Saudi rehab for convicted extremists
Riyadh - For most of his 20s, all Badr al-Enezi could think about was becoming a jihadi fighter. After getting in touch with former Guantanamo Bay prisoners who had returned to militancy, he plotted how to take up arms.
However, he was caught by Saudi authorities and spent six months in prison. His next six months in detention were far different: He dabbled with art therapy, played football and enjoyed perks such as swimming in an Olympic-size pool and relaxing in a sauna at a rehab centre for convicted extremists.
Equally important, he was challenged to think differently about Islam.
After completing the de-radicalisation programme and renouncing notions of fighting abroad, he now serves as a mentor for new entrants to the centre, named after Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz.
“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 counterterrorism strategy.
As the kingdom faces a new domestic threat from the Islamic State (ISIS), it is revving up the groundbreaking programme that aims to rehabilitate extremists through months of indoctrination by moderate Islamic clerics, sociologists and psychologists.
The effort is 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 minority, viewed by Sunni extremists such as ISIS as apostates.
For many Saudi Shias, the attacks, which began in November when eight worshippers were gunned down by alleged ISIS 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 more than 2,500 Saudis to fight alongside Sunni rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. That was until 2014 when the kingdom decreed it illegal to fight jihad abroad or encourage it.
The Interior Ministry says about 650 fighters have returned to Saudi Arabia, bringing back with them what they learned on foreign battlefields. So ISIS changed tactics and called on its Saudi supporters to carry out attacks inside the kingdom, which is custodian to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.
For this new generation of home-grown extremists, ISIS’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-Qaeda 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 ISIS.
A key element of the kingdom’s counterterrorism arsenal is the Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Advice, Counselling and Care, as the rehab facility is formally known.
Founded in 2007 by the prince, who has been the target of several assassination attempts, its aim was the rehabilitation through religious re-education and psychological counselling of militants responsible for a wave of al-Qaeda bombings, shootings and kidnappings from 2003.
With hundreds of militants filling the kingdom’s prisons, the centre’s focus was on trying to prevent those who had served their sentences from taking up arms again. The rehab centre has treated about 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%.
Of the 13% — about 390 men — who returned to militancy, half have been rearrested. Several turned up in Yemen, leading the local al-Qaeda branch there.
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 experts deem an inmate mentally fit for release, they help him find a job, rent a house, buy a car and assimilate into society.
Speaking in front of psychologists at the centre, Enezi said the programme, which he completed in 2012, 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 those who fight in jihad abroad are “serving a foreign agenda”.
John Horgan, author of The Psychology of Terrorism, says the Saudis took the idea of de-radicalisation seriously and used creative techniques at a time when the West was increasingly relying on torture and drone strikes.
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.
Mohammed al-Nimr, whose brother is an outspoken Saudi Shia cleric, says changing the mindset of young men through the rehab programme is not enough. An overhaul of the education system is needed as part of the counterterrorism strategy, he said.
The turn to ISIS 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.”