The news that two former Guantanamo detainees who graduated from a rehabilitation programme run by the government of Saudi Arabia have assumed leadership positions with Al-Qa’ida in Yemen serves as a stark reminder of the need for thorough programmes to handle terrorist suspects after their release. A list of eighty-five ‘most wanted’ suspects released by the Saudi Ministry of Interior in early February included a total of eleven former Guantanamo detainees. These eleven — all graduates of Saudi Arabia’s Counselling Programme —are now believed to be in Yemen.

When the first Saudi nationals were repatriated from Guantanamo back to Saudi Arabia 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 Counselling Programme. 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. Indeed, according to Saudi officials, it has been difficult to charge and hold later returnees—especially those who had served, uncharged, for so many years in detention. And especially those for whom there is little public evidence of crimes.

No shortcuts to deradicalisation

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 counselling. A distinct separation is needed.

The cases of Al-Shihri and Al-Awfi underscore the dire need for a comprehensive programme to handle all former Guantanamo detainees. This is especially true for the ninety-nine Yemenis still held at the facility. Addressing the dilemma of the Yemeni detainees is critical to closing the detention facility, and to overhauling American detention policy. Yet despite numerous statements that the government of Yemen is preparing to receive its nationals from Guantanamo, when I visited Yemen in January, I learned that there is no programme, curriculum, or facility in place today to process returning Yemeni nationals. Repatriating the Yemeni detainees will depend upon the establishment of a well-funded and comprehensive programme to reintegrate, support, and closely monitor all returnees for the foreseeable future.

The value of rehabilitation

Governments show a great and growing recognition of the value of rehabilitation and disengagement programmes for former extremists. Programmes similar to those used in Saudi Arabia are proliferating, and their popularity stems in large part from the realisation that the problem of terrorism cannot be solved with traditional hard security measures alone. That said, while most counterterrorism strategies now incorporate rehabilitation programmes, their success is not universal. There will always be individuals who are beyond dialogue and engagement. However, most individuals who participate in terrorist activities stop at some point.

Despite recent highly-publicised cases of recidivism by detainees Said Al-Shihri, Mohammed Al-Awfi, and others, broad statistics suggest that most participants benefit from rehabilitation. Saudi officials claim that their programmes have a success rate of 80–90 per cent. Other former detainees have been rearrested in the kingdom for violating the terms of their release, for attempting to leave the country, or because assessments suggested that they were preparing to re-engage with Al-Qa’ida extremists. Broadly speaking, though, the Saudi re-offense numbers compare favourably to most criminal co-option programmes.

The goal of the Saudi programme is not just to prevent recidivism but to short-circuit the recruitment and radicalisation process within someone’s social network. Programmes in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Muslim world show promise, as do those working with other offenders, including non-Islamist guerrillas in Latin America. The figures are best for those only 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.

Changing behaviour then beliefs

It is essential to draw a distinction between de-radicalisation 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 organisation. The former implies a change in deeply-held convictions while the latter simply suggests a change in behaviour. The Saudi programme focuses on behaviour modification, and not on changing beliefs. 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 sympathise with a movement’s goals and objectives, and support it in other capacities, even if they no longer actively support violence.

Participation in a terrorist organisation can vary widely, for instance from providing logistical support to terrorists through participating in violent attacks. Similarly, an extremist’s individual level of commitment to the cause varies from tangential (and even unwitting) to 100 per cent hard-core dedication. Recent field research with a variety of movements bears out the expectation that the closer one is to violence, the more complicated the rehabilitation process. But rehabilitation programmes frequently seek to encourage participants to renounce the use of violence, and not give up the ultimate aims of the group, and that must be reasonable.

For the 20 per cent or so of Saudi Guantanamo returnees believed to have returned to their previous ways, 80 per cent have not been rearrested or reoffended. This is no small feat, especially with such a population. In many regards, any individual who does not return to active extremism is a success.