Jueves 17 de Abril de 2008, Ip nº 226

How to defuse a human bomb
Por Drake Bennett

Saudi Arabia is one of the last places on earth one would expect to find an art therapy course for convicted terrorists. The kingdom, after all, is known for an unforgiving approach to criminal justice: thieves risk having their hands amputated, "sexual deviance" is punishable by flogging, and drug dealers are beheaded.

And yet, over the past few years, jailed Saudi jihadis, led by therapists and motivated by the possibility of a shortened sentence, have been putting paint to paper to work their way through - and hopefully leave behind - the thoughts and feelings that drove them to support violent strains of Islam.

Extremist art therapy, it turns out, is only part of a new global movement to "deradicalize" terrorists. The Saudi program, a multipronged effort, is among the biggest and best-funded, but in recent years a growing number of Muslim countries and countries with large Muslim minorities have started similar ones: Indonesia, Malaysia, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Singapore, Great Britain, and the Netherlands among them. Last September, the US-led military coalition in Iraq created an ambitious program of its own to handle its more than 24,000 detainees. And psychologists and political scientists are starting to take an interest in the topic.

Since 9/11, the focus of the war on terrorism, especially as prosecuted by the United States, has been to capture or kill terrorists. Some analysts have grappled with the question of what leads people to terrorism. Only now, however, are thinkers turning to the equally vital question of what can lead people away from it. According to those running and studying the new deradicalization efforts, such programs are a new front in the battle against extremist organizations like Al Qaeda or Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah - but also an admission that military and police actions alone are no match for the problem. Done well, its proponents promise, deradicalization can undercut terrorist groups by peeling off supporters and even turning them against the groups they once fought for. What's more, a better understanding of deradicalization may lead to a deeper grasp of terrorism's allure.

"This is very exciting and very important. And it's very, very new," says John Horgan, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University and one of the few scholars to have studied several of the programs in detail.

Getting people to reject deeply held beliefs is a complex problem, and some behavioral scientists are skeptical that deradicalization can be successful on a large scale. They point to, among other things, persistently high global recidivism rates among criminals, and the tendency of cult members to return to groups that they've been "rescued" from. Even after ostensible deradicalization, critics caution, many people are likely to revert to their old mental habits, especially when they find themselves back in the environment that inspired them to resort to violence in the first place.

According to Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former CIA analyst and a widely cited authority on radicalization, the changes that result from such programs are shallow, and therefore easily reversible. "You replace one sound bite with another sound bite," he says.

As even its proponents concede, the fact that most programs are only a few years old makes it hard to draw conclusions about what works and what doesn't. Because the programs are being run in the real world, rather than the controlled environment of a psychology laboratory, it's very hard to assign credit and blame for results.

Still, the proliferation of programs promises, at the very least, more data points. At the most basic level, the increasing popularity of such efforts reflects the fact that, as the struggle against terrorism drags on, governments all over the world have to figure out what to do with people who have been locked up on terrorism-related charges when it comes time to release them. The Saudi program was designed in part for the Saudis being released, a few at a time, from Guantanamo.

"You can't build enough jails or kill enough people to make [terrorism] go away," says Christopher Boucek, a lecturer at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School and an expert on the Saudi program.

There is no one model for how to make someone less radical. The programs now underway all differ - in their methodology, their mandate, and their definition of deradicalization itself.

The two biggest programs being run today are in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and both, over their short histories, boast impressively low recidivism rates. According to Boucek, of the roughly 1,500 released from prison through the Saudi program, the government has reported rearresting less than 2 percent. Major General Douglas Stone, commander of detention facilities in Iraq, says that since the US program was set up last September, only 12 of more than 6,000 released inmates have been rearrested. If rearrest rates had stayed constant from preceding years, he says, that number would have been closer to 200. Improved security in the areas of the country many inmates are returning to, he says, also helped.

In both cases, though, the numbers are less impressive than they appear: The programs focus not on hard-core terrorists and ideologues but on marginal members, imprisoned for supporting extremist groups or (in the Iraqi program) supporting the insurgency in relatively minor ways. Anyone imprisoned for terrorism-related crimes can participate in the Saudi program, but serious offenders don't get out of prison any faster for it. "Guys with blood on their hands have not been released," says Boucek.

The Indonesian program, on the other hand, goes after hardened extremists. Its goal is to co-opt terrorist leaders - in particular those of Jemaah Islamiyah, the group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings - and turn them publicly against their former organization. Since its almost accidental origins in 2003 - Nasir Abas, a high-ranking Jemaah Islamiyah member, recanted and agreed after his arrest to try to persuade his former brothers-in-arms to do the same - the Indonesian program has succeeded in turning a few high-profile prisoners, though the majority are so far holding out, according to Sidney Jones, an Indonesia-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a global advocacy organization dedicated to revolving conflicts.

One advantage of this approach is that former extremists have much more credibility with current extremists than the relatively moderate imams brought in to talk to inmates in programs like Singapore's and Saudi Arabia's. The disadvantage, though, is that, despite having forsworn violence, many of these former radicals haven't otherwise moderated their views. "These people are not necessarily deradicalized," says Zachary Abuza, a professor of political science at Simmons College who has studied the Indonesian program. "At the end of this program, you are probably still going to have someone who is committed to the establishment of sharia, who is probably still going to be less than friendly toward non-Muslims and ethnic minorities."

To Horgan, the Pennsylvania State University psychologist, this is all one can hope for in most cases. The very term deradicalization, he believes, is misleading. The point, as he sees it, is not to change the subject's philosophy of life, only to get him to renounce the part of it that condones political violence. "Do we want to stop these guys engaging in terrorism?" he says. "Or do we want to do that and change the way they view the world? I don't think that's a realistically achievable objective."

Among skeptics of deradicalization, some simply cite the stubbornness of human behavior. We don't yet have good data on how well deradicalization programs work - Horgan is leading a comprehensive, detailed study, due to start in June, of the world's existing programs. In the meanwhile, says Clark McCauley, a psychology professor at Bryn Mawr who has studied terrorism and ethnic conflict, we have at least one model to use for comparison: cult deprogramming. In that field, he points out, the results of intervention are often fleeting.

"You should set your sights pretty low," says Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. From country to country, he points out, recidivism rates hover around a remarkably consistent two-thirds for most crimes. "Getting people to stop doing bad things is depressingly difficult," he says.

Other skeptics, like Sageman, are dubious of the idea that taking on terrorist ideology helps fight terrorism. Sageman is one of the most prominent proponents of the argument that terrorism is a predominantly social phenomenon: that people become terrorists not because they are aggrieved or devout or politically conscious, but because, essentially, their friends are doing it.

In fact, deradicalization programs do try to enlist these very forces. The Saudi and Indonesian programs both invite family members to prevail upon inmates to change their ways. The Saudi program goes even further: it has family members sign an agreement upon the release of an inmate swearing that they will be responsible for his behavior. According to Boucek, the Saudi government has also in a few cases even found wives for released inmates in an attempt to insulate them from the predominantly male world of aspiring jihadis.

Still, deprogramming proponents insist, ideology itself does matter in radicalizing and deradicalizing people. Stone, for one, believes this. One of the key parts of the program in Iraq is teaching detainees to read and then giving them the chance to take classes in the Koran led by moderate imams. The process of rejecting their old beliefs and embracing the new ones can be a deeply emotional one. In every graduating class, Stone says, at least one student will break down in tears - and on some occasions students have even become suicidal with shame and grief.

"They realize they have violated the Koran by doing what they did," Stone said. And they realize, he adds, "what that means for the afterlife."

  13/04/2008. Boston.com.


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