Last Updated: Wed Aug 10, 2011 15:24 pm (KSA) 12:24 pm (GMT)

Muna Khan / Single Entry: Bringing the boys home from extremism

A Guantanamo detainee runs inside an exercise area at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base. (Photo by REUTERS)
A Guantanamo detainee runs inside an exercise area at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base. (Photo by REUTERS)

In an article for The Middle East Quarterly in 2010, Katherin Seifert wrote about rehabilitation of jihadists/militants and how various countries grappled with efforts to get the individuals to renounce their extremist ways. Where success was met – Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s – relapses occurred few years later. In Egypt too, despite the renouncing of violence by the Islamic Group in the late 1990s, many of the followers rejected those revisions.

Is extremism an addiction that can be overcome with a 12-step program? And if so, where can I sign up to sponsor the militants wreaking havoc in, other than around the world, specifically Pakistan?

The refrain “It’s the economy, stupid” made popular during Bill Clinton’s campaign against George Bush in the early 1990s bears keeping in mind when devising an effective strategy to get militants to renounce their violence. However, that alone is not enough.

Take the Saudi model. Prison rehabilitation programs launched in the mid-2000s saw only 3 to 5 per cent of parolees returning to jihadist tendencies between 2004 and 2007 writes Ms. Seifert. However that number grew to nearly 10 per cent in 2009. This was despite socio-economic initiatives offered by authorities to the newly released parolees in the form of a house, a car, and even cash to marry according to a story published in the New York Times in 2008. Consequences of returning to violence could also be harsh for the families of the parolee.

The growth of that figure to 10 per cent is believed to be the result of a larger number of accused returning from Guantanamo Bay or Al Qaeda members repatriated from other nations. These men, truly radical in their ideologies, may just have managed to hoodwink the system – and moved to join ranks with Al Qaeda in Yemen -- hence the spike in relapse figures.

A large part of the Saudi de-radicalization program lies in teaching detainees about the “correct” Islam – which is really un-teaching them everything they thought was the true Islam. The focus was shifted from wars and hatred to the Prophet’s (PBUH) messages of peace and humanity.

The ultimate success of the program is in the monitoring of the men once released – and this may be possible for a kingdom with vast resources at its disposal coupled with a steely will to address this issue.

This is lacking in Afghanistan, which has miserably failed to de-radicalize.

It tried a similar initiative when it launched the High Peace Council program last year in a bid to get 36,000 Taliban to lay down arms by 2015. According to a story in Le Monde recently, close to 2,000 have quit the Taliban and reported that they received a three-month allowance for doing so but poor economic conditions in the country and a feeling of helplessness meant that many were considering returning to their warring ways.

Fighters rarely seemed driven by ideologies.

Where Afghanistan failed was in its ability to provide jobs or training to those who lived up to their promise of laying down arms. The reported 140 million dollars for this initiative – created by international funding – is alleged to have been squandered in corruption which is not altogether unusual in a country whose president, Hamid Karzai, is still referred to as Mayor of Kabul.

The Saudi model is the most visible one we have to examine and even that is still too new to judge. What we can gauge from it is that educating jihadists/extremists/militants on religion is important as is monitoring their movements once they are released. But like any rehabilitation program whose essence lies in putting people back into the mainstream, it’s all rather futile if the newly rehabilitated don’t have jobs or lives to get back into.

This is where international donors can step in and assist in creating such funds to help combat the menace of terrorism. There too, however, the fund needs to be strictly monitored to ensure that the money is spent on necessary measures and not pocketed by corrupt officials.

After all, groups like Al Qaeda have long denounced such rehabilitation programs and are formulating strategies to keep their men in the fold.

This brings me back to square one, it’s about economic incentives, stupid. The war on this cannot be allowed to win by Al Qaeda & Co.

(Muna Khan, Senior Correspondent and Columnist for Al Arabiya English, can be reached at

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