Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a recurring topic of discussion among officials and experts has been the issue of using non-kinetic measures to counter terrorism, in particular, adopting programs on de-radicalisation.
Comprehensive efforts have been undertaken to rehabilitate terrorist prisoners including in Algeria, Egypt, Denmark, Germany, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the UK, the US, and Yemen.
While hard power or kinetic measures have often proved successful in removing terrorists from the battlefield, it has become increasingly evident, from the global fight against terrorists, that it is not the sole solution to counter violent extremism.
In the long run, hard security measures can prove detrimental in efforts to roll back the appeal of violent extremism. While such measures may be required in situations where threats are imminent, failure to employ “soft power” measures in the long-term can be counter-productive in fighting violent extremism with any degree of success.
In the wake of a series of violent extremist attacks since 2013, it may be worthwhile for Bangladeshi authorities to consider formulating a comprehensive policy on counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation, including a robust program on rehabilitation and reintegration of violent extremists. Here, examining the successes and failures of various de-radicalisation programs worldwide would be useful. Even some of the best programs have their flaws, and valuable lessons can be learned as to what has worked and what has not.
Saudi Arabia’s de-radicalisation program
It may be pertinent to look at the de-radicalisation program of Saudi Arabia, which is arguably the most well-known among de-radicalisation programs worldwide, and one that has also served as a model for other countries in developing similar programs.
Following the 2003 Riyadh bombings and subsequent battles between the security forces and al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia deemed it necessary to launch a rehabilitation and reintegration program in 2004.
It believed that it was imperative to counter the extremist narrative of al-Qaeda and those terrorist detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay who had returned to Saudi Arabia. This program is dubbed PRAC or Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Aftercare.
Rehabilitation of extremists
The Saudi Ministry of Interior created its rehabilitation program by establishing a Munasaha or an advisory committee containing four sub-committees: Religious, psychological, social security, and media. The rehabilitation program begins in prison but continues at the Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Care and Counseling, where former terrorists typically spend eight to 12 weeks, and engage in a series of activities ranging from art therapy to Qur’anic studies. The Centre stands out for being a different type of prison or detention facility, where the guards do not wear uniforms, and there is a gym, a swimming pool, and 24-hour access to a telephone.
The desired goal is for the former extremist to disavow his extremist ways
Re-integration of extremists
In order to reintegrate former extremists successfully, a number of initiatives have been undertaken by the Saudi authorities, ranging from parole-like reporting requirements, monitoring and home visits by security officials, to finding them jobs and providing ongoing counseling. Long after their release, the Saudi government continues to offer financial support, counseling and schooling, housing, and translate vocational training into job placement. The government even goes to the extent of arranging marriages for the detainees.
Necessity of a de-radicalisation program
With the rising threat of violent extremist groups globally, such a program has now become not only necessary but essential for Bangladesh. Within South Asia, Pakistan has been using such programs for a number of years, while India has also begun to embark on both counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation initiatives. Although it is difficult to gauge how successful such programs are, and to measure their success, evidence suggests that such programs are essential, in order to combat radicalisation and violent extremism.
Saudi Arabia has been much-praised by the international community, and has claimed the program to be a major success by citing the low rate of recividism, or how many former extremists return to terrorism after release. Over 3,000 men convicted of terrorism-related crimes have undergone the program, and the government has claimed a success rate of close to 90%.
However, Saudi officials have privately admitted that some individuals, many of whom were previously detained in Iraq or Guantanamo, are hard-core extremists seriously committed to terrorism, and are unlikely to respond to any de-radicalisation program. In the case of Singapore, its de-radicalisation program, led by the Religious Rehabilitation Group, was formed in 2003, and is a voluntary group consisting of Islamic scholars and teachers.
The aim of the group is to rehabilitate detained members of the Indonesian extremist group Jemaah Islamiah, but it has a wider scope and includes “misinterpretations promoted by self-radicalised individuals and those in support of ISIS.”
Singapore’s de-radicalisation program has been quite successful based on the very low rates of recidivism. However, they have had to deal with a small number of extremists over the years. Most recently, a number of Bangladeshi nationals were jailed on terrorism charges, and will most likely also go through the rehabilitation program.
A vital factor
For any long-term CVE strategy, de-radicalisation remains a vital factor, as it can help mitigate the threat posed by incarcerated extremists. One significant gauge of success is to determine whether individuals can be turned away from their former life as extremists through the lectures of key operational or spiritual leaders of a local terrorist group. There is the case of Sayyid Imam al-Sharif or Dr Fadl, a founding member of al-Qaeda, and deradicalised in an Egyptian prison. In 2007-8, he wrote an influential book, Rationalising Jihad in Egypt and the World, which was critical of al-Qaeda’s jihadist ideology, and called terrorist attacks in the West unjust according to Islamic law. This publication forced Ayman al-Zawahiri, the then al-Qaeda’s second in command, to write a 200-page rebuttal.
Many observers question whether it is possible to adequately assess a rehabilitation and reintegration program, which may take several years. However, the Saudis are proud of the fact that they have been able to use soft counter-terrorism measures successfully on over 3,000 prisoners, by giving them religious teaching.
As a measure of success, they quote the very low rate of recidivism, and the remaining small percentage of detainees who return to a life of terrorism. However, there are still other challenges in replicating such a program in other countries, including Bangladesh. For one, the great success of the Saudi program has been due to the government’s ability to provide several schemes, which requires large amounts of funding.
In the case of Bangladesh, it may not be possible to develop a Saudi-type de-radicalisation program complete with a gym and swimming pool. However, it can be possible to replicate elements from the Saudi, Singapore, and other international models which have worked well in deradicalising extremists. Ultimately, the desired goal is for the former extremist to disavow his extremist ways, and discover the real Islam.
However, it is a serious challenge to convert a prisoner who is strongly committed to his ideology or his own interpretation of Islam; some are hardcore radicals, and that is why the importance of behaviour modification is considered to be a key measure of success in such de-radicalisation programs.
Bangladesh should immediately embark on a comprehensive de-radicalisation program as a key component of a comprehensive counter-violent extremism strategy.
Faiz Sobhan is Research Director, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute.