The rate of terror plots in Saudi Arabia in the last couple of years and the number of Saudi citizens involved in such plots deserve serious attention. In 2008 Saudi security forces have arrested 701 militants for allegedly plotting to carry out terrorist attacks on oil facilities and other vital installations across the kingdom.
On Aug. 19, 44 al-Qaida suspects were arrested. The suspects were planning attacks using remote electronic detonators and were attempting to recruit youths to finance their activities through charitable donations.
The ability of the Saudi intelligence to abort these attacks before manifesting must be applauded. However, this high number of Saudi citizens (many of them highly educated) who are involved in terror plots raises doubts about the effectiveness of the measures used to weaken Islamic radicalism.
Saudi Arabia has offered young terrorists rehabilitation from a life of violence in the name of jihad. Saudi authorities claim a rehabilitation success rate of 80 to 90 percent.
While this seems attractive to many, some fundamental points should be considered.
First, will the Saudi system also consider changing some traditional violent concepts in Shariah law such as dar al-harb (house of war) and dar al-Islam (house of Islam) that have created the mindset for violent jihad? In particular, the mainstream Islamic concept that Muslims have to declare or wage wars on non-Muslims to offer them a choice between three options: convert to Islam, pay jizia (humiliating tax), or be killed. This concept sets the basic foundations for violent jihad in the mind of many young Muslims, including myself at an earlier stage of my life.
The jihadists of our modern times have twisted this concept, which promotes violence at the nation or “ummah” level, to use at the individual level in the form of terror attacks. The distortion of the meaning of jihad in this case was not from a peaceful concept to a violent one, but rather from an originally violent concept to a barbaric one. Without changing the former rule of “dar al-harb and dar al-Islam,” it is very hard to have an effective end to individual jihad.
Second, it is vital in such programs to have proper peer review for the study. Political statements of the program’s success are not sufficient to consider it effective. Detailed statistical analyses and comparison to a control group in other Middle Eastern countries that do not use this approach are needed for further evaluation of the Saudi program. It may turn out that using other tactics is more effective or, that putting the terrorists in prison or under surveillance indefinitely may yield a better outcome. Releasing the terrorists may actually facilitate further spread of the radical ideology.
Third, the return of 10 percent of the released radicals to terrorism within just a few years of participating in the program -- while they are supposed to be under intensive follow-up by the intelligence -- could be considered a sign of failure rather than success. The Saudi Interior Ministry released a list of 85 suspected terrorists on Feb. 3 that included 11 graduates from its widely acclaimed jihadist rehabilitation program. If a known terror group member managed to join another after being released and reached a leadership level -- as already happened with some of the released jihadists -- then there is some weakness in the security apparatus that needs to be addressed. Furthermore, 10 percent failure out of hundreds of terrorists may be seen as very risky to world security, especially when we know that ONLY 19 radicals managed to conduct the attacks on Sept. 11.
Fourth, is the program’s success rate as perceived by the Saudis due to the rehabilitation program itself or other factors? The participants might have a psychological sense of defeat while in prison, or the feeling that they are under intensive intelligence surveillance after their release. This would probably make them delay the decision of rejoining radical groups until they feel safer to do so. In other words, are the figures presented to us by the Saudi system indicative of a long-term genuine trend, or a tactical delay in rejoining jihadi groups? More prolonged studies are needed to evaluate this point before judging the effectiveness of such programs.
Another vital question is why the Saudis are showing this soft approach toward the terrorists and the radicals while they do not apply the same principle to those who commit much lesser crimes. If the Saudis truly believed in the importance of re-education and rehabilitation to deal with criminals, then why not use this soft approach with “adulterers” instead of stoning them to death? Is the selective use of soft approaches with the radicals and the terrorists indicative of covert support to, or sympathy with, the jihadist cause among some elements in the Saudi system?
Finally, it is premature to regard the Saudi rehabilitation programs for the terrorists as effective. The Saudi system must prove that it is truly against violent jihad by changing the traditional mainstream Shariah principle of dar al-harb (house of war) and dar al-Islam (house of Islam). Islamic text can be interpreted in new ways to bring to an end to such violent Shariah principle. It is so hard to de-root the idea of terrorism while still teaching this violent concept as a fundamental part of Islam. Trying to change only a small group of radicals while continuing to teach violent principles to society is a primitive approach that only treats the symptoms rather than the disease itself.
Dr. Tawfik Hamid is the author of "Inside Jihad." He was a former associate of Dr. al-Zawahiri (second in command of al-Qaida) and currently he is a reformer of Islam. To know more about Hamid please visit www.tawfikhamid.com. Hamid's writings in this blog represent only his thoughts and not the views of the institute where he works.
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