“PlayStations, new kitchens and art classes are part of Saudi Arabia’s softly, softly approach to rehabilitating terrorists”
* Your petrol money at work
It has been called the Betty Ford clinic for jihadists and within minutes of arriving at the Care Rehabilitation Centre on the outskirts of Riyadh, you can see why. The small complex, where the Saudi Arabian government is exploring a new way of reforming itsÂ wayward radicals, [as opposed to standard Wahhabi radicals?] feels more like an exclusive boarding school than a Saudi jail.Inmates have access to swimming pools, table tennis and PlayStations. In the evenings, guards and prisoners play football. An air-conditioned tent sits adjacent to the sports field, serving as a dining hall and common room where, when I visited, the prisoners were tucking into rice and lamb with fresh fruit for pudding.
In return for this privileged treatment, the prisoners â€“ Islamic extremists, some of whom are convicted murderers â€“ areÂ obliged to attend lessons based around Islamic law and the jurisprudence of jihad. A team of psychologists teaches detainees how they should manage their emotions, particularly when reacting to world events.
Art therapy classes help inmates to “reveal their softer side”. And it is not just the artwork that is surreal.Â It is quite a sight to see men in flowing robes, with unkempt beards and their trousers hoisted above their ankles, sit down with a pack of crayons to express themselves. “The unconscious mind holds a lot of things,” said the therapist.
The Saudi government insists all this is necessary to promote genuine rehabilitation and foster a meaningful relationship with the jihadists. But in the easy-going atmosphere of the “resort” â€“ nobody calls it a prison â€“ where inmates are referred to as “beneficiaries”, it is easy to forget the seriousness of some of their crimes. […]
[W]illingness to join the jihad has caused problems among young Saudis in a kingdom where the austere form of Wahhabi Islam is endorsed by the state and two-thirds of the population are under 30. Since the war in Iraq began five years ago, Saudi nationals have constituted the largest band of foreign fighters in the country.
This is not a new phenomenon. During the Afghan jihad against Soviet forces in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia officially supported the campaign, with Abdul-Aziz Bin Baz, then the Grand Mufti, declaring jihad, while the government subsidised flights for militants wanting to make their way there.
The Islamist campaign is no longer exclusively focused against the West: it also regards Muslim governments around the world as heretical, making them targets, too. Saudi Arabia has suffered attacks in Riyadh, Yanbu and al-Khobar since 9/11; more than 200 civilians have been killed, prompting a crackdown in which more than 120 Al-Qaeda fighters were killed and hundreds more detained.
And there it is. When jihadists went to Afghanistan or later Iraqâ€”perhaps even New York on 9/11â€”to fight against the infidels, from the Saudi point of view, that was just fine. When, however, the jihadists turn on the Saudi kingdom, deeming it heretical, hypocritical, or simply apostate, as al-Qaeda and its followers often argue, it is then that the Saudi “ideological unit” comes to the rescue and “rehabilitates” the “radicals.”
No doubt the fundamental issue being targeted for “rehabilitation” is the concept ofÂ ”takfir,”which the jihadists often use to declare other Muslims apostate; no doubt the obligatory classes on “the jurisprudence of jihad” all revolve around proving that takfir is un-Islamic and thus safeguarding the Muslim kingdom from the jihadi sword.
The government has realised that the use of force alone will not contain Al-Qaeda. It has created an ideological security unit that coordinates the kingdom’s efforts in the war of ideas against its native jihadists. Those arrested in connection with terrorism are routinely subjected to attempts to reform their thinking.Five jails, each housing 1,200 prisoners, have been built specifically for jihadists with the purpose of promoting ideological reform through dialogue and debate. Religious instruction in these prisons is directed by an advisory committee, which is also closely involved with the care centre. […]
Cells are fitted with their own televisions, encased behind toughened glass, and are centrally controlled by the guards. They are used to transmit religious education lectures prepared by the advisory committee directly into cells where inmates later have an opportunity to debate ideas and ask questions using an intercom.
After serving their sentence in these jails, prisoners are moved to the rehabilitation centre, which opened 18 months ago. It is designed to be a halfway house where ideas first introduced by the advisory committee in prison are consolidated and developed.
The men are also given extensive support to help to reintegrate them into society after they leave, the thinking being that so doing makes them less likely to reoffend. […]
They insist that such generous financial packages are not bribing the jihadists. Khalid al-Maeena, editor of the Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s only English-language newspaper, said: “We are a patriarchal society. These people are sons of the soil. When a son makes a mistake, the father forgives him and the king has pardoned them.”
The traditional relationship between the state and its citizens in the West has no parallel in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is paternalist and the care centre is indicative of King Abdullah’s wider ambitions to promote social reform. Whether these softly, softly tactics will work long term remains to be seen.
“We have not come across the person who can be moved all the way from terrorism to a normal life.” –Â Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Mufti of Egypt