The other day it was announced by the Ministry of Interior that a little more than 20 percent of the Guantanamo detainees who returned to Saudi Arabia and underwent the government’s rehabilitation program have returned to extremism.
Twenty-five of the 120 Guantanamo detainees that graduated from the program resumed militant activities, with up to 11 joining Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Othman Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, 31, who was imprisoned at Guantanamo for four years and released in 2006, has been named the leader in Al-Qaeda.
The Ministry also reported that overall about 9.5 percent of the 300 people who passed through the program have rejoined the militant ranks or have failed to adhere to the terms of their release.
The Western media has been relatively restrained in reporting these numbers, but present the recidivism rate as a failure. Reuters describes the Guantanamo detainees’ return to extremism as a “setback” for the “world’s top oil exporter”. So by implication not only is the program failing but the failure is in a country that produces fuel for the cars we drive. Agence France-Presse bluntly announces the “20 Percent Failure Rate in Saudi Gitmo Rehab Programme”.
Is the Saudi government’s rehabilitation program failing? The obvious answer is no. Not by a long shot. Rather, the numbers are encouraging. And instead of engaging in torture and isolating individuals in jail cells without trial, perhaps the U.S. can learn a few lessons why Saudi Arabia is succeeding in its own efforts to combat extremism.
Ask any criminologist, police officer, prosecutor or judge about the Saudi rehabilitation program’s recidivism rate and they will express envy. Few Western countries can lay claim to a 9.5 percent recidivism rate among criminals.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 1.18 million American men and women on parole in 2007 were at risk of returning to prison. About 16 percent actually were reincarcerated in 2007. The average recidivism rate in the United States is 67.5 percent, according to a 1994 Department of Justice report.
An estimated 70 percent of convicted robbers are returned to prison. About 74 percent of convicted burglars are re-offenders. These people pose more of a risk to the average American than a terrorist. In 2005, the BBC reported that the recidivism rate in the U.S. was closer to 60 percent and about 50 percent in the United Kingdom.
By the Department of Justice’s own measuring stick, the Saudi rehabilitation program is a smashing success. In fact, the success rate has been remarkably consistent since the inception of the program. About 90 percent of the militants who pass through the program have not returned to extremism.
The program uses a mix of correct religious teachings and financial incentives to keep participants on tract. Much of the program focuses on the participation of religious scholars who freely engage with participants in debates over the interpretation of the Holy Qur’an by counseling them on the correct doctrine and ferreting out corrupt interpretations. Psychological counseling, the use of halfway houses to re-integrate former militants into Saudi society, jobs, and financial aid to get them back on their feet are also employed.
Western nations are used to the hard-line approach of harsh prison sentences imposed on people who commit crimes. Some U.S. and British legal experts have expressed skepticism whether a religious-based “soft” program can be effective over a long period of time. The consensus among Westerners is to assume a wait-and-see attitude. But now that Al-Qaeda in Yemen is composed of several rehab graduates, the program has been deemed a failure.
Critics have a tendency to believe that the Saudi program is some kind of Islamic version of an American weekend bible camp. Verses are memorized and recited, bonds are made between participates, songs are sung, and then everybody goes back to their secular world on Monday.
These notions can’t be applied to Saudis, who measure their very existence on how they live their lives as Muslims. Islam is a road map to pious living. It’s not a Friday-only thing or the occasional trip to Holy Qur’an camp. It’s an every minute thing.
Saudi extremists stepped off the correct path and only Islam can bring them back. It’s unlikely that hardcore extremists will ever change, and certainly life prison sentences or the death penalty will keep them off the streets. Those people will never personally harm another human being again. But it won’t stop them from spreading their ideology whenever possible, even behind prison walls. It will not stop their families from assuming the same ideology. It will not stop misguided Muslims from seeking revenge because their loved ones were tortured or held in prison without trial.
The Saudi rehabilitation program is successful because the government respects the people it’s trying to rehabilitate. It’s far easier to lock them away forever or execute them, but it does nothing to reduce the threat of extremist ideology.