22 January 2010

Rehabilitation for Al Qaeda: The Limits of Soft Counterterrorism

I am looking forward to Pat's upcoming analysis on "...the wider strategy that the US is waging against AQAP." He plans to take an holistic and comprehensive look at our diplomatic, information, military, and economic efforts in Yemen. For the time being, I wish to focus on one more of the many important strategic aspects for countering AQ, namely, psychological rehabilitation. It is increasingly becoming more a part of US discussions as a viable avenue for achieving diplomatic and economic success.

On 14 December, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton designated AQAP as a foreign terrorist organization. This step is important for two reasons: a) it enables the U.S. to target and prosecute AQAP members and their network affiliates; and b) it opens the door for further cooperation with the Yemeni Government. For example, officially adding top-tier leaders such as Nasir al-Wahishi and Said al-Shihri, as well as al-Zindani, to the F.B.I.'s Most Wanted List empowers the Department of Justice to work in cooperation with President Salih's Prime Minister for Security and Defense, Rashad Muhammad al-Alimi along with others.

The work is already beginning, as Clinton has met with Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi to discuss effective ways to "control [Yemen's] borders, conduct counterterrorist activities, [and] improve services to the people of Yemen. But, it is imperative to note, as al-Qirbi stated earlier, that "Yemen welcomes U.S. and foreign troops for training, intelligence and logistical support." In confirmation of this, President Obama has stated repetitively that "grounds troops" will not be sent, and the US is only seeking to further aid the host nation with its capabilities and resources throughout 2010 as General Petraus says here.

Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment reiterates al Sahwa's perspective that a successful counterterrorism strategy must be holistic, and adds that professionals have reason to conduct a "greater evaluation" of soft security measures such as psychological rehabilitation programs that incorporate prevention and aftercare methods. He quotes that the program now being used by the Saudi Arabian Government, which has treated 3,000 prisoners, boasts an 80-90% success rate. Such a program surely promises a multi-disciplinary approach to combating extremism, but is it a viable aspect of a comprehensive strategy?

U.S. local, state, and federal police organizations have traditionally used rehabilitation methods to combat gang-warfare and culture in order to protect citizens and families and prevent socio-economic hardship. Speaking in terms of statistics alone, 80-90% is not successful or promising when considering the objective of defeating Al Qaeda. When the percentage is applied to both criminal gang activity and international/transnational terrorist jihad, it simply means that 1-2:10 persons remain either committed to or openly vulnerable to becoming committed once again to carrying out micro and/or macro attacks.

At first glance, soft counter-terrorism methods offer only a positive perspective and limited promise for realistic results. It is positive because it does give reason to evaluate further as Boucek argues, but it is limited because a) it may only work for certain regional populations and/or b) it has proven to work only to a certain degree.

As Bill Roggio examines on LWJ, Shihri himself was released from Guantanemo Bay in 2007 and wasted no time getting back into the game. Furthermore, an interesting article in Foreign Policy (15 January, 2010) entitled, "Camp Nowhere," states;
"Indeed, between 2000 and 2005, the Sanaa government supported a rehabilitation program for its own prisoners, the Yemeni Committee for Dialogue...Reports suggest that several graduates returned to their violent ways, many of them in Iraq. Moreover, plans for renewing and improving deradicalization efforts [through religious dialogue and reintegration into society] are still in the very early stages."

The fact that even a small percentage returns to jihad is enough reason to not implement such a program into the holistic and comprehensive strategy. Moreover, as I learned in my "Crisis Management" course while an MBA student, it is not always the amount of times an event happens but the severity of one event happening that results in broader disruption and/or destruction. The return of 1-2 AQ fighters is enough to determine the global impact of its network; for these members spread harm on many fronts.

The implications inherent in the philosophy of soft counter-terrorism techniques begets the argument once more that "Al-Qaeda is an organization to be destroyed, not to be negotiated with in any manner..." President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and participating agencies such as the FBI can successfully protect America by "continuing to press the Yemenis to defeat al-Qaeda, not to talk with them."

After further assessment, soft counter-terrorism methods seem to not dismantle a terrorist's personal and group willingness - and if I may say, inner yearnings. Another case paramount to understanding the dynamic which we are facing is that of Othman Hadi al-Umari, an AQ weapons smuggler who surrendered to Saudi Arabia authorities in 2004. He was, at the time, number 25 of 26 on their most wanted list. Al-Umari (also written Omari) "renounced his earlier thinking but later rejoined the organization and was captured [in 2009] with the cell of 11 terrorists" The Interior Minister has affirmed that AQ uses the rehabilitation program to further their ideological objectives, stating that "Al-Qaeda has managed to lure back about 11 returnees from Guantanamo that had benefited from the programs."

In conclusion, despite the return rate of "rehabilitated" terrorists to jihad, psychological programs cannot be implemented into a comprehensive strategy at this time but need to be explored further so that the US and host nations can identify successful soft counterterrorism techniques to evaporate jihadi extremism and prevent radicalization amongst the youth populations. I argue, above all proposals, that educational programs promise the greatest deliverance from ideological growth and violent activity. This is where such a program can be as effective as police-oriented gang programs.

As an aspect of my next post, I plan to discuss the effectiveness of the F.B.I.'s Community Outreach Program (C.O.P.) and its opportunity to integrate business networking, educational institutions, and religious communities to combat terrorism. The analysis will be important for understanding further how host nations such as Yemen can potentially implement a framework for community programs to aid in the disruption of AQ networks.

For now, "The economic issue is key to Yemen's challenge in shutting down al Qaeda -- not just in re-educating militants, but in preventing militancy." It is evident that in order for this to be successful, the US and Saudi Arabia must aid in the stabilization of Yemen's economy, as I discussed here.


  1. Dan,

    I am looking forward to your follow up post on the FBI Civilian Outreach Program. One thing that I find interesting with the success statistics of the Saudi rehabilitation program is, we can't emphatically say that someone is rehabilitated. I would classify the program results differently in that 80-90% haven't returned to the fight yet. Its very hard to quantify success when you truly need to wait the duration of someone's life time to accurately say they did not fund, facilitate, coordinate, or take part in a terrorist act.

  2. I have to disagree in part to the criticism. It's true that the one or two that remain committed to terrorism are still fully capable of carrying out a politically powerful attack, the fact that a large number do not suggests that a politically acceptable (if not preferable) system exists. Ideally I would say that they should be charged and tried before a court, but with transnational groups like Al Qaeda incarceration on its own is not as devastating as it might be to a small group that only manages an attack or two.

  3. When discussing rehabilitation, we need to also consider the radicalization process, which Sec. Clinton touched on yesterday morning in the "Town Hall Meeting." I ask: Can we dispel and/or disrupt the "driving factors"? It requires the integration of familial, communal, and national leadership that incorporates societal, economic, religious and political alternatives.

    "Well, it’s an excellent question, and volumes have been written to try to answer that. But let me just briefly say that there is a connection between young people and the efforts to radicalize them that are promoted, sponsored, financed by al-Qaida and other extreme organizations with a very narrow definition of Islam. And they have been quite effective on the internet, as you know. We can track connections between not just the Christmas Day bomber but the Fort Hood shooter, the shooter at the Little Rock military recruitment station, and can see that they were at least listening to and interacting with very extreme voices on the side of Islamist ideology.

    In Nigeria, which is, as you know, evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, about 75 million of each – Christians predominantly in the south, Muslims predominantly in the north – there has been an accommodation that has enabled Nigeria to survive politically. But the failure of the Nigerian leadership over many years to respond to the legitimate needs of their own young people, to have a government that promoted a meritocracy, that really understood that democracy can’t just be given lip service, it has to be delivering services to the people, has meant there is a lot of alienation in that country and others.

    Young people in the world today, they see other options. They’re all interconnected through the internet. And the information we have on the Christmas Day bomber so far seems to suggest that he was disturbed by his father’s wealth and the kind of living conditions that he viewed as being not Islamic enough and just the kinds of attitudes young people often portray toward their families as they go through their maturing. But in this case, and in so many others, such young people are targets for recruiters to extremism.

    So I do think that Nigeria faces a threat from increasing radicalization that needs to be addressed, and not just by military means. There has to be a recognition that in the last 10 years, a lot of the indicators about quality of life in Nigeria have gone the wrong direction. The rate of illiteracy is growing, not falling, in a country that used to have a very high rate of literacy in Africa. The health statistics are going the wrong direction. The corruption is unbelievable. And when I did a town hall in Abuja, people were just literally standing and shouting about what it was like to live in a country where the elite was so dominant, where corruption was so rampant, where criminality was so pervasive.

    And that is an opening for extremism that offers an alternative world view. You want to live in peace and safety and feel good about yourself and be part of a community that you can be proud of, then turn away from your society and your family and come with us. And that can be a powerful message, whether it’s a gang in America or an extremist organization in Nigeria. And part of what I’ve been trying to tell leaders in all of my travels is that we’re not just lecturing about human rights or good governance or anticorruption measures because they’re our values; we think they are absolutely essential to the long-term survival of a lot of these governments and the societies and the political systems.

    So this is – there are individual reasons why people get recruited and radicalized, but your question about Nigeria really raises all of the elements that make the circumstances ripe for people being targeted as they are, and they have to be addressed."