The news that two Saudi nationals held at the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay returned to al-Qaeda in Yemen has raised questions over whether or not terror detainees can be safely released. Carnegie associate Christopher Boucek answers a few questions about President Barack Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo and the challenges of repatriating the detainees housed there.


Question: Are these terrorist rehabilitation programs thorough enough?

Reply: Recent news that two former Guantanamo detainees and graduates of Saudi Arabia’s Counseling Program have assumed leadership positions with al-Qaeda in Yemen serves as a stark reminder of the need for thorough programs to handle released Guantanamo returnees.

When the first Saudi nationals were repatriated from Guantanamo back to Saudi Arabia beginning in May 2003, they went through a different process than those who returned later. Early returnees were brought before a Saudi court and charged with several offenses. Most if not all were convicted and served up to two years before entering the Counseling Program.1  However, individuals who were repatriated at the end—including both Said al-Shihri (ISN 372) and Mohammed al-Awfi (ISN 333), who were repatriated in November 2007 in the second to last group of Saudis sent back to the kingdom—did not go before a court. These individuals were not charged with any crimes, and entered directly into rehabilitation for a truncated period of, in some cases, only several months.

Authorities need more time to reintegrate former Guantanamo detainees into their own societies, and also to help these individuals come to terms with the years they have spent in captivity. Furthermore, the investigation and risk assessment stages of rehabilitation cannot take place at the same time as religious and psychological counseling. A distinct separation is needed.

The cases of al-Shihri and al-Awfi underscore the dire need for a comprehensive program to handle all former Guantanamo detainees. This is especially true for the nearly 100 Yemenis held at the facility. Addressing the dilemma of the Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo is critical to shutting the detention camps. Yet despite numerous statements that the government of Yemen is preparing to receive its nationals from Guantanamo, when I visited Yemen this month, I learned that there is no program, curriculum, or facility in place today to process returning Yemeni nationals. Sending Yemeni detainees back to Yemen will depend upon the establishment of a well-funded and comprehensive program to reintegrate, support, and closely monitor all returnees for the foreseeable future.

Question: How effective are terrorist rehabilitation programs?

Reply: There is a growing recognition of the value of rehabilitation and disengagement programs for former terrorists and extremists. Programs similar to those used in Saudi Arabia are proliferating, and their popularity stems in large part from the realization that the problem of terrorism is not one that can be dealt with through traditional hard security measures alone. Militancy is not a problem that governments can jail or shoot their way out of.

That said, while most counterterrorism strategies now incorporate rehabilitation programs, their success is not universal. There will always be some individuals who are beyond dialogue and engagement. However, most individuals who participate in terrorist activities at some point eventually stop.

Despite recent highly-publicized cases of recidivism by detainees Said al-Shihri and Mohammed al-Awfi, broad statistics suggest that most participants benefit from rehabilitation. Saudi officials claim that their programs have a success rate of 80–90 percent. Approximately 120 Saudi nationals have been repatriated from Guantanamo Bay.2  In summer 2008, two Guantanamo returnees had been re-arrested for violating the terms of their release. As of January 2009, a total of six Saudi returnees had been re-arrested. It is unclear on what grounds they were re-arrested; possibly associating with the wrong individuals or visiting the wrong web pages. Those rearrested over summer 2008 were alleged to have been involved with individuals they were barred from dealing with. Another two returnees are acknowledged to be missing and Saudi security forces cannot find them. All told, the re-arrested, missing, and returnees who have since resumed terrorist activities in Yemen—al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda in Yemen merged this month—account for approximately 10 percent of the total repatriated. These numbers compare favorably to most criminal cooption programs, including the U.S. witness protection program.

The goal of the Saudi program, for instance, is not just to prevent recidivism but to also short-circuit the recruitment and radicalization process within someone’s social network. Programs in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Muslim world show promise, as do those working with neo-Nazi youths in Europe and leftist guerrillas in Latin America. The figures are best for those tangentially involved with terrorism—propagandists, recruiters, logistical facilitators, and fundraisers. The significance of removing such operatives is that they are unable to become more deeply involved in terrorist activities, and are not given the opportunity to participate in violence.

Question: Do most soft counterterrorism programs seek to de-radicalize terrorists altogether or merely get the terrorists to renounce the use of violence?

Reply: Governments need to draw a distinction between de-radicalization and disengagement, and concentrate initially on disengagement. Renouncing one’s former beliefs is different from no longer actively participating in the activities of a terrorist organization. The former in part implies a change in beliefs while the latter simply suggests a change in behavior. A growing body of research suggests that individuals who renounce political violence do not necessarily disavow the ideologies they were formerly acting upon. In some cases, individuals who disengage from violence continue to sympathize with a movement’s goals and objectives, and support it in other capacities, even if they no longer actively support violence.

Terrorist disengagement is driven in part by disillusionment with the group, its tactics, its leadership, or its aims. In order to promote disengagement from violence, authorities must understand how to capitalize on that disillusionment. Broadly speaking, rehabilitation and disengagement are based on the notion that being radical is not in and of itself a bad thing. An individual may very well continue to sympathize with the goals of a group but no longer take part in attacks. Programs like those in Saudi Arabia are designed simply to deter participation in political violence.

Participation in a terrorist organization can vary widely, for instance from logistical support through participation in violence. Similarly, an extremist’s individual level of commitment to the cause varies from tangential (and even unwitting) to 100 percent hard-core dedicated. Recent field research with a variety of movements suggests that the closer one is to violence, the more complicated the rehabilitation process. But rehabilitation programs frequently seek to encourage participants to renounce the use of violence, and not give up the ultimate aims of the group, and that’s reasonable.

Question: Are there any internationally-accepted risk assessment procedures?

Reply: As many of the notions behind rehabilitation and disengagement have gained acceptance among counterterrorism and security officials, so-called “de-radicalization” programs have spread. They are now common components of many national counter-terrorism strategies. While this is an important development, countries need to create a coherent, standardized system for assessing how much of a risk a detainee poses in order to systematically assess when former terrorists can and should be released from custody.

In criminology, there is a well developed process to handle questions of when it is appropriate to release convicted offenders, such as pedophiles, rapists, and murderers. While these systems are clearly far from perfect, criminal justice officials consider community impact and risk of re-offence, and their thinking along these lines is dramatically more advanced than that of security practitioners. There currently exists no mechanism or process to determine when to release a terrorist from custody.

Question: What problems does the Guantanamo closure process raise?

Reply: First and foremost, the U.S. government needs to conduct a though review of all the cases of individuals held at Guantanamo. Recent reports have noted the difficulty of doing so, as the Washington Post found detainee files spread throughout the executive branch. Determining who exactly is held at Guantanamo and on what charges they can be prosecuted is an essential first step.

Over the years, the release of detainees from Guantanamo has often occurred with little apparent logic. To countries on the receiving end, it has been unclear why some nationals were released and not others. The lack of a dedicated process to handle and determine releases may have contributed to the perception that as more detainees were released, the United States was simply trying to clear out the facility. That is, that the most dangerous individuals were actually sent home first, and then others were sent back as time passed.

Question: What about sending former detainees to third countries?

Reply: U.S. officials have expressed concern about sending some detainees to their home countries, ironically for fear that they might face abusive treatment. One option suggested was to transfer detainees to third countries. While expedient, this option leaves much to be desired. Numerous examples have demonstrated that successful disengagement is greatly helped by engaging an individual’s social network in the process. In third countries, this would not be possible. A major part of rehabilitation involves removing an individual from his old social network and replacing that network with individuals who will help facilitate disengagement from violence.


1 See "The Saudi Process of Repatriating and Reintegrating Guantanamo Returnees,” CTC Sentinel, volume 1, issue 1, December 2007, pp. 10-12 (
2 This includes the bodies of several Saudi nationals who committed suicide. As their bodies are returned to the kingdom, Saudi officials include them in the total figures.