Can Gitmo's Jihadists Be Rehabilitated?

How effective are rehabilitation programs for captured jihadists? Gregory Johnsen of Princeton, editor of the forthcoming book Islam and Insurgency in Yemen, offers his thoughts as the Obama administration prepares to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Joining us now is Gregory Johnsen with Princeton University's Near Eastern Studies department. He's also the editor of the forthcoming book, "Islam and Insurgency in Yemen." And he joins us to talk about rehabilitation programs that are designed to deprogram Jihadists. Welcome to the program.

Mr. GREGORY JOHNSEN (PhD candidate, Princeton University; Editor, "Islam and Insurgency in Yemen"): Thanks.

NORRIS: How exactly do these programs work? How do they rehabilitate former Jihadists?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, the idea is essentially that you have state-approved scholars who will talk with these Jihadists who have been released or brought back from Iraq or from Guantanamo, and that they'll be able to convince them that their understanding of Islam and what Islam preaches about Jihad and about defending Muslim lands is actually incorrect. And that they shouldn't be engaged in this sort of activity.

NORRIS: It sounds almost like a tutorial of some kind of. It's hard to believe that people who would pledge to take up the fight against the U.S. would put down their arms and just shed their ideology based on some sort of classroom tutorial.

Mr. JOHNSEN: Right, and I think that's the problem that you're seeing with a lot of people who come out with these programs who've returned to the fight. The idea being that the state's scholars will convince them that they've made a mistake and that their understanding of Islam has been twisted and perverted, but what we're finding is that these scholars are so tied up with the state that their association almost invalidates what it is that they're trying to tell the detainees.

NORRIS: Now, there are rehabilitation programs in Yemen and also in Saudi Arabia. The program in Yemen has had a mixed record of success. The program in Saudi Arabia seems to be much more successful and is held up as a model. Why does one work, and why does the other not work?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, the Yemen model, which ran from September 2002 to December 2005, was really the first model. While the Yemeni state is very weak and it doesn't have the money or security forces or infrastructure to really kind of follow through on the 364 individuals that it released, the Saudi state kind of took the Yemen initial idea and almost made it rehab 2.0.

Saudi has a better infrastructure. They can follow up better, and also they're able to keep a much better track of some of the individuals who they've released. But again this is - it's far from perfect.

NORRIS: As someone who's studied these, looked closely at both programs in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, can these rehabilitation programs work?

Mr. JOHNSEN: I believe while the one in Saudi can be fairly successful, and we have to remember that the reason the Saudi program has had the success it has had is because it's dealing with the easiest cases. So most of the hard individuals - the people who they think and they have more suspicions that will go back and fight, haven't went through that program.

In the Yemeni case, I just don't see a rehabilitation program working. It might be something that would kind of almost pass the buck from the U.S. to Yemen, but then, in the long run, it'll come back to, I think, haunt the U.S. because these individuals, when they get out, a few of them at least, will go on to carry out attacks or attempt to carry out attacks. And so the U.S. will be put in a position where they have to re-arrest individuals for attacks that claimed lives that they once had in custody.

NORRIS: I don't mean to belabor this, but there's a very basic question. Can a Jihadist be rehabilitated?

Mr. JOHNSEN: An individual can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society if they only went along with Jihad kind of because it was something that the group of friends that they were involved in was doing or something that their relatives or brothers may have been doing, but they didn't feel very strongly.

However, the people who feel quite strongly and have made this a life choice, there's nothing that you can say that's going to get them to change their minds.

NORRIS: Gregory Johnsen, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Mr. JOHNSEN: Thanks so much for having me.

NORRIS: Gregory Johnsen is with Princeton University's Near Eastern Studies Department. He's also the editor of a forthcoming book called, "Islam and Insurgency in Yemen."

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