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Extremism rehab: Saudi Arabia's innovative approach to de-radicalisation

Inmates are encouraged to participate in a range of activities at the centre [Getty]

Date of publication: 24 June, 2015

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In the face of serious threats to its domestic security by the Islamic State group, Saudi Arabia is expanding its much praised, and innovative de-radicalisation, anti extremism programme.
As Saudi Arabia confronts a new and very real domestic threat from the Islamic State group, it is expanding its groundbreaking program to rehabilitate extremists.

More than 2,500 Saudis are said to be fighting with the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. More than 650 of these have returned to home, and they pose a very real threat to the kingdom. The IS has killed 40 Saudi civilians and security personnel since November.

     What is the secret? It is that the ideas we carry cannot be cured by weapons only. It also requires an ideological cure
- Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef
Perhaps surprisingly, Saudi Arabia's answer has been a world away from the drone strikes and torture favoured by Western states in the war on terror; it has ramped up its de-radicalisation programme of counter-indoctrination by moderate Islamic clerics, sociologists and psychologists.

Located near Riyad, the Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Advice, Counselling and Care, as the rehab centre is formally known, is a key element of the kingdom's counter-terrorism arsenal.

Founded in 2007 by the prince whose name it bears - himself the target of several assassination attempts - its aim was the rehabilitation through religious re-education and psychological counselling of militants responsible for an earlier wave of al-Qaida bombings, shootings and kidnappings from 2003-2006.

With hundreds of militants filling up the kingdom's prisons, the centre's focus was on trying to prevent those who had served their sentences from taking up arms again. It has treated some 3,000 men convicted of terrorism-related crimes, including all those released to Saudi custody from Guantanamo Bay, and claims a success rate of 87 percent.

Of the 13 percent, roughly 390, who returned to militancy, half have been rearrested. Several turned up in Yemen to lead the local al-Qaida branch there.

From radicalisation to rehabilitation

  

Former al-Qaeda Islamists pray at the rehabilitation centre in 2009 [Getty]

One of the centre's much-feted success stories is Badr al-Enezi. For most of his 20s, all Enezi could think about was becoming a jihadi fighter. After getting in touch with former Guantanamo Bay prisoners who had returned to militancy, he began plotting how to take up arms.

Instead, he was caught by Saudi authorities and spent six months in prison. The six months after that were far different: he dabbled with art therapy, played soccer and enjoyed perks like an Olympic-size pool and a sauna at a rehab centre for convicted extremists.

Gourmet-style meals were prepared for him at the palm-tree-lined complex on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and his laundry was taken care of. He was treated "like a brother," he says.

Equally important, he was challenged to think differently about Islam.

And now, after successfully completing the de-radicalisation program in 2012 and renouncing any notion of fighting abroad, he serves as a mentor for new entrants to the centre, named after Saudi Arabia's powerful interior minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

"What is the secret? It is that the ideas we carry cannot be cured by weapons only. It also requires an ideological cure," the 30-year-old says of the facility, which in many ways serves as the centrepiece of Saudi Arabia's counter-terrorism strategy.

At the centre, inmates - called "beneficiaries" by staff - are housed in a complex of low-rise buildings, whose resort-like appearance is belied by the concrete walls, barbed wire and armed guards that surround it. Contact with family is encouraged, and participants are given access to private, fully-furnished apartments for conjugal visits with spouses.


If the centre's team of experts deems an inmate mentally fit for release, they help him find a job, rent a house, buy a car and assimilate back into society.

Speaking to The Associated Press in front of psychologists at the centre, al-Enezi said the program helped him understand religious doctrine through a different prism from what he'd learned online.

Clerics explained the Quran to him in a way that led him to believe whoever fights in jihad abroad is "serving a foreign agenda."

How effective is de-radicalisation?

John Horgan, author of "The Psychology of Terrorism," says the Saudis took the idea of de-radicalisation seriously.

However, he says many see the Saudis as hypocritical when claiming moral high ground on counterterrorism efforts because they haven't prevented citizens from joining extremist groups in the first place.

"Some critics would say that this isn't true de-radicalisation, this is just a diversion. It's smoke and mirrors," Horgan says. "What I've seen so far is that it's just a token gesture. It's very good for the optics and very good for public relations."

Mohammed al-Nimr, whose brother is an outspoken Saudi Shia cleric, says changing the mindset of young men through the rehab program is not enough. An overhaul of the education system is needed as part of the counterterrorism strategy, he said.

The turn to the Islamic State group by young Saudis "is a result of the ideological terrorism that is taught in our schools," he says. "They do not teach anyone to respect people with contrary views. They use religious justification for the killing of these people."

The kingdom's Shia population

  
Visitors are taken on a tour of a new de-radicalisation centre near Riyad [Getty]

The kingdom's counterterrorism efforts have been complicated by the kingdom's regional competition with Iran, which has stoked anti-Shia rhetoric from hard-line Saudi clerics and fuelled attacks on the country's Shia Muslim minority, viewed by extremists like the Islamic State group as apostates.

Across the kingdom, Saudi officials and commentators slam Iran as an expansionist power that seeks to dominate the region, but conservative clerics take it even further, using language that is often laced with derogatory references to Shia in general.

In sermons and on Twitter, these clerics, who follow the ultraconservative Sunni Wahhabi doctrine, refer to Shia as "rafideen," an Arabic slur meaning "rejectionists."

They condemn Shia rituals, like praying at the tombs of revered figures, as an aberration of Islam and accuse Shia of being faithful to hard-line clerics in theocratic Iran.

When 20-year-old suicide bomber Saleh bin Abdelrahman al-Qashimi unleashed the deadliest attack in the kingdom in more than a decade, targeting a Shia mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia last month, his uncle blamed hard-line Wahhabi clerics for encouraging young men like his nephew toward extremism.

"They plant the seed in their minds," Mohammed Abdelrazzak al-Qashimi said of his nephew, who had disappeared a year before carrying out the May 22 attack, which killed 22 worshippers.

That bombing, and an attack a week later that killed four people outside a large mosque in the eastern city of Dammam, were claimed by the Islamic State group. Residents in eastern Saudi Arabia, home to most of the country's Shia, erected a banner with screenshots of 11 Wahhabi preachers and their anti-Shia tweets. "These are the real killers," it read.

For many Saudi Shias, the attacks, which began in November when eight worshippers were gunned down by alleged Islamic State militants, have come as no surprise.

For nearly three years, clerics across the Gulf urged young men to join in 'jihad' and purge Syria of its Iranian-backed government - sermons that helped draw thousands of Saudis to fight alongside Sunni rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad. That was until last year, when the kingdom decreed it illegal to fight 'jihad' abroad or encourage it.

Many of those who have since returned home have brought with them skills learned on foreign battlefields. So the Islamic State group changed tactics. It called on its Saudi supporters to carry out attacks inside the kingdom, custodian to Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.

For this new generation of home-grown extremists, the Islamic State group's ideology is attractive because its fighters are on the ground battling Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, says Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, director of ideological security at the Interior Ministry and a founder of the rehab centre.

The militant group, which was once al-Qaida in Iraq, "tricked a lot of youth," who saw them as the only force taking on the Shia militias, he says, adding that his agency was revising its strategies to counter the dangers posed by the Islamic State group.

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