x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

'Book shopping for al Qa'eda': a little flexibility in the jails

Rehabilitation programmes in Arab prisons have become increasingly valuable because of the rise in terrorism-related crime.

Terrorism cannot be overcome by force alone. Rehabilitation programmes in Arab prisons have become increasingly valuable because of the rise in terrorism-related crime, but at the same time prisons remain fruitful recruiting grounds for al Qa'eda and other terrorist groups. In 2007, I spent one year working as a protection officer with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Lebanon. It was an eye-opening experience that left me wondering about whether to use the words "terrorist" or "jihadi" to describe the men I dealt with on a daily basis. I was in charge of what the authorities call the "Terrorist Wing" in Roumieh Prison in Beirut. The "VIP guests" of the wing consisted mainly of al Qa'eda and Fateh al Islam convicts. Part of my job was to make sure political prisoners received adequate food and water, proper visitation hours and access to medical facilities. I also relayed messages back and forth with their families, among others duties in the field. With every conversation, I understood more and more that the battle to win hearts and minds was the way to bring them back to a normal life and reverse their way of thinking. The Saudis knew this when they set up their "reform programme" years ago. Religious scholars who took on the mission of enlightening prisoners about the true teachings of Islam were surprised at the faulty misinterpretations of the Quran many of their prisoners followed. Saudi detainees whom I interviewed in Roumieh confirmed that their government had given millions of dollars to support those prisoners willing to change and review their jihadi beliefs. Authorities offered amnesty and support with jobs, houses and even bank accounts stocked with money. These gifts handed out by authorities were an attempt to convince prisoners that the government was not their enemy. Indeed, with such generosity, Saudi prisoners in Roumieh Prison were the most spoiled, walking around in baby blue Crocs sandals donated by the Saudi embassy. Not all governments are that generous with their "terrorists". It's a sad reality that the cells of Roumieh are filled with an average of five detainees, although they are built only for two. Many of the so-called fighters were young cooks or drivers who had never carried a gun. Rehabilitation programmes should target these young men relentlessly before they advance up the bin Laden ladder of success. I would watch the dozens of men who would sit on the concrete floor, reading the Quran in the open air and trying to catch a little more sunlight, a luxury they looked forward to all night. General boredom was plain on their faces. Were they in need of something to read besides the Quran for entertainment purposes? The idea of using books to rehabilitate these men hit my brain like thunder bolt. Yes, books about art, travel, cinema, the human body, natural remedies and, of course, more fun genres. "They need to believe in a new concept - computer graphics, gardening, maybe alternative medicine or space travel; a reason to love life," I was yelling as I pitched the idea to my boss. Eventually, we submitted an official request to the Lebanese Ministry of Defence requesting permission to supply the prison with a collection of books donated by the ICRC. The agreement was sealed with conditions stating that books could not be political in nature and the warden would have to personally approve each title. "Book shopping for al Qa'eda," the phrase rang in my head as I roamed a book store scanning the shelves. I looked like one of those spoiled brats who goes on a shopping spree in the mall with Dad's credit card. The owner shadowed me as I speedily picked various books off the shelves and placed them in a big plastic bag he was carrying. Fishing, English in Seven Days, French, Picasso, How to Build a Business Plan, astronomy, Greek mythology, Hamlet, Hollywood, the Olympics, Khalil Gibran; I was picturing the faces of the prisoners as I picked each title. My eyes locked on yoga books displayed prominently on the shelves. I tried to imagine one of those strict sheikhs or professional killers doing a yoga position as he learnt to control his breathing or his body chakras. Why not? They sit all day in their cells over-thinking life. Yoga could actually do them good. Minutes later I watched the owner ring up three different books about yoga among the 200 carefully selected titles I had purchased. "No yoga!" That was the message written on the warden's face as he sat flipping through the books on the wooden desk of his modest room in the building overlooking the prison's outdoor courtyard. The militant, stern-faced Muslim man was convinced that the images in the book of a female yoga instructor wearing a black spandex suit would inspire a sexual response from the fundamentalist prisoners in the "Terrorist Wing". Coincidently, I was pulled out as my mission came to end a few days later. I left Beirut, and never found out if the yoga books were allowed or not. They say in every man there lies a book waiting to be written. In my book, even if it takes a little bending to win the counter-terrorism war, then let it be. Mohamed Fadel Fahmy is a senior producer with Al Hurra television