Linked to an increasing emphasis on counter-ideological work as part of efforts against radical Islamic groups, several countries are developing “terrorist rehabilitation programs.”
On Feb. 24–26, RW attended an international conference on the topic in Singapore, organized by the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR). For jailed terrorists and extremists, prison can become either a place of further radicalization or offer the possibility to change one’s way of thinking—hence the idea of terrorist rehabilitation. This tends to be linked to efforts to prevent the spread of extremist ideas in the wider society.
Most “terrorist rehabilitation” efforts tend to involve the families of the jailed people as well, so that no second generation of radicals will emerge; there is also an attempt to alleviate the financial difficulties of the detainees’ wives and children (who might otherwise depend on help from extremist groups). Beside psychological, social and vocational rehabilitation, the programs emphasize religious rehabilitation. Muslim scholars visit jails and make efforts to correct the ideological views of detainees and bring them to the “correct” interpretation of Islam. One of the best-known programs was set up by Saudi Arabia following the 2003 Riyadh bombings.
According to figures quoted at the conference, more than 700 of the 2,000 people sent to the rehabilitation program have been freed, after staying at halfway houses. In Singapore, the program is conducted by the authorities in cooperation with the Muslim Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), which currently involves 38 religious counselors and is complemented by an After-Care Program, conducted by a number of members of the Muslim community.
Rehabilitation efforts have also been conducted by U.S. forces with detainees in Iraq and are being considered by some European countries, although there are some terminological and conceptual differences. For instance, the preventive dimension is taking an increasing role in the UK strategy for countering terrorism, and it includes “extremist disengagement.” For a Western scholar working on religious movements, the development of rehabilitation programs inevitably brings back memories of the cult and deprogramming controversies. There are similar tendencies to use medical metaphors: the need to “cure” the minds of terrorists.
And, in fact, there have been some direct influences from advocates of the brainwashing school of thought. However, as one high-ranking security official observed at the conference, there is no foolproof way to assess if a detainee has been rehabilitated, and no tool in the world can read a person’s mind. Moreover, reports on the motivations of jihadists presented at the conference clearly show that, as much as ideological views, what drives them is what they see as the plight of Muslim populations around the world. As long as such conditions exist, they will provide arguments for Al Qaeda’s and other groups’ propaganda and will fuel resentment and grievances, according to some presenters.
(ICPVTR: www.pvtr.org; RRG: www.rrg.sg)