse as Osama bin Laden and Saudi clerics issuing fatwas that justify violent jihad, such as Sheikh Hamood al-Uqla, Safer al Hawali and Ali bin Khudhair al-Khudhair. Radicals' role models are men of action, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian close associate of Osama bin Laden, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,the Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia who was killed in a 2006 American air-strike.
Saudi Arabia's counter-radicalisation programme focuses on working with the Saudi religious establishment, the Ulema, to promote what by Saudi standards are moderate interpretations of Islam. A case in point is a fatwa issued at the end of 2007 by the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Mohamed al-Sheikh, declaring that participation in violent jihad is only permissible if it has the authority of the state. Tellingly, this fatwa drew for its authority on sources such as Ibn Taymiyya, the twelfth-century Syrian theologian frequently cited in al-Qaeda's own pronouncements.
The programme's other area of focus is the Internet. The Mabahith has devoted substantial resources to monitoring jihadist websites and has developed techniques, both overt and covert, for countering extremist ideologies.
However, the most visible aspect of the Saudi response is a well-resourced de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programme begun in 2004. This scheme, known as the Central Security Project, is designed to offer a way back into society for Saudi nationals detained for jihadist activities. It also encompasses some 100 Saudi nationals who were held in US detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, almost all of whom have now been released back into Saudi custody.
Under this programme, detainees can volunteer to re-enter society via a 'half-way house' rehabilitation facility, of which five so far have been built in Riyadh, Qassim, Abha, Damma and Jeddah. The planned capacity of these well-built and -staffed institutions is 6,700, although current capacity is 3,000.
The starting point for rehabilitation is the presumption that those who have fallen prey to jihadist influences are victims. During a two-month residential stay, participants undergo a range of programmes covering religious doctrine, social and economic issues, plus various forms of therapy including art and sports. Family visits are permitted and there is constant psychological evaluation. Participation in specific classes and activities is supposedly voluntary, but in practice participants have no option but to attend if they wish to complete the process and reintegrate into society.
Meanwhile, participants' families receive financial support from the Saudi state; indeed the families of all detainees receive such aid irrespective of whether or not they consent to enter rehabilitation. Support is extended to the participants themselves once they successfully complete the programme and in their case can include the provision of housing, cars, jobs and even help with finding a wife.
Participants are released into society against guarantees from both their family and tribe, who jointly provide an informal round-the-clock surveillance capability that offers the state a high degree of assurance against the risk of recidivism. (The Saudi experiment may be difficult to replicate in societies lacking these structures.) Almost all participants emerging from the programme face an indefinite ban on foreign travel.
The Saudi government acknowledges that the rehabilitation programme has little impact on hard-core jihadists, most of whom have opted to remain in high-security prisons rather than make compromises with what they consider an apostate regime. The majority of those undergoing rehabilitation are low-level security threats, primarily those involved in fundraising for jihad in Iraq. Most of these seem to have little difficulty completing the programme.
More challenging are the Guantanamo Bay returnees, many of whom are suffering major psychological problems after a long period in an administrative and judicial limbo.
Few Guantanamo returnees have admitted to jihadist activities, with most attributing their presence in Afghanistan before 11 September either to missionary work or tourism. Many Saudi religious teachers did encourage their students to visit the 'perfect' Islamic state created by the Taliban, so this claim is not as implausible as it might not seem, although it was unsurprisingly met by scepticism from US interrogators. The degree to which this Guantanamo group can be successfully reintegrated into society remains to be determined.
Overall, however, recidivism rates from the programme appear low. The Saudi Interior Ministry claims an 80% success rate. Of the 20% who re-offend, most appear to end up back in prison, although state support for their families is maintained.
Partly because of the relatively short period it has been in operation, the success of the rehabilitation programme is difficult to assess more fully. The Saudi judicial system under which alleged jihadists have been detained is criticised as lacking important elements of due process. As a result, many of those entering the programme may do so less out of a genuine sense of repentance than because it is the only alternative to indefinite incarceration.
The stock, seemingly rote-learned answers given by participants when interviewed by outsiders raise doubts about how much genuine change has been achieved. Some critics have argued the programme's real effect has not been to change individual attitudes towards religious extremism, but simply to use a combination of pressure and generous financial inducements to persuade individuals to renounce the use of violence inside the kingdom, while ensuring they will be unable to export it elsewhere.
Criticism has also been levelled against the Saudi government for failing to deal with some of the wider issues related to violent extremism emanating from the kingdom. This is particularly true of terrorist financing. As recently as April 2008, when testifying to the Senate Finance Committee, US Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey said: 'Saudi Arabia today remains the location where more money is going to terrorism, to Sunni terror groups and the Taliban, than any other place in the world.'
He criticised the Saudi authorities for failing to establish financial intelligence structures or to take action against Saudi nationals designated by the US government as terrorist sponsors.
Rebutting the criticisms
These American claims have been vigorously denied by the Saudi government, which says that much has been done, albeit without publicity. In fact, the Saudi government has taken steps more effectively to police the activities of charitable foundations, but may have more difficulty monitoring less formal mechanisms for transmitting funds, such as the hawala system.
The other area of concern is the Saudi state's continued support for Wahhabi activity. While it is true that Wahhabism does not sanction violent jihad, the introduction of this conservative brand of Islam into other Muslim communities has arguably had disruptive consequences.
Despite these criticisms, it is nonetheless important to recognise how far Saudi Arabia has come in acknowledging and dealing with extremism within the kingdom. The resources it has devoted to counter- and de-radicalisation projects, and the undoubted commitment of those engaged in this work, suggest that this is far from just a token effort designed to ward off external censure.