Saudi Arabia Tries to Rehabilitate Its Jihadists

The U.S. praises the program, although in other areas a Saudi counterterrorism effort falls short.


Saudi prisoners, released after years in detention, are usually taken to an interior ministry rehabilitation center to facilitate their reintegration in society.

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The idea of rehabilitating committed jihadists remains controversial in counterterrorism circles, but an ambitious Saudi program is winning praise from the U.S. State Department. "Saudi Arabia has implemented an effective model rehabilitation program for returning jihadis to turn them against violent extremism and to reintegrate them as peaceful citizens," the department concluded in its annual report on terrorism.

Saudi Arabia says that some 2,000 extremists have passed through its de-radicalization program, where prisoners receive extensive counseling and educational sessions. As many as 700 have been released, and Saudi officials claim recidivism has been negligible.

But Saudi society remains relatively opaque, which has made independent assessments of the program very difficult. U.S. officials say they have been trying to monitor the program with Saudi cooperation. "Most importantly, with their internal deradicalization programs...they treat the individual as a victim, not necessarily as a culprit," says Dell Dailey, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator. "And that's consistent with their culture."

The State Department's broader assessment of Saudi counterterrorism efforts is more mixed. The Saudis did arrest more than 400 suspected terrorists and facilitators, including financiers, last year. But U.S. officials still want the Saudis to implement tougher measures to stop terrorist financing, to remove hateful messages from school textbooks, and to speed up political reforms.

The Bush administration has a complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has long been a close U.S. ally but remains a key source for extremists. Saudis are believed to be the single largest nationality among foreign suicide bombers in Iraq.

And last month, a senior Treasury Department official testifying before Congress was unusually frank about how much work remains for the Saudi government to crack down on terrorist financing. "Saudi Arabia today remains the location where more money is going to terrorism, to Sunni terror groups, and to the Taliban than any other place in the world," said Stuart Levey, a Treasury under secretary.

More broadly, a companion report by the National Counterterrorism Centerfound that the number of terrorism attacks worldwide remained largely steady in 2007, measuring only a tiny decline from the year before. Some 80 percent of the recorded attacks occurred in the Middle East and South Asia. One of the biggest increases took place in Afghanistan, which has seen the number of terrorist attacks more than double between 2005 and 2007.