A counseling program that employs Muslim clerics to rebut extremist views of detainees has steadily reduced their numbers over the past four years in Singapore, suggesting that religious-based rehabilitation may offer an alternative to indefinite detention without trial in the US-led war on terrorism.
Faced with swelling detention centers, US military commanders in Iraq have begun to take note. In recent months, they have introduced religious-education programs for adults and juveniles that are modeled, in part, on Singapore's and on a much larger program in Saudi Arabia.
Setbacks in a similar program in Yemen, shelved in 2005 because of high rates of recidivism, had raised doubts about the approach. Experts also distinguish between rehabilitating low-level sympathizers and hardened leaders of terrorist groups, groups, who may see little to gain from cooperating with authorities.
But proponents say that an effective counterterrorism strategy must include efforts to combat religious indoctrination, especially for suspects held behind bars. Injustice is a recruiting tool, and open-ended detention of suspects is an affront to many Muslims. Releasing them into the community armed with Islamic teachings that debunk Al Qaeda's do-or-die rhetoric can help to win a "war of ideas," the proponents argue.
"Deprogramming is not 100-percent successful. Among suspects that you rehabilitate, some will go back (to militancy). But it's the only intelligent thing to do," says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Nanyang Technological University and a consultant on the Singaporean program. "We've planted a seed.… Iraq was the beginning. I believe America can take this idea to Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and other areas."
Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, who oversees US detention facilities in Iraq, told defense bloggers this month that religious courses at Camp Cropper had helped to "bring some of the edge off" detainees who often had only a limited grasp of Islamic jurisprudence.
General Stone, who speaks Arabic and reads the Koran daily, said that "a few hundred" had undergone the program, part of a broader new effort to offer training and education to detainees. More than 25,000 Iraqis are currently in US custody.
By comparison, Singapore, a rich, security-conscious city-state located on Asia's busiest sea lane, is a dot on the jihadist map.
Since 2001, when authorities disrupted a plot by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a regional Al Qaeda affiliate, to attack Western and Singaporean targets here, around 70 people have been detained under internal security laws that allow detention without trial. More than one third of them have since been released from jail or house arrest after cooperating with authorities. One has been rearrested for allegedly contacting foreign militants.
Launched in 2003, the Religious Rehabilitation Group has 21 volunteer clerics who lead weekly one-on-one counseling sessions with detainees to "correct their misinterpretations" of Islam, says Mohammed bin Ali, one of the clerics who works in the group secretariat. By systematically exposing the distortions of JI doctrine, the counselors show how Muslims can live devoutly in multifaith Singapore, where they make up around 15 percent of its 4.2 million population. The government-funded group also hosts public forums and runs a website (www.rrg.sg).
'No one is born a terrorist'
"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.
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.