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“You can’t fight al Qaeda with force alone”

As chief of ideological security at the Saudi interior ministry, Dr Abdul Rahman Al-Hadlaq leads religious scholars, psychologists and art therapists in a project to rehabilitate former al Qaeda operatives. He also advises Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, deputy minister of the interior and architect of the rehab experiment. In an exclusive interview at his Jeddah office, Al-Hadlaq told THE WEEK that four years ago, when he and his colleagues were asked to draft the rehab programme, he had fears about its viability and success. Today, the programme is widely praised and is being replicated in many countries. Excerpts from the interview:

How successful is the programme?

It has been very successful. We have rehabilitated over 3,500 suspected terrorists, including 493 suspected al Qaeda men. We are building five more rehab centres in the kingdom, each with a capacity to house 250 people. At the centre we are dealing with two questions: how to protect the youth from al Qaeda, and how to rescue the affected. We are clear that al Qaeda cannot be defeated without engaging it ideologically. Use of force against radicals is a short-term answer. It creates more radicals in the long run. 

What are the key components of the programme?

The main components include psychological counselling, a religious de-radicalisation course and art therapy. 

How did the rehabilitation programme start?

After the 9/11 attack, we were shocked to discover that 15 of the 19 hijackers were disgruntled Saudi youth. We started investigating and found many suspected terrorists and radicals in the country. We did not have enough prisons to keep them. And when we jailed some, they spread radical ideas among other prisoners. Then Prince Muhammad came up with the idea of the rehab camp. We started the programme in late 2007.  

How difficult was it to rehabilitate detainees from Guantanamo Bay?

It was a big challenge to bring them back to normal life. They were silent, hated sunlight and wanted to be alone. Initially, they were not even ready to talk to us. After psychological counselling and art therapy, we engaged them in dialogue. We educated them about history and religion. al Qaeda always presents history as a fight between Muslims and non-Muslims…, which is not true.

How are you combating the ideology of al Qaeda?

We are working on different fronts. We have sacked 353 radical imams. Some 1,300 religious clergymen have been placed on suspension. We have employed women preachers to talk to women who have adopted radical ideology. [It was found that around 60 per cent of al Qaeda websites were operated by women.] As al Qaeda uses religion to justify violence or attract recruits, we have launched a number of websites to counter Al-Qaeda’s propaganda. Its message is not necessarily religious, but it is using religion to communicate it. [The Saudi Council of Senior Ulema launched an official website, http://www.alifta.com, for fatwas.] 

Many people say that instead of punishing them, you are giving terrorists royal treatment.

I know. Some people do not see the point. Our experience teaches us that terrorism is the biggest threat to security and peace, and we will never be able to defeat it by force alone. If we do not support them, someone else will support them, and usually it will be the radicals. Terrorism is a byproduct of ideological extremism. So, rehabilitation should be a critical part of counter-terrorism.

How does al Qaeda recruit its cadets?

They isolate an individual from all external contacts, including family and friends. As the recruit begins the process of assimilation, the group identity exerts itself through the indoctrination. Most of the Arabs who joined al Qaeda are young. They were mostly single Saudis who were high school graduates and were frustrated with national and international issues.

Most recruits come from lower middle class families, but a few are from rich families, too. Many of these men believed that the west, led by theUS, is engaged in a war against Islam. They felt that Muslims are obligated to defend their religion, and violence is a necessary means to achieve this end. Thirty-six per cent joined the group after seeing the website. Surprising, most of the group’s websites are hosted in the west.

Is al Qaeda still active in Saudi Arabia?

We have almost defeated the group here. Our sustained campaign to discredit al Qaeda ideology has forced the group to move out. Most of them have taken refuge inYemen, where there is political instability.

Who heads al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula?

Nasir Abdel Karim al-Wuhayshi is al Qaeda’s commander-in-chief in theArabian peninsula. He was Osama bin Laden’s secretary, and is Saudi’s most wanted man. 

How powerful is al Qaeda after Osama’s death?

It remains a powerful terrorist group. Osama’s killing gave the outfit a big blow, but over the last many years he was not controlling operations.

There are reports that the remaining inmates of Guantanamo Bay will be sent to Saudi Arabia, after the facility is closed?

Our priority is to handle and rehabilitate our citizens. But we are always ready to help our neighbours, the Yemenis. Reportedly, Yemenis make up the largest nationality among the 170 detainees left atGuantanamoBay. We know that theUSis reluctant to send Yemenis home because of the security situation there.

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