The increasing use of unconventional, “soft” measures to combat violent extremism in Saudi Arabia is bearing positive results, leading others in the region, including the United States in Iraq, to adopt a similar approach. Understanding the successes of the Saudi strategy—composed of prevention, rehabilitation, and aftercare programs—will be important in the fight against radical Islamist extremism, says Christopher Boucek in a new Carnegie Paper.
Roughly 3,000 prisoners have participated in Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation campaign—which seeks to address the underlying factors that facilitate extremism and prevent further violent Islamism. Saudi authorities claim a rehabilitation success rate of 80 to 90 percent, having re-arrested only 35 individuals for security offenses.
Key components of the Saudi strategy:
• Prevention: Saudi Arabia has employed hundreds of government programs to educate the public about radical Islam and extremism, as well as provide alternatives to radicalization among young men. Projects from athletic competitions, to lectures, writing contests, and public information campaigns have all had a significant impact on Saudi public perceptions of terrorism.
• Rehabilitation: The centerpiece of the rehabilitation strategy is a comprehensive counseling program designed to re-educate violent extremists and sympathizers and to encourage extremists to renounce terrorist ideologies. Members of the Ministry of Interior’s “Advisory Committee” frequently meet with detainees or draw from a large number of religious scholars to counsel prisoners to counter “corrupted understandings” and “misinterpretations of correct doctrine.” In many cases, Saudi Arabia encourages family participation in the rehabilitation process, even providing alternative income for families whose sole breadwinner has been imprisoned.
• Aftercare programs: The Ministry of Interior employs several initiatives to ensure that counseling and rehabilitation continue after release from state custody, including a halfway house program to ease release into society and programs to reintegrate returnees from Guantanamo Bay. Through educational training, continued religious and psychological counseling, and extensive social network support, the program works to help detainees past the period in their lives when militant activity is most appealing.
“In only a few years’ time, Saudi Arabia’s soft strategy to combat extremism and terrorism has generated some very promising results. It warrants greater evaluation, especially as other nations struggling with extremism look at what is being accomplished in the kingdom for lessons they can apply in their homeland. Throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, similar programs are starting to emerge. That other nations emulate the Saudi program is ultimately based upon the recognition that the defeat of extremism cannot be achieved through hard security measures alone. That, in itself, is a major accomplishment.
The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.
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