The Saudi Deradicalization Experiment

Saudi Arabia’s program to deradicalize suspected terrorists has experienced some high-profile failures but could still provide important lessons for other states, says CFR’s Marisa Porges.

January 22, 2010

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Saudi Arabia

Radicalization and Extremism

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Congress and the U.S. public are focused once again on the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. President Barack Obama’s failed effort to close the detention facility within a year and recent events in Yemen have increased demands for information about the detainees released thus far--especially those sent to countries that aim to rehabilitate accused terrorists. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has been under the spotlight since its rehabilitation program played a significant role in previous detainee transfers, and Washington has encouraged Yemen and other countries to replicate it.

Yet these rehabilitation efforts have also aroused criticism, especially after the U.S. Defense Department reported (CNN) that at least seventy-four Guantanamo detainees--one in five of those freed--returned to terrorist activity after release. This includes at least eleven graduates of the Saudi program, one of whom fled to Yemen after release and became deputy commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an al-Qaeda affiliate linked to two recent incidents in the United States.

While Saudi officials continue to express confidence in their rehabilitation program, they also continue to adjust how its participants are educated, monitored, and reintegrated into society.  It is still a work in progress.  But, as one of the most advanced international efforts to deradicalize terror suspects, the Saudi initiative will continue to be watched by U.S. policymakers looking for insight on how best to deal with alleged terrorists in custody who may one day be released.

The Saudi Approach

Saudi deradicalization programs began in 2004, when the Interior Ministry responded to a series of domestic terrorist incidents by transforming its counterterrorism strategy, taking steps to balance traditional security efforts with techniques that address ideological sources of violent extremism. One critical component of this new approach was the rehabilitation of extremists in prison through religious reeducation and psychological counseling. Over time, the Saudi rehabilitation program grew in scope and prestige as graduates appeared to reintegrate successfully into society.

[Q]uestions remain about the accuracy of any estimate of recidivism, particularly since there has not been enough time to study long-term effects of deradicalization.

Since its inception, about four thousand Ministry of Interior prisoners have participated in a six-week rehabilitation course, counseling sessions, and an after-care program that helps reintegrate them into Saudi society. The initiative is overseen by committees of clerics, psychologists, and security officers who handle religious, psycho-social, security, and media-related programming. Initially focused only on inmates who were not directly involved in terrorist attacks, it later included repatriated Guantanamo detainees and Saudi "freedom fighters" returning from Iraq, treating those groups at a separate Center for Counseling and Advice. U.S. officials have been most interested in this element of the program because it involves the Guantanamo detainees and potentially provides the best role model for other detention facilities, including those in Afghanistan.

A central challenge has been evaluating the effectiveness of these rehabilitation efforts. Saudi officials have often used the program’s recidivism rate, which represents the number of former detainees who "go back to the fight," as an indicator of success. This painted a positive impression early on, when the Saudis claimed a 100 percent success rate. But it later highlighted the program’s flaws, particularly after a January 2009 announcement by the Saudis that at least eleven former Guantanamo detainees returned to terrorist activity after graduating from the program. The Saudis now admit that as many as 10 to 20 percent of those released may return to illicit activity. But questions remain about the accuracy of any estimate of recidivism, particularly since there has not been enough time to study long-term effects of deradicalization.

Despite this, Saudi officials remain committed to the initiative, continuing to refine their approach based on experience and trial-and-error. This past fall, the Interior Ministry revealed developments suggesting that, while improvements are still underway, rehabilitation efforts have already helped serve Saudi Arabia’s broader counterterrorism goals.

Refining the Process

The most revealing developments are at the Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Advice, which formally opened in 2007 as a modified halfway house that combined elements of a security operation with those of a social services institution. Important aspects of the operation have changed over the past year, based on insight gained from the larger prison-based initiative and, especially, the response of 297 previous members of the center’s program-over 220 of whom have been released. The adjustments also reflect lessons learned from working with the most hardened ideologues, who the Saudis admit do not respond to rehabilitation and are unlikely to successfully complete the program.

Reflecting their study of results with early program participants, Saudi rehabilitation experts have begun increasing disengagement-focused elements. They still stress the importance of religious dialogue to address a detainee’s understanding of Islam, a strategy critical for a government that relies on religion for legitimacy. But recent changes suggest new emphasis on educational efforts aiming to modify a detainee’s behavior, not change his religious beliefs. Teachers now offer a wider range of programs, to include classes and counseling on sharia law, psychology, vocational training, sociology, history, Islamic culture, art therapy, and athletics. Each aims to support the center’s goal of shaping the thoughts of its "beneficiaries," but also stresses the need to change their behavior and provide tools that help detainees reintegrate into Saudi society. One interesting update reveals an increased understanding of sources of radicalization for those in custody. In response to a new concern about al-Qaeda efforts to manipulate Arabian Peninsula history to recruit followers, the Rehabilitation Center updated classes on history and culture to counter this influence. It is part of an effort to develop specialized approaches for each detainee that inform how he behaves within larger Saudi society.

While not the unambiguous solution U.S. policymakers would prefer, rehabilitation programs like those underway in Saudi Arabia nonetheless have a place in larger efforts to handle terrorist threats.

Saudi efforts have also expanded the role of a detainee’s family. In addition to visiting during the program and providing post-release support, family members now provide input on how to design specialized programs for each detainee and inform how his progress is evaluated. Center staff also use sequenced trial releases with the families to observe how each party responds to the other, assess the individual undergoing rehabilitation, and determine whether family members will be capable of supervising him after release. This last element is critical to ensure the family can help prevent a formerly violent extremist from becoming a threat again. Though very time consuming and difficult to implement for more than small groups at a time, security officials point to potential long-term benefits in this approach--particularly regarding broader efforts to combat radicalization in Saudi society.

Perhaps the most critical development regards Saudi efforts to assess the progress of each beneficiary throughout the program, one of the central weaknesses of deradicalization efforts underway worldwide. Saudi officials previously relied heavily on trust to overcome this problem--trust in the detainee being rehabilitated, trust in the family taking responsibility for his actions, and trust in the country’s security apparatus to monitor his activities after release. The Saudis have recently tried to address inherent weaknesses of this approach through a system that aims to continuously evaluate every detainee in a rigorous, multi-dimensional fashion. This includes monitoring in and out of the center, ongoing documented evaluations, and regular assessments by staff members. Though still imperfect, subjective, and reliant on post-release security efforts, these processes suggest potential new tools to evaluate the threat posed by terrorists in custody.

An Imperfect Role Model

To date, U.S. policymakers have been most concerned with how rehabilitation programs like this might be used for detainees being released from Guantanamo, a problem that has only grown more complicated over time as the population dwindles and "higher-threat" detainees remain in custody. But counterterrorism experts are also interested in whether these efforts provide a suitable prototype for countries struggling to deal with domestic terrorism, especially in places where kinetic counterterrorism tactics have not yet been matched by "soft" approaches like counter-radicalization.

While concerns remain, Saudi efforts suggest the importance of highly individualized approaches, possible techniques for expanding the family’s role in the process, and the need for ongoing evaluation throughout. It also demonstrates the importance of updating the approach based on the successes--and failures--along the way.

The Saudi experience also illustrates the imperfect nature of such a complex effort. The Saudi rehabilitation program has been heavily resourced for years and, even with recent changes, still relies heavily on after-care elements like monitoring by security forces and parole-like reporting requirements, financial support for detainees after release, and ongoing contact with both the individual and his family. These are elements not likely to be replicated many places, especially in Afghanistan. Even with this security umbrella, recidivism remains a concern and will likely continue to be a problem, particularly as greater numbers and more committed extremists participate in the program.

Though it is a Saudi response to a Saudi problem, changes made since the effectiveness of the Saudi experiment came into question indicate that deradicalization efforts are still being refined. It may yet remain a viable option for terrorists in custody. As one Saudi official remarked this fall, "If they do not help them, someone else will"--and not likely someone with good intentions. While not the unambiguous solution U.S. policymakers would prefer, rehabilitation programs like those underway in Saudi Arabia nonetheless have a place in larger efforts to handle terrorist threats.


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