Rehabilitating Al Qaeda: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Mauritania

How do Arab governments deal with Al Qaeda? Americans should pay attention to Arab counterterrorism strategies, because outcomes there will play a large role in shaping Al Qaeda’s trajectory.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Last month, Mauritanian authorities organized a debate between moderate Islamic scholars and imprisoned “Salafists” in Nouakchott.* Aiming to rehabilitate the convicts, Mauritania is taking an approach that echoes the famous Al Qaeda rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia. A little comparison is in order.

In Mauritania, the debates attempt to break down the ideological justifications for hardline views and terrorist acts. Authorities intend the events to supplement, not replace, security measures.

“This meeting aims to outline the best ways to achieve civil peace in a country known for tolerance, openness and forgiveness,” Minister of Islamic Affairs Ahmed Ould Nini announced at the start of the debate. He said he hoped the discussion would allow participants “to work our way out of a crisis that threatens national security”.

The Salafist prisoners fell into two groups in preparation for the debate. One group, headed by Abdullah Ould Sidia, included 47 prisoners who supported talks with the government and wanted a fresh start in their dealings with authorities. The second group, which included 21 inmates, staunchly opposed such talks. Khadim Ould Semane, jailed since 2008 for the murder of a family of French tourists, led this contingent.

Over at The Moor Next Door, Kal has more. He writes:

This entire process stands in marked contrast to the military’s traditional posture towards Islamists and Islamism. The dialogue process marks the first time the Mauritanian state has recognized the Islamist tendency as a legitimate line of thought, by giving a platform to those alleged to have participated in the Aleg killings and the non-militant Salafist movement, engaging them intellectually as well as politically. It represents an unprecedented measure of cooperation between the two sides.

But he also views the dialogues as part of President Abdel Aziz’s larger strategy to consolidate power by building tactical relationships with different groups.

As Mauritania takes baby steps toward a rehabilitation program, authorities there are undoubtedly considering the Saudi experience. Here’s how, in 2008, Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment summarized the Al Qaeda rehabilitation program there (.pdf):

In the aftermath of a wave of deadly terrorist attacks that began in 2003, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia launched a wide-ranging counterterrorism campaign. Central to Saudi counterterrorism efforts has been the use of unconventional “soft” measures designed to combat the intellectual and ideological justifications for violent extremism. The primary objective of this strategy is to engage and combat an ideology that the Saudi government asserts is based on corrupted and deviant interpretations of Islam. The impetus for this soft approach came in large part from the recognition that violent extremism cannot be combated through tradition security measures alone. This Saudi strategy is composed of three interconnected programs aimed at prevention, rehabilitation, and postrelease care (PRAC).

Although only in operation for the past four years, the Saudi strategy—especially the rehabilitation and counter-radicalization programs—has generated very positive and very intriguing results. To date, recidivist and rearrest rates are extremely low, at approximately 1 to 2 percent.

Interestingly, the Saudi program also began with visits by clerics to prisons (p. 6). The “war of ideas” continues to form the core of the rehabilitation effort, as clerics and counselors attempt to convince prisoners to abandon hardline ideologies.

The substantial resources the Saudi government brings to the table also make a difference: rehabilitation efforts require significant amounts of time and money, as many graduates of the program receive jobs and other benefits from the state (p. 19).

But the Saudi program is not problem-free. Human Rights Watch has criticized the program for holding detainees without charge. And the recidivism rate remains low, but the recidivists can cause huge problems: Said Ali al-Shihri, a Saudi Arabian national who participated in the rehabilitation program after his release from Guantanamo Bay in 2007, “is suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing of the United States Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana, in September” and may be the deputy leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen.

Speaking of Yemen, the government in Sana’a wants to rehabilitate that country’s rehabilitation program, which ran from 2002 to 2005. The Wall Street Journal says the earlier iteration had “mixed results,” but adds that American and Yemeni officials are interested in adding a rehabilitation effort to the current military-heavy approach. Still, Yemen lacks Saudi Arabia’s economic resources, and one proposed solution – a US-funded mega-prison for militants – could look like the Guantanamo of the Gulf, with all the “political fallout” such a venture might bring.

Yemen has a bigger Al Qaeda presence than Mauritania does, but both countries face the same potential problem in their attempts to fight militancy on an intellectual level: they may lack the resources that have allowed Saudi Arabia to peacefully reintegrate so many former jihadists. Still, Washington should keep an open mind about these programs: if top officials in countries across the Arab world are saying they cannot defeat Al Qaeda by military means alone, some kind of rehabilitation effort will be necessary.

*Salafists may not be the right word (and there may not be a right word at all). If “Salafist” means someone who wants to adhere as closely as possible to the practices of the Prophet Muhammad’s Companions, that doesn’t necessarily mean someone who commits violent crimes. But it sounds like some of these Mauritanians are in jail for their dissident political views, and some for their actions, so perhaps no one catchall term, be it jihadis, hardliners, etc, can ever really fit.


5 thoughts on “Rehabilitating Al Qaeda: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Mauritania

  1. Great post Alex and the document from Boucek is of great interest.

    Just one correction: It is Sidi Ould Sidna, Ould Haiba and Sidi Ould Chabarnou (former policemen or army deserters doing drug sale and car stealing in Mauritania) that killed the French tourists near Aleg. They were somehow managed by Al Majlissi, managed by algerian emirs in the Malian North. Not Ould Semane who was anyway one of the salafist ring leaders at large. See an earlier post by Kal.

    You know my very strong stance on this fabricated AQIM.

    • Thanks for the info Tidinit. I was thinking about your feeling that AQIM is fabricated as I was putting the piece together.

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