For the past three years, the Saudi government has been quietly engaged in an ambitious strategy to combat violent Islamist extremist sympathies through an innovative prisoner reeducation and rehabilitation program. Following the May 2003 Riyadh compound bombings, the regime adopted a series of security measures to fight Islamist terrorism. In addition to the aggressive counter-terrorism steps taken by the government, Saudi officials have also sought to combat the support of extremist ideology in the kingdom through a series of lesser-known “soft” counter-terrorism measures aimed at combating the appeal of extremist takfiri beliefs. These measures have included a sophisticated hearts and minds campaign consisting of a combination of state-sponsored education programs, coordinated public relations and media efforts and the deployment of the government’s considerable religious resources. It is from this background that the reeducation program has emerged. While only three years old, the program was initially kept a secret in order to encourage its success away from media attention (al-Hayat, June 20, 2005). Thus far, it has generated some noteworthy results, and it is now discussed openly and frequently in the Saudi media. The program’s structure, process and relative successes, however, are all but unknown in the United States.
The counseling program to reeducate and rehabilitate terrorist sympathizers is part of a self-described “war of ideas” against extremism in the kingdom. This quiet struggle has been ongoing for some time, and the program represents a very unique Saudi solution to a Saudi problem. It incorporates many traditional Saudi methods of conflict resolution and conflict management. The fact that the program was started in secret, and not in response to outside pressures, is telling; its origins arose out of recognition in the kingdom that something had to be done to address extremist sympathies and is a tacit acknowledgment of the threat that the “war of ideas” posed.
The centerpiece of the Saudi strategy is dubbed the “counseling program,” which is intended to assist those individuals that have espoused takfiri beliefs “repent and abandon terrorist ideologies” (al-Ikhbariyah, April 27). The program seeks to de-radicalize extremist sympathizers by engaging them in intensive religious debates and psychological counseling. It is important to stress that participants in the counseling program are only terrorist sympathizers, and at the most individuals caught with jihadi propaganda. They are not individuals that have been active in terrorist violence in the kingdom; people “with blood on their hands” are barred from participating.
Structure of the Advisory Committee
The reeducation program is organized under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior . Within the ministry, the counseling program is administered by a group called the Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee is headquartered in Riyadh and has permanent representatives located in seven major cities throughout the kingdom. Members also travel to visit prisons across the country and meet with detainees throughout the kingdom.
The Advisory Committee is made up of four subcommittees: the Religious Subcommittee; the Psychological and Social Subcommittee; the Security Subcommittee; and the Media Subcommittee. The Religious Subcommittee is the largest of the four sub-groupings. It is made up of approximately 100 clerics, scholars and university professors, and it is the group that directly engages in the prisoner dialogues and the reeducation process. The Psychological and Social Subcommittee is comprised of around 30 psychologists, social scientists and researchers. They are tasked with evaluating a prisoner’s social status, diagnosing any psychological problems, assessing the prisoner’s status and compliance during the process and determining what support the prisoner and his family may need. The Security Subcommittee performs several functions: they evaluate prisoners for security risks; make release recommendations; advise prisoners on how to behave upon release; and monitor prisoners and who they associate with once they leave prison. The Media Subcommittee produces materials used in the program and also makes other educational materials for use in schools and mosques. The Media Subcommittee is focused on outreach and education, and targeting young Saudi men.
The Counseling Process
When members of the Advisory Committee initially sit with a prisoner, one of the first things that they stress is that they are not employees of the Ministry of Interior or associated with the security forces . Rather, they explain that they are independent and righteous scholars. Before the government adopted this technique, it was not uncommon for families to ask clerics and scholars to visit their family members in jail and talk with them about their behavior.
In their first meeting, committee members will simply listen to the prisoner. They ask them about what they did, why they did it and the circumstances that brought them to be in prison. Throughout the process, the scholars engage prisoners in discussions about their beliefs, and then attempt to persuade them that their religious justification for their actions is wrong and based upon a corrupted understanding of Islam. The committee first demonstrates that what the prisoners were tricked into believing was false, and then they teach them the proper state-approved interpretation of Islam.
The Advisory Committee runs two programs. The first includes short sessions, which typically run about two hours. While some prisoners recant their beliefs after the first session, typically a prisoner goes through several of these meetings. The others are called “Long Study Sessions.” These are six-week courses for up to 20 students led by two clerics and a social scientist. Ten subjects are covered over the six weeks, including instruction in such topics as takfir, walaah (loyalty) and bayat (allegiance), terrorism, jihad and psychological courses on self-esteem. At the end of the course, an exam is given; those who pass the exam move to the next stage of the process, while those who do not pass repeat the course.
Why Does it Work?
The Counseling Program is based upon a presumption of benevolence, and not vengeance or retribution. It presumes that the suspects were abused, lied to and misled by extremists into straying away from “true Islam,” and that the state wants to help security prisoners return to the correct path. The vast majority of prisoners who have participated in the program, according to research conducted by the Advisory Committee, have been found to not have had a religious education during their childhood . Most of the prisoners have been found by the committee to have an incomplete understanding of Islam, and the majority have been radicalized through extremist books, tapes, videos and, more recently, the internet. The Counseling Program, therefore, seeks to “correct” this misunderstanding by reinforcing the official state version of Islam.
Moreover, the state is able to marshal its considerable religious authority to confer legitimacy on the process. The fact that a number of former militant figures have joined the Advisory Committee adds further legitimacy for some prisoners. The presence of such figures carries credibility with a number of participants in the program, as it was their da’wa (proselytization) that led many to initially radicalize.
Another critical component of the Saudi Counseling Program is the attention given to a prisoner’s social needs. The Psychological and Social Subcommittee evaluates each participant to determine how best the Advisory Committee can assist them and their family. For instance, once a breadwinner is incarcerated, the committee provides the family with an alternate salary. Other needs, including children’s schooling and family healthcare, are also provided. This is intended to offset further radicalization brought on by the detention of family members. It is acknowledged by officials that when the government arrests someone, that memory lingers, and this social support is intended to offset that hardship somewhat. The government further recognizes that if they fail to do this, then it is possible that extremist elements will move in to provide this support.
This support then continues upon release. Prisoners who have successfully completed the rehabilitation process and have satisfactorily renounced their previous beliefs are given assistance in locating jobs and other benefits, including additional government stipends, cars and apartments. Upon release, they are required to check in with authorities, and are encouraged to continue meeting with the scholars they were speaking with while in prison. Many, for instance, often continue to attend their study circles at mosque after being released. Furthermore, rehabilitated prisoners are encouraged to settle down, marry and have children, in part because it is understood that it is much more difficult for young men to get into trouble once they become obligated with family responsibilities.
The successes of the program are compounded by the Advisory Committee’s application of these social support programs to a prisoner’s larger family network. The Ministry of Interior augments this support with the delivery of the message that a prisoner’s larger family network is also responsible for his behavior upon his release. The use of Saudi social networks, familial obligations and extended responsibilities adds an additional dimension to the program.
Since its inception in 2004, roughly 2,000 prisoners have participated in the counseling program, and 700 have renounced their former beliefs and been released. All of the released prisoners have been men, according to Dr. Muhammad al-Nujaymi of the Advisory Committee (al-Madinah, April 20). Approximately 1,000 prisoners remain incarcerated. According to published reports, about 1,400 prisoners have refused to participate in the program. Saudi authorities have acknowledged that some prisoners have sought to actively work against the program. These prisoners are individuals who know that they will not be able to get out and feel that they can do the most good for the cause by attempting to frustrate the authorities’ attempts to turn prisoners. In many respects, their desire to work against the counseling program from the inside demonstrates to some extent the successes of the Advisory Committee.
Thus far, the program has produced results, with Saudi authorities claiming an 80-90 percent success rate. Admittedly, it is difficult to measure the relative success of the counseling program, especially only several years into the program. However, according to Saudi authorities, only nine individuals have been re-arrested for security offenses since their release through the counseling program, equating to a recidivist rate of between one and two percent .
Support for the counseling program is far from universal in Saudi Arabia. Some within the establishment have expressed the opinion that several sudden executions would do more to demonstrate the state’s resolve to fight extremist ideology than the counseling program .
The Advisory Committee and the counseling program have also come under criticism in the press (al-Madinah, May 21-22). They have been accused of not producing results and of conducting its activities in secret (al-Watan, April 30; ar-Riyad, May 3). Since the late April announcement by Saudi authorities of a series of security arrests, the counseling program has been criticized for the way in which it operates, with commentators calling for more force to be used in the kingdom’s counter-terrorism efforts (Terrorism Focus, May 1; Okaz, May 8). It has been argued that prisoners will say anything in order to be released from prison, and therefore the affirmations of militants to renounce their takfiri beliefs cannot be trusted (ar-Riyad, May 8). While the counseling program is far from perfect, the use of psychological assessments, social support and religious belief has helped to weed out disingenuous participants.
In only several years, Saudi Arabia’s counseling program has generated some very intriguing results. The problem posed by extremism is not one that can be addressed by hard security measures alone, and the counseling program demonstrates the benefits that can come through critical engagement in the “war of ideas.” This understudied program—and other similar programs in Yemen, Egypt and Singapore—warrants greater attention in the West as the successes being generated hold applicable lessons for other countries struggling with extremism.
1. Data in the section is based on author interviews and research in Saudi Arabia, March 2007, including interviews with Dr. Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, advisor to HRH assistant minister of interior for security affairs and Major General Mansour al-Turki, official security spokesman, Ministry of Interior, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 2007.
2. Interviews with al-Hadlaq and al-Turki, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 2007.
3. Author interview with Dr. Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, Advisor to HRH the Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 2007.
4. This data is based on author’s interviews in Saudi Arabia, March 2007, and before the major arrests announced in late April (see Terrorism Focus, May 1). It was subsequently reported in the Saudi media that one of the cell leaders arrested in that sweep had been released through the counseling program, bringing the number of re-arrests to 10. Thanks to Greg Gause for providing this citation.
5. Based on author interviews, Saudi Arabia, March 2007.