U.S. tries rehab for religious extremists
Singapore has reduced its detainee ranks with Islamic reeducation.
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"We believe in rehabilitation. No one is born a terrorist. No one wakes up one morning and says I'm going to be a terrorist. It's indoctrination … and we're trying to bring them back to normalcy," says Mr. bin Ali, who has briefed US military officials in Iraq on Singapore's program.Skip to next paragraph
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Neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia have also sought to rehabilitate JI detainees using moderate Muslim teachings, with varying degrees of success. In Indonesia, where JI bombed two Bali nightclubs in 2002, a disillusioned ex-JI leader has helped authorities to convince former colleagues to abandon their violent struggle for an Islamic state. Some reformed militants in Singapore have played a similar role.
Malaysia's prisoner-release program depends as much on coercion – the threat of harsher punishment for reoffenders – as theological reeducation, says Zachary Abuza, a professor at Simmons College in Boston who has studied the programs. That points up a potential weakness of trying to reeducate militants without putting anyone on trial, as Indonesia has successfully done with the bombers who hit Bali and other targets. Both Singapore or Malaysia rely on open-ended detention.
"In Indonesia, unless you have a death or life sentence, there is light at the end of the tunnel without recanting. People enter into rehab programs there because they want to," Mr. Abuza says.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has enrolled around 2,000 prisoners in its religious counseling program, and roughly 700 have been released. Nine have since been rearrested, says Christopher Boucek, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University who is tracking the Saudi program. A parallel program has also begun for dozens of Saudis sent back from Guantánamo Bay in recent years.
Saudi Arabia uses family support networks to bring poorly educated Al Qaeda recruits into the program and show them how they were tricked by corrupted Islamic teachings. Detainees that participated in violent attacks aren't eligible. Hundreds of other hardened militants have also refused to join.
Despite the program's initial success, some Saudi government officials say that public executions would send a tougher message to wrongdoers, says Mr. Boucek. But proponents argue that the release of rehabilitated detainees is a more effective rebuttal of militant propaganda. "The state is fighting a war of ideas.… as part of this process, what they're doing with these guys is showing that if you cooperate with the state, bad things don't happen," he says.
Still, applying these lessons to US counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq may be a stretch, say terrorist experts with experience there.
Any effective rehabilitation program needs to be based on the motivations and beliefs of Iraqi detainees and their prospects for reintegration into a conflict zone. Having warehoused thousands of insurgents in giant holding pens, US military officials face the uphill task of trying to weed out religious and sectarian insurgents from hired gunmen and criminals.
Can it work amid violent insurgency?
Edward O'Connell, a senior analyst at RAND Corp. who is studying Iraqi detainee motivations for the Pentagon, warns that religious education in camps could backfire if not targeted correctly. He said Stone's belief in theological debate to rebut extremism, while laudable, was untested in the maelstrom of a violent insurgency. "You've got to be careful with reeducation and rehabilitation. You don't want to enhance the union of religion and criminality and nationalism in a troubled state," he says.