The setbacks, challenges and successes of U.S.-led terrorist de-radicalization programs in Yemen and Afghanistan were the focus of a panel discussion held at the Heritage Foundation’s Washington, D.C. headquarters last month.
Charles “Cully” Stimson, senior legal fellow at the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, noted that during World War II the U.S. held more than 400,000 Nazi POWs in custody in the U.S., and added that none were released during wartime. “A lot of people agree that we should not be rearming the enemy—committed Islamic jihadists—during wartime,” he said. “That’s exactly what we did during the Bush administration, for a variety of reasons, and that’s exactly what the Obama administration is intent on doing as well.”
Stimson said that although most people only focus on the detainees who are being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, other suspects are also being held in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“In Afghanistan today, under the leadership of Task Force 435, military commanders are developing a sustainable reintegration and combatant disengagement programs that, in time, will be transitioned to the government of Afghanistan for their use after the military ends detention operations,” Stimson said.
At the beginning of 2006, the U.S. began sending Guantanamo-based Saudi detainees back to Saudi Arabia to attend its de-radicalization program. (Saudi Arabia began its de-radicalization program in 2004.)
Although published reports estimate the recidivism rate of that program to be around 20 percent, Stimson said many believe those numbers are on the low side. In regard to tracking those numbers, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of the book, My Year Inside Radical Islam, said, “researchers face significant barriers in evaluating these programs,” because of the lack of transparency—being selective in choosing the data to release to the public— in governments and organizations that run the programs.
According to a Jan. 27 article, Terrorist Rehabilitation in Yemen? by Chris Harnisch of the American Enterprise Institute, “At least eleven former Guantanamo detainees who enlisted in Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program escaped surveillance of the government and were later listed on the kingdom’s infamous list of 85 most wanted terrorists. . . . One of those [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] AQAP leaders, Mohammed al Awfi, has since turned himself back in to Saudi authorities.”
Stimson said that Said Ali al Shihri, one of the detainees who left the Saudi program—Minister of the Interior [Prince] Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling & Care—is now the secretary general (second in command) of AQAP, and is suspected of being part of the 2008 attack of the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital.
Gartenstein-Ross explained that although ideology is not the only factor that influences someone to become a terrorist, it is one that researchers often overlook. “There is a need for scholars to take seriously the ideology that drives people to groups like al Qaeda,” he said. “As long as researchers are not paying attention to the ideas that drive terrorism, and the ideas that are actually at the heart of these programs, we will have a blind spot; and I think we already have examples of how that blind spot makes us less safe. We are going in as stewards of the de-radicalization programs who are not actually looking at the big picture.”
De-radicalization vs. counter-radicalization
In the process of evaluating the success of de-radicalization programs, Marissa Porges, former advisor to the Secretary of Defense’s Office of Detainee Affairs and now an international affairs fellow in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, defined the difference between de-radicalization and counter-radicalization.
She explained that de-radicalization efforts are to “work with individuals who have been picked up [and] have already committed acts, or are supporting terrorist organizations when they’re in custody, and what we are doing with them to try to rehabilitate them and change their mindset or behavior so that when they are released they won’t be as significant of a threat.” Gartenstein-Ross added that “de-radicalization programs can pose a danger in a certain circumstance: when you’re taking people who are convicted terrorists and putting them into a program where they’re being released and allegedly being de-radicalized.”
Counter-radicalization, according to Porges, entails “preventative efforts to work with vulnerable populations and try to forestall future recruitment and radicalization.” Gartenstein-Ross said an example of counter-radicalization is President Obama’s speech in Cairo, Egypt, which “presented a different face of the U.S. within the Middle East.”
Porges said that over the last five to ten years people have developed theories behind the programs and have come up with two camps: those who believe that de-radicalization is an ideological goal—focusing on changing beliefs and religious motivations by engaging the person in religious discussions and debates, and by analyzing the belief system behind their activities; and those who believe that de-radicalization is about changing behavior, and focusing more on disengagement and changing a person’s activities. When deciding which elements to use for a detainee, Porges said that, in reality, elements of the two spectrums are used. This is determined by the country involved, the circumstances of the individual involved, and which program seems to be more effective.
The questions involved in deciding which elements of a program to use are varied and, according to Porges, depend on the goal. “Is it a tactical counterterrorism goal—primarily concerned with those we have in custody—or is it a broader effort to stabilize the country involved?” she said. Other essential questions to ask include: “what is attainable and pragmatic on the timeline (how long does it take to change someone’s mind; does someone already have a sentence and a release date) for those holding the individuals; do we have the resources—clerics, mullahs and therapists; who’s running the program, is it a government-run program and is there public support—are the families involved, and, if so, how; and is it a non-secular or secular community?”
The final factor, what Porges believes is the most critical is: what are the factors of radicalization involved with those we have in custody? What path did detainees follow to join the terrorist organization—was it ideology, economic motivation (a paycheck), local grievances, or macro-grievances, i.e., U.S. policy in a specific region?
Failure of the Yemen program
The first program in the Arabian peninsula was in Yemen and ran from 2002-’05 and was comprised of 360 Mujahedeen who had returned from Afghanistan and were engaging in violent activity. The quoted success rate of the program is 98 percent, but Porges said that in her estimation, “it was hardly a success at all,” because many of the detainees had returned to Iraq and became freedom fighters. Porges added that the ideology-heavy element of the program led to its downfall because it lacked the support mechanisms needed to help detainees reintegrate into society.
Is success attainable in Afghanistan?
The newest effort in de-radicalization is being applied at the Bagram Detention Center in Bagram, Afghanistan, and is led by Gen. McChrystal. With a focus on disengagement and rehabilitation, detainees can learn English and Dari, are taught new skills, and attend art therapy classes. Porges said the program also includes a religious component and detainees meet with a mullah every day.
A Nov. 16, 2009, New York Times article describes the center as having, “. . . classrooms, vocational-technical training areas, fully equipped medical facilities, and is designed to accommodate new review boards, giving detainees a chance to challenge their internment and present evidence of their innocence.”
Since the program has only been in use for six- to eight-months, Porges said, “[it’s] too early to mark a recidivism rate, but thus far, it’s deemed a success.” The noted success is based on Porges’ interviews with former detainees and ex-Taliban who’ve since returned to their villages are able to apply the skills they learned at the detention center. The program’s goal is broad and it’s hoped that its effects are far reaching so that de-radicalization extends to family members and peers.
Porges explained that these efforts fit into broader strategies for dealing with terrorists: “the task force is using de-radicalization as a tool in the broader counter-insurgency effort; and it’s a tool that supports a broader strategic effort.”
When she spoke to Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Porges said his concern was for not only the detainees who reenter society, but also the thousands more who might be radicalized by their perception of how the Saudis are holding and treating those who are in custody, because they could become the terrorists of the future.
Gartenstein-Ross noted that the Saudi program is comprehensive in that former detainees are provided with housing, cars and jobs, but it also reinforces the state version of Islam, which is Wahhabism. He described Wahhabism as “one of the most intolerant brand of Islam in the entire world—toward other sects and toward other faiths.” And said that a high recidivism rate will mean that hostilities will be directed toward other countries, the U.S. and the West, or “toward U.S. troops in Iraq,” not toward Saudi Arabia.