Sheikh Jelani teaches religious education at Rehab. (Nancy Durham/CBC)
Can therapy 'cure' terrorism?
Saudi Arabia uses creative approach to reform junior jihadis
Jan. 14, 2008
Web exclusive: Watch the interview with Maj. Gen. Mansour Sultan Al-Turki (Runs 3:56)
From CBC Newsworld's Around The World: Interview with Nancy Durham about the Saudi rehabilitation project (Runs 9:56)
From The National: Watch the Nancy Durham documentary (Runs 13:01)
An extraordinary experiment is underway in Saudi Arabia: one of the strictest regimes in the world is taking a soft approach to extremism. For the past few years, the Ministry of the Interior has been trying to rehabilitate terrorists through psychological and religious counselling and art therapy.
Ex-jihadis are eligible for the two-month program once they've completed prison time for their jihad-related crimes and passed exams indicating a willingness to change their views. Typically, participants operated as insurgents in Iraq or were caught on their way to conflict zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
The program is run at a former desert resort half an hour's drive north of Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
The only clue that the compound is no longer intended for vacationing families is a curl of barbed wire running along the top of the perimeter wall. Only recently have authorities begun to let the outside world peek inside.
Inside the perimeter
The work is done in a cluster of low-rise concrete buildings off a dusty track, where ex-jihadis move freely between classes, chatting with each other or making phone calls home.
They also have the benefit of an indoor swimming pool, ping-pong and volleyball on a grassy court. The sleeping quarters are modest; the bedroom I saw had three mattresses on the floor in a cramped space.
The scene inside one of the classrooms is surreal.
Dr. Awad Alyami, art therapist (CBC)
"Get that negative energy out on the paper! It's safe here! It's on the paper!" Dr. Awad Alyami waves his arms like an orchestra conductor, exhorting eight convicted jihadis to put their feelings into pictures.
They sit at a long board table clutching pastel crayons, as intent as children in a kindergarten. They're doing art therapy to get their anger out on paper rather than acting it out as, for example, suicide bombers. If the inmates get it right here, they will soon be free, so they paint pictures as if their life depends upon it.
Alyami, the art therapist, leans over a piece of paper, vigorously sketching red lines to demonstrate to the class how he expresses his own negative feelings.
"This will help to release the energy within me, whether I am aware of it or not."
Initially, Alyami was reluctant to help.
"I had that idea that these are criminals. They blow up buildings and stuff and if I go there they might go after my kids one day … when I went there I saw how simple minded these kids are … they were just like tools being used."
Drawing made by Mohammed Al-Sharef (CBC)
One of the detainees, Mohammed, holds up a paper canvas smeared with abstract intense red and purple tones. He smiles and tells me it represents his negative energy, the red symbolizing a place he said he's never returning to: Syria. He went there en route to join the insurgency in Iraq.
In the end, he didn't get to Iraq. But when he returned to Saudi Arabia he was arrested anyway because just thinking about making jihad is an offence here.
Mohammed has difficulty explaining his art, so Alyami jumps in with, "It doesn't really matter as long as it is out. We don't care what it is, but at least it is out!"
Imagine! Art as a healer in this room of young men — just months ago they'd have sooner blown up a Picasso and now some of them are trying to paint like him.
Expressive technique not 'art'
Mohammed Al-Sharef, 36, Jihadi Rehabber who joined the insurgency in Iraq (also the artist of the sun with green rays) (CBC)
The very fact that art therapy is being used as a cure for extremism in Saudi Arabia is remarkable, even risky. As Alyami explained, he doesn't even use the word "art" here.
He calls what they're doing tashkeely, which means making things with your hands.
"Because the 'art' word in the Arabic language doesn't just mean painting or drawing, it also means dancing or singing and other stuff … not really well accepted at this minute, at this time … maybe in the future, but 'art' has a negative meaning to it with some parts of this society," he said.
"I personally don't have a problem with that — I love singing and dancing, movement, and I really hope that one day we will be able to get these other mediums of expressions here, but it might take a long time to be accepted. But we're on the way."
Work from earlier sessions is on display in the classroom. An easel holds a painting in the shape of Saudi Arabia; it is bright green and surrounded by blue as if the country were an island. Another depicts a sailing ship — like something out of a Homeric epic — approaching shore.
The artist tells me it is about returning after a long journey to a beautiful place with flowers. References to both country and Koran abound in their work.
Mohammed Al-Sharef talking with reporter Nancy Durham in traditional Arab abaya (CBC)
On my second day at the centre, another Mohammed — Mohammed Al-Sharef — showed me his picture of the sun bursting into shades of green and blue. He is busy writing "Allah" on each ray and adding inspirational messages such as "patience is the key to be free" and "thanks to God."
This Mohammed did get into Iraq. He went looking for al-Qaeda but told me he couldn't find the group and so ended up with other militants who, he said, asked him daily to become a suicide bomber.
He said they were only there as mercenaries, fighting for money and, his story goes, he was afraid and that anyone who says otherwise is lying. He told me he managed to get away — with God's help after six weeks — to return to his administrative job with Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Defence Public Relations department.
However, someone reported his Iraqi adventure and he was sentenced to 13 months in jail. That is less time than another ex-jihadi I met whose crime was planning to use the internet to call jihadis to war. He got three years.
Religion and loyalty
Religious education is a crucial element of rehab. I attended class at the centre and listened as the lively religious instructor, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Jelani, explained to his class the fine points of jihad. Rule No. 1 in waging jihad, he said, is that participants must have the leader's permission.
"Leader?" I asked my interpreter.
He answered, "The King" and then chuckled, "like your Queen!" The next most important precondition is the parents' permission.
Mohammed Al-Sharef listens as Sheikh Jelani teaches religious education at Rehab (CBC)
At age 36, Mohammed Al-Sharef is one of the most senior detainees in the program. I asked why he went to Iraq.
"Just to kill American, to get them outside Iraq," he told me casually, as if he were describing plans for the weekend.
Nevertheless, he seemed to have a deep sense of shame for having disobeyed the King and his family and sinned against Islam.
Al-Sharef still wants to see Americans out of Iraq "but in the right way" he said, explaining that his government has a relationship with the American and European people "and I must respect that," clearly learning the government line.
If Al-Sharef is sincere in his new belief that jihad is not for him, and if he can stick with it on the outside then he'll be a rehab success. This rehab, at heart, is about teaching loyalty to the Kingdom and it is just one of several approaches to tackling terrorism inside Saudi Arabia.
The most hard-core terrorists are not eligible for this relaxed rehab course but they too will be invited to attend religious education inside their maximum-security prison even when there is no hope of ever getting out.
I was given a tour of a new "more than maximum security" prison at Al Haer, 50 kilometres south of Riyadh, a facility so new that there weren't yet any occupants for the 1,200 places. I saw the lecture room where I was told religious counselling will take place.
Students in religious education (CBC)
The Saudi understanding of junior jihadis as being naive and easily-led has won widespread support for this government's approach to terrorism as something that can be "cured."
According to the authorities, these ex-jihadis lacked proper religious training and instead were influenced by corrupt versions of Islam available on the internet and in propaganda books and films. It is this poor understanding of Islam, combined with the daily bombardment of bloody images of war in neighbouring Iraq, which made them easy prey for the al-Qaeda philosophy and recruiters.
Abdulrahman Al-Hadlaq, adviser to the Minister of the Interior, told me he's fighting an ideological "war of ideas" and the only way to confront ideology is with alternative ideology. As a result, he said, the government is trying to engage with terrorists and would-be terrorists, at every level: in schools, in mosques and even inside maximum-security prisons.
Rehab is clearly high on the Saudi agenda. Al-Hadlaq said the government also conducts media awareness campaigns "to prevent our guys from this evil ideology" and his number one target is what he calls the jihadi "playground:" the internet. In 1998 there were 15 jihadi websites, he said, adding that today there are 5,000.
American authorities claim 40 per cent of the foreign fighters who went to Iraq to join the insurgency over the past year are from Saudi Arabia.
Critical success, rewards at end
Al-Hadlaq boasts an 80 per cent success rate with rehab, a statistic that is impossible to verify.
It does seem clear that the government is taking the problem seriously, more seriously than it did after it emerged that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. It wasn't until after homegrown jihadis began bombing government and foreign installations inside the Kingdom in 2003 that the rehab program was launched.
An American scholar, Dr. Christopher Boucek, politics lecturer at Princeton University, has been closely studying the Saudi program for the past two years.
Initially a skeptic, he's very impressed by what he's seen in Saudi Arabia and told me that rehab, Saudi style, is fast becoming the model for countries around the world trying to tackle terrorism.
"The key," he said, "is [that] participants haven't been involved in violence inside the Kingdom. Typically they're young and they've been radicalised through the internet, television images and books. They've been corrupted through all this junk."
Boucek has watched as participants have been turned around, "some can take hours, some months and months." One of the reasons for the program's success, he said, "is the way it engages with families."
Indeed, it does reach out to parents and siblings enlisting support for graduates of the program. Every effort is made to find a wife for the ex-jihadi.
Financial incentives, too, are used to help resettle offenders. Graduates might receive a new car and help in finding a home.
Saudi security forces are busy rounding up suspected terrorists. While I was in Riyadh, the Saudis announced the arrest of 208 plotting extremists. And since my return to the U.K. I have been receiving text message updates on further arrests.
Of course, the crackdown produces yet more candidates for rehab.
Similar rehabilitation programs are now underway in Egypt, Singapore and even the Americans are trying a new soft approach at Camp Cropper in Iraq.
In Singapore, the Religious Rehabilitation Group has been working for the past three years counselling imprisoned members of the extremist group, Jemah Islamiyah, trying to "correct the offender's misinterpretation of religious concepts."
RRG, like the Saudi program, reaches out to families and brings them into the healing process.
The Saudis are clearly showcasing the work they're doing and there was a stage-managed feeling about my tour.
During my three visits to the rehab centre I was accompanied by Saudi officials at every step. A Ministry of the Interior camera crew shot video of everything we shot. But there is no doubt in my mind that Alyami and others involved in the program are deeply committed to the work.
As for the participants I met, I look forward to checking back on their progress.