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How Did Saudi Arabia Beat Al Qaeda?

Since the 2003 Al Qaeda attack on Riyadh, Saudi Arabia has launched a robust and multifaceted campaign against radicalization that most observers consider successful.

Along with military and law-enforcement measures, the kingdom pioneered a strategy of “counter-radicalization,” using religious figures to directly contend that Al Qaeda was an apostate organization. How’d that work, exactly?

Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment explains. Pay attention to “the psychological and emotional… counseling part,” he says. The Saudis take the approach that “everyone’s a victim… of a deviant organization” — the government, the casualties and the recruits. “In doing this, the government is able to call upon a lot of resources.”

Basically, it’s an anti-recidivism program, launched in prison against detainees and convicts. It works so radicalization “doesn’t spread to people’s families.”

The program is “invitational” instead of mandatory, targeting, in particular, people picked up in Iraq or on their way there, and it also has components for those repatriated from Guantanamo. It won’t be a ticket out of jail “if you have blood on your hands,” but it will be your ticket out if you can prove you’re no longer going to threaten the government.”

In short, religious figures work with you in prison to convince you that Al Qaeda is anti-Islamic in a serious way.

There’s an advisory council in the Ministry of Interior made up of 150 religious scholars and university professors. They sit down with prisoners, one on one, and go into the history of each offender’s case, explaining what went wrong. But it’s based on “benevolence,” Boucek says, not on threats. It draws on traditional Saudi ideas of cooptation — “good-cop-aganda,” as he puts it, not torture.

Typically it’s a six-week program of 20 sessions, ending in an exam that, if you fail, means you have to repeat the whole thing.

Clearly, offenders have to want rehabilitation for this to work. When an offender is released, he’s released to his tribe, “thereby spreading responsibility” for his rehabilitation. There’s also an online component, giving “positive answers” to ongoing religious programs.

According to Boucek, about 3,000 people have gone through the rehabilitation program. Of those, about 1,400 have been released. Only 35 have been re-arrested — a 1 percent or 2 percent recidivism rate.

But for Guantanamo ex-detainees, about 50 have been released and none have been re-arrested on security charges.

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