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Yousef al Ramah and Abdullah Sharif paint on a tree of life with an art therapist at the Care Centre in Saudi Arabia.
Yousef al Ramah and Abdullah Sharif paint on a tree of life with an art therapist at the Care Centre in Saudi Arabia.

A creative release for militant minds

Rehabilitation through art is part of a multifaceted programme that Saudi authorities offer detained extremists.

RIYADH // The art students are not enthusiastic. Painting, they say, is for children. It is an understandable reaction from veterans of fighting in Afghanistan, survivors of an American detention camp and men who wanted to kill US soldiers in Iraq. But as the weeks go by, the men warm to this new outlet for their feelings and their artwork grows more revealing. They find they "can dig down into their souls and express [emotions] because, you know, the unconscious mind holds a lot of stuff", says Awad Alyami, the men's art therapist.

Unlocking the unconscious mind through art is just a small part of an ambitious, multifaceted rehabilitation programme that Saudi authorities have been offering to thousands of detained extremists for the past four years. Designed to counter the radical ideology that has pushed thousands of young Muslims towards violence at home and abroad, the programme uses a combination of theological re-education, psychological counselling, prison time and financial incentives to convince militants to abandon what officials here call "deviant" or "misguided" beliefs.

It is run by an advisory committee that includes a religious subcommittee of about 100 clerics, a psychological-social subcommittee of about 30 psychologists and social scientists, and a security subcommittee, which determines suitability for release and monitors former prisoners. The Saudis have not gone soft - they are building five new prisons. But they say they realise they are not going to defeat terrorism by force alone.

When dealing with ideology and emotions, "locking him up is not enough", says Dr Turki M al Otayan, assistant professor of psychology at the interior ministry's King Fahd Security College and co-ordinator of the psychological-social subcommittee. "We have to fix his mind and change his emotions to directly change his behaviour." Other countries, including Egypt, Singapore, Yemen and Algeria - and US military officials in Iraqi detention facilities - have launched similar programmes, with varying degrees of success.

It is too soon to claim long-term success, but Saudi officials say they are pleased with results so far. About half of the 3,200 prisoners who have gone through the programme have been released from prison. Those re-arrested "are very few, I'm sure less than five, if not one per cent", said Dr Abdurrahman al Hadlaq, director general of ideological security at the ministry of interior. Dr Hadlaq is senior adviser to Prince Mohammed bin Naif, the assistant interior minister and prime architect of the rehabilitation programme.

One reason for the initial success is that participants have been mostly sympathisers of extremist networks who may have provided financial or logistical help; enthusiastic visitors to jihadi websites, and men caught trying to go to Iraq or captured there. The 120 Saudis released from Guantanamo Bay also go through the programme. (Of 136 Saudis originally detained in Guantanamo, three died in what US officials termed suicides, and 13 are still being held.)

Hardcore militants, who Dr Hadlaq says make up about 10 per cent of Saudi security detainees, have mostly declined to participate in the voluntary programme. "We don't force anyone," he says, "because you are dealing with ideology." Prisoners, who are mostly in their 20s, unmarried and have only a high school diploma, first meet with psychologists to discuss problems they have, what they want to do in life, and what support they or their families need.

They also have individual sessions with Islamic religious scholars. "A religious adviser ? speaks with you, and asks you what you believe and they discuss with you on what basis you believe in that, and they try to change your mind by convincing," says Khalid al Hubayshi, who was released from Guantanamo in 2005. "It's helped so many guys in the prison, they like it." Prisoners can request a sheikh to talk with, and request a different one if they do not like the one they are first assigned, Mr Hubayshi says.

Dr Hadlaq says many prisoners "have limited knowledge about Islam". A former prisoner who served five years for illegal weapons dealing, and who declined to be identified because of the stigma attached to one-time extremists, says he appreciated the easy-going style of Ahmed Jailan, a senior cleric responsible for the rehabilitation programme. "This guy was very open-minded with us, he's very down to earth, he would even joke with us and show us some funny clips on his mobile," says the 30-year-old former detainee. "It made me see that Islam is a peaceful, tolerant religion."

This spiritual counselling is supplemented by a six-week course that covers such issues as jihad, relations with non-Muslims, the men who have the authority to issue a fatwa and a proper understanding of takfir, the practice of declaring other Muslims to be apostates. The course also examines psychological development and self-esteem. Passing the final exam is mandatory. "Our main goal is to open their minds and to correct their thoughts," says Abdel Aziz al Hileyl, a cleric. "We teach them to be in the middle of Islam."

Financial incentives are a key part of the programme. The former weapons dealer said the government has helped him return to university, gave him money for his marriage and bought him a car. "We all need the financial support especially after the time we spent in prison," he says. Also, he added, "a lot of these kids do need that reward to get their loyalty because if the government doesn't reward them, other groups will end up buying their loyalty. And that's a dangerous thing."

Families also receive subsidies, with the amount depending on need. Despite some criticism, Dr Hadlaq says the public generally accepts the government's rationale for these payments. "It is very important to win the hearts and minds of the family because then they will ? help us in rehabilitating these guys fully," he says. In a statement issued on Aug 14, the interior ministry said relatives of five men involved in extremist activity had called the ministry's hotline to turn them in.

In early 2007, the rehabilitation programme added its latest feature: a halfway house for prisoners being released. Known as the Care Centre, the sprawling walled property on the outskirts of Riyadh offers a camp-like environment where prisoners prepare to transfer back into society. Security is minimum - the main gate has a pickup truck with a mounted machine gun. And residents are allowed to make unaccompanied visits home.

The point is not to keep the prisoners in by force but rather to have them make responsible decisions on their own, officials say. "If you do something later on, you ? are not blaming the government, you are not blaming Islam, or society," Dr Otayan says. "You are the one who is responsible." There is a swimming pool, volleyball net, table tennis and a PlayStation. Residents, who each have their own room, can call their families at any time. Staff members, including security personnel, wear civilian clothes and mingle informally with residents.

Compared to prison, "it's very luxurious", says the former weapons dealer. "You have plenty of free time ? you can talk to your family at any time, and they only require of us to go to training sessions." Offered twice a day, those sessions cover small business start-ups, anger management and the art therapy. "The job of the security forces is to keep the guys off the street by force," Dr Otayan says. "Our job is to ease them up and try to build up their personality again, to let them live a normal life [so that] instead of loving death, they love life."

The one-time gun-seller says the centre's staff also "made sure to tell us about" the reactions they would get on the outside. "They have three classifications," he said. One is the "praisers", who will tell them not to give up their old beliefs. Next come the shunners, who "don't believe you changed" and will "still make us feel guilty and ashamed", he says. Last, there are the families who may be "overprotective", wanting to know your every move.

The centre's 194 graduates so far were either caught trying to go to Iraq or released from Guantanamo Bay. The government's announcement in June that it had arrested more than 500 people this year for extremist activities raises the question of whether the rehabilitation programme is being overwhelmed by the jihadi undertow. Dr Hadlaq's reply: "If we don't have these efforts, you might see 5,000 [arrested] instead of 500."

Dr Otayan says there is only so much the programme can accomplish. "We can't guarantee ? that no one who leaves here won't do anything bad," he says. "We do not guarantee a person's thoughts. He might change his mind. Life is change ? But we do our programme in a certain way ? We want to make sure that the person has been convinced by himself." Clearly, Saudi officials are pinning their hopes on some of their successes, such as the former weapons dealer.

"I want to be a coach in the programme," he says. @Email:cmurphy@thenational.ae

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