Terrorist Rehabilitation: a Neglected Secret CT Weapon

By: Rohan Gunaratna

During the last decade, the global footprint of terrorism and ideological extremism has grown significantly. Since al Qaeda attacked America's most iconic landmarks on September 11, 2001, the US-led western response to terrorism has been overwhelmingly kinetic and lethal. A review of terrorist attacks in the last decade indicates that the terrorist threat has only grown and not diminished.

There must be a transformational shift in the approach to how societies and governments manage those persons detained or imprisoned for terrorist offenses.

It is time for the US, its allies, and their friends to evaluate the effectiveness of their kinetic and lethal strategies and craft a much more comprehensive approach. This should include tackling both ideological extremism and its vicious byproduct, terrorism. Both proactively and reactively, those who participate, support and advocate terrorism need to be dissuaded from violence and extremism, and guided to return to the mainstream. To explain to them that al Qaeda and its associated groups are heretical and deviant, and not true to Islamic teachings, is the challenge. This requires a multifaceted approach and an interagency mechanism where we work with a range of partners. In addition to working with community institutions and the business sector, governments should work with educational and religious establishments, and the media, to engage Muslim communities.

Such a multifaceted approach to rehabilitation can work only if there is an interagency mechanism whereby governments can work in partnership with their communities and private sector counterparts. Although traditional rehabilitation starts from the point of capture and follows through to the point of release, rehabilitation will be most successful only if the released terrorist or beneficiary is further guided. Following custodial rehabilitation, there should be a mandatory second phase to reintegrate the beneficiary back into the community. Called "community rehabilitation", this re-entry phase should include providing employment to the beneficiary, addressing other challenges of returning to the community, and continued guidance and counseling.

The Evolution of Rehabilitation

Although rehabilitation for terrorists began in the 1940s, the contemporary wave of rehabilitation started in the post 9-11 period. Pre 9-11 programs included Greece, Malaya, Kenya, and Egypt. Programs that emerged after 9-11 are the Saudi, Singaporean, Malaysian, Iraqi, Yemeni, Sri Lankan, Afghan, and Uzbek programs. There are also ad hoc programs in India and Pakistan, as well as emerging programs in the U.K., Australia, Bangladesh, and in the Philippines.

Every rehabilitation program is unique, and every program can influence other programs. On a visit to Saudi Arabia in early 2010, I learned that the Saudis have introduced the teaching of history to their terrorists in custody. Because groups such as al Qaeda only permit their followers to read but a dozen books, the worldview of terrorist group leaders, members, and followers is often narrow. In Islam, there are myriad books about math, science, literature, song, dance, and poetry. Islamic civilization has immensely contributed to the sciences, especially to medicine and astronomy. To open the closed minds of terrorists in custody, it is important to share with them a more comprehensive range of knowledge. Biblio-therapy is a new form of intervention in contemporary terrorist rehabilitation.

Although the focus of the world is on Muslim groups, rehabilitation works with non-Muslim groups as well. For instance in Sri Lanka, an admirable rehabilitation program has been created since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was defeated in May 2009. Largely funded by the business sector and community institutions, the government has released all those who are under 18, the disabled and most of the women. The Sri Lankan rehabilitation program has received wide praise and appreciation from the international community.

Today, the challenge is to make terrorist rehabilitation a global imperative – that is, wherever terrorists or suspected terrorists are detained or imprisoned, rehabilitation should be made mandatory.

The United States of America missed a great opportunity to rehabilitate detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Nonetheless, the US succeeded in building a highly successful program under the leadership of Major General Douglas Stone in Iraq. In Afghanistan, Stone's blueprint was also followed by Vice Admiral Robert Harward.

Every terrorist in custody presents the respective government an opportunity to transform the terrorist's worldview. But unless rehabilitation programs are built into every prison and detention centre, the vicious ideologies that drive terrorism will spread. As the reverse of radicalization is rehabilitation, to prevent both radicalization and re-radicalization in prison, it is essential to invest in building rehabilitation intervention programs. Rehabilitation is a new and worthy frontier in the fight against terrorism.

Rohan Gunaratna is Professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

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