How to Deradicalize Islamist Extremists?

I’m having a hard time taking seriously this article by Harvard’s Jessica Stern. Her essay is titled, “Mind Over Martyr: How to Deradicalize Islamist Extremists.” Considering all that’s happened in the last week — and not counting Fort Hood and earlier incidents — I’m convinced that the Ivory Tower is a bit removed from what’s happening on the ground in counterterrorism. And it’s too bad, actually, since Stern’s considered a top expert on international terrorism (and the author of The Ultimate Terrorists).

The idea is that with proper care and intellectual feeding, the most hardline Islamist militants can be rehabilitated. Stern’s extremely sympathetic to the leftist criticism of the American experience at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. And because she’s an academic, I’m giving her a little slack on this. But when she gives examples of how terrorist rehab and social reintegration works, it all just falls apart, baby. Take a look at the introduction, for example (and I’ll just go ahead and highlight in bold the most preposterous section):

Is it possible to deradicalize terrorists and their potential recruits? Saudi Arabia, a pioneer in rehabilitation efforts, claims that it is. Since 2004, more than 4,000 militants have gone through Saudi Arabia’s programs, and the graduates have been reintegrated into mainstream society much more successfully than ordinary criminals. Governments elsewhere in the Middle East and throughout Europe and Southeast Asia have launched similar programs for neo-Nazis, far-right militants, narcoterrorists, and Islamist terrorists, encouraging them to abandon their radical ideology or renounce their violent means or both.

The U.S. government would do well to better understand the successes and failures of such efforts, especially those that target Islamist terrorists. This is important, first, because, as General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, has noted, the United States “cannot kill [its] way to victory” in the struggle against al Qaeda and related groups. Although military action, especially covert military action, is an essential part of the strategy against the Islamist terrorist movement, the United States’ main goal should be to stop the movement from growing. Terrorists do not fight on traditional battlefields; they fight among civilians, which increases the risks of collateral damage. Indeed, Islamist terrorists provoke the governments they oppose into responding in ways that seem to prove that these governments want to humiliate or harm Muslims. Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and “extraordinary rendition” have become for Muslim youth symbols of the United States’ belligerence and hypocrisy.

Second, the effectiveness of deradicalization programs aimed at detained terrorists have direct and immediate effects on U.S. national security. This is especially true regarding the detainees at the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Because it is difficult to gather evidence that is usable in court, some truly bad actors, along with some not so bad ones who have been held unfairly, will inevitably be released. Effective deradicalization programs could help make such individuals less dangerous. Abdallah al-Ajmi, who was repatriated to Kuwait in 2005 on the order of a U.S. judge and was acquitted of terrorism charges by a Kuwaiti court, subsequently carried out a suicide bombing on Iraqi security forces in Mosul that killed 13 Iraqis. Had he received the kind of reintegration assistance and follow-up (including surveillance) now available in Saudi Arabia after his release, he might not have traveled to Iraq.

Third, the success, or failure, of terrorism-prevention programs outside the United States is important to Americans. For one thing, people who carry European passports can enter the United States relatively easily, and so the presence of terrorists in Europe can threaten U.S. national security. For another, terrorism-prevention programs presently under way in, for example, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, could be models for at-risk groups in the United States, such as the Somali community in Minnesota, from which some young men have been recruited to fight alongside al Shabab, the radical Islamist organization that controls southern Somalia and claims to be aligned with al Qaeda. These men do not seem to be plotting attacks in the West, but it is important to think now about how to integrate Somalis into American society more fully in order to reduce the chances that they will carry out attacks in the United States.

The fight against al Qaeda and related groups is not over: Saudi Arabia’s deputy interior minister was nearly killed by a terrorist posing as a repentant militant in August 2009; in September, U.S. government officials interrupted a plot in New York and Denver that they believed was the most significant since 9/11; and in October, the French police arrested a nuclear physicist employed at the CERN accelerator, near Geneva, who reportedly had suggested French targets to members of the Algerian terrorist group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But in the long term, the most important factor in limiting terrorism will be success at curtailing recruitment to and retention in extremist movements.

Now is the moment to try. Counterterrorism efforts have significantly eroded al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia since the “war on terror” began in 2001. U.S. Predator strikes in Pakistan have killed top al Qaeda leaders, disrupting essential communications between the group’s core and its affiliates and new recruits. Testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last September, Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that such activities were “potentially disrupting plots that are under way” and “leaving leadership vacuums that are increasingly difficult to fill.”

Look at that section I’ve highlighted. Abdallah al-Ajmi? I’ve written about him before. See, “Abdullah Saleh Al-Ajmi: From Guantanamo to Martyrdom.” Below is the complex he blew up, Combat Outpost Inman:

According to Rajiv Chandrasekaran, al-Ajmi’s attack “remains the single most heinous act of violence committed by a former Guantanamo detainee.” Chandrasekaran’s essay basically blames the United States for al-Ajmi’s terrorism: “Was his descent into unrepentant radicalism an unintended consequence of his incarceration?” Chandrasekaran also quotes Washington attorney Thomas Wilner, “Guantanamo took a kid — a kid who wasn’t all that bad — and it turned him into a hostile, hardened individual …”

Wasn’t all that bad? Just like Jessica Stern’s deradicalized extremists? The article just barely mentions that al-Ajmi was never subjected to severe forms of enhanced interrogation. Actually, it sounds like the kid got a little homesick. Maybe the American grunts hurt his feelings. Sure, no doubt he just hitched up with violent jihad after bawling his eyes on the shoulders of some of Camp Gitmo’s most hardened terrorist inmates. But we’ve got to go easy on these folks! No personal responsibility here, you know? Americans have got to shoulder responsibillity for the Mosul bombing from 2008? Thirteen dead? Blame President Bush!

And how about these reports, from ABC News, “Two al Qaeda Leaders Behind Northwest Flight 253 Terror Plot Were Released by U.S. – Former Guantanamo Prisoners Believed Behind Northwest Airlines Bomb Plot; Sent to Saudi Arabia in 2007,” and CNN, “Former Gitmo Detainees Investigated in Airline Bombing Plot.”

According to ABC’s report:

Two of the four leaders allegedly behind the al Qaeda plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit were released by the U.S. from the Guantanamo prison in November 2007, according to American officials and Department of Defense documents. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Northwest bombing in a Monday statement that vowed more attacks on Americans.

American officials agreed to send the two terrorists from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia, where they entered into an “art therapy rehabilitation program” and were set free, according to U.S. and Saudi officials. ABC News described their enrollment in the art therapy program in a January report.

It turns out PBS did a rave puff program on the jihadi rehab initiative. See Pat in Shreveport, “Jihad Art Rehab.” Amazingly, she cites an article from Psychology Today, “Jihad Rehab: Can Art Therapy Cure Terrorism?

Pamela Geller also comments, “This is why releasing enemy combatants is a mentally deranged leftist policy.”

Perhaps Professor Stern will respond to this post. Maybe she’ll want to revisit her “deradicalization” thesis, no?

Cross-posted from American Power.

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