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Combating Extremism: Saudi Arabia’s Reformative Paradigm – Analysis


The experience of Saudi Arabia shows that there is cause for cautious optimism, and the phenomenon of uncompromising and politically destabilising radical political Islam may be a subject that we can slowly but surely overcome in the next historical phase of the modern era.

By Matthew Parish*

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon, and by no means is it confined to the Islamic world. Terrorist events during Roman rule, such as murder of collaborators with Rome, extends at least as far back as the first century AD: in other words, several centuries before the birth of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. Both a Russian Tsar and a US President have been assassinated in terrorist actions, the former by a revolutionary socialist and the latter by a former US marine who had betrayed communist leanings. The Fenian Brotherhood was a nineteenth century religiously-inspired terrorist organisation opposed to British rule of Ireland. The Ku Klux Klan operated as a Christian terrorist organisation in the United States for many years.

The distinctive association of terrorist acts with political Islam is a relatively recently observed relationship, and it has occupied much analysis and comment. It is hard to place precisely when terrorism became associated so strongly with radical beliefs in political Islam. But the media elevation of Osama Bin-Laden, and his inchoate international ideological financing movement Al-Qaida (“the Base”), seems to have occurred around the time of the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. The events of 11 September 2001 in the United States, attributed to the same organisation, shocked the entire globe including the Islamic world. Thereafter an international political determination arose to fight terrorism born of Islamic political extremism in every possible way.

This is an exceptional phenomenon, because the contemporary terrorism that concerns us all so much is not just undertaken by people who are of the Islamic religion but also in furtherance of what it is said are Islamic religious principles but which every sane person of the Muslim faith harbours palpable want of sympathy. The Palestine Liberation Organisation had committed a number of terrorist acts since its founding in 1964, and the perpetrators were Muslim. But they were not Islamic terrorists in the sense referred to in this essay, because the political goals they alleged justified their acts of terror were not in essence propositions of religious doctrine. Rather they were assertions of rights to territory for a group of people who are not exclusively Muslim at all (for example, a substantial proportion of Palestinians are Christians). Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inevitably has and continues to adopt a religious discourse from time to time, it is fundamentally different from the challenge of Islamic extremist violence that concerns the world and with which this essay is concerned.

Terrorism has always been a tool of the politically less powerful, who tend to resort to it to try to increase their negotiating leverage for a political settlement of some kind. But the curious feature of contemporary so-called Islamic terrorism is that there is no such political settlement or compromise that the terrorists seem to want to achieve. Rather their goals appear incomprehensible to any seasoned political observer. They entail either a demand that others embrace an extreme religious doctrinal conservatism that is not and never will be accepted by the vast majority of Muslims; or their political aspirations appear fantastical, premised upon impossible myths such as compelling the entire world to become an Islamic Caliphate or the wholesale murder of non-Muslims because they are asserted to be heretical and hence their lives are without value. These are not things that the vast majority of Muslims believe.

The challenge facing the contemporary international policy-maker is that it is impossible to negotiate with such people, because the starting point of the political movement of which they purport to form a part is so wholly unrealistic that no compromise can ever be achieved. This gives rise to an extremely difficult question, which this essay does not address: how did it come to be that this sort of terrorist, with totally unrealistic political goals based upon a manifest distortion of the theology of a peaceful religion, become as widespread as it has? This is not a movement with an obvious prior precedent.

However challenging and important that question, however, this essay will confine itself to the more humble question of how one reacts to the rise of such movements; and in particular whether there is a method of rehabilitating the people who have embraced such an ideology rather than simply adopting the approach of exterminating them through violent means and/or incarcerating them so as to prevent their causing further harm.

The third way is known by some as de-radicalisation. In Saudi Arabia, one of the countries that has developed this kind of approach to the greatest degree of sophistication, it is known as the Care Rehabilitation Centre programme. The purpose of this essay is to explore in outline terms the debate about whether Saudi Arabia’s approach has worked, and its possible effects elsewhere. For if such an approach is possible at all, then a country with the resources and experience of Saudi Arabia should show us what is possible and what is not.

There are perhaps two incontestable premises to an enquiry into the process of de-radicalisation. The first is that if de-radicalisation is possible, then mutatis mutandis it is preferable to war or incarceration, both of which are expensive and are inevitably going to cause some degree of substantial further suffering beyond that already caused by the act of the terrorist, not least to the individual’s family and/or the innocent who always die in war. The second premise of de-radicalisation is that we should probably infer that because the political aspirations and theological deviancy of the contemporary breed of terrorist are so bizarre, persons engaging in terrorism must be said, in some way or other, to be of unsound mind or, at the very least, not operating within the normal scale of human reactions to other people and ideas.

One view of de-radicalisation might be to view it as parallel to medical or psychiatric treatment of convicts deemed to be mentally ill, and as an alternative to their criminal punishment. The ethical dilemmas involved in subjecting terrorists to de-radicalisation have strong parallels with this aspect of ethical and philosophical debate about penology. Different countries take different views towards the idea that a criminal should be considered sick and deserving of treatment rather than punishment. Hence it should be no surprise that different Muslim states likewise take different views about the ethics of de-radicalisation of members of their communities infected by ideological extremism.

Irrespective of ethical debates, the most important question it always whether de-radicalisation can work. Saudi Arabia is the nation for empirical study of this question, because its programme has been so much more extensive than other Muslim nations.

Saudi Arabia first instituted its Care Rehabilitation Centre programme in 2003. Although this was not the first such programme (that being the prerogative of the Arab Republic of Egypt, in 1999), the Saudi regime is the most comprehensive. Under the custody of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, the assistant minister of security affairs, the programme involves incarceration of Islamic extremists in circumstances distinctive from those of a regular prison. Accommodation facilities are relatively moderate by the standards of international penology, although participants in the programme are not free to leave and in the external security perimeters of the Rehabilitation Centre operate under conditions of high security. The participants’ daily regime is dominated by intensive theological study. The theological premises underlying the extremist ideologies motivating their acts of terrorism are debated and subjected to critical scrutiny with members of the clergy, and the doctrinal misconceptions under which they operate are emphasised to the participants in intellectual and doctrinal terms.

Conditions inside the Rehabilitation Centre are not specifically punitive. The emphasis instead is upon re-education. The assumption upon which the Rehabilitation Centre works is that persons involved in acts of terror on misconceived theological grounds are in their nature devout Muslims. Of this there can be little doubt, since only in placing a sense of duty (however misconceived) over natural human sentiments could they compel themselves to act in such inhumane ways. Hence they are by their nature people orientated towards a sense of acting predominantly via duty rather than the more ordinary vagaries of human sentiment.

If through doctrinal argument and theological study their sense of duty can be reformed so as to procure consistent compliance with the peaceful and orderly tenets of mainstream Islam, then there are two prospective advantages. Firstly, they may be released back into society, rather than being incarcerated indefinitely or executed. By treating them in these harsher ways, the state would run the risk of their being perceived as martyrs for other radicalised elements of the population. Secondly, they may serve as advocates within radicalised Muslim communities to speak about the fallacies of radicalisation, and possibly even occupy a role as informants upon those determined to spread radicalised views.

Under the Islamic doctrine of rehabilitation of takfir (unbelievers), members of the clergy engage constantly with those participating in the Rehabilitation Centre programme. After a programme of rehabilitation to determine whether their rehabilitation has been effective, those deemed fit are released. This involves an intrusive task of enquiry, but those considered to have reformed are thereafter handed over from custody to their families upon a decision of a Periodic Review Board. Thereafter they will be monitored, to ensure that relapses in doctrinal adherence do not occur. In some cases, surveillance is absolute, a luxury afforded to the Saudi state by reason of its prosperity and the resources devoted thereupon to its security services. In the event of recurrence, the former participant in a de-radicalisation programme may be recalled into custody. The Saudi system thereby might be regarded as parallel with the common law system of parole.

In the event of release, rates of recidivism after release appear low. At least one study has calculated rates of recidivism to be as moderate as 10% or even far lower. Contrast this with recidivism rates upon release from Anglo-Saxon prison systems, which are often as high as 50-75%. Whatever the rationale of the system, if has appeared demonstrably effective. It is a contemporary prison reform movement.

There have been critics of the system of de-radicalisation, but for the most part their criticisms have born relatively moderate substance. It has been observed that rates of recidivism for those Saudi citizens released from US detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay and thereafter placed in the Care Rehabilitation Centre programme have been substantially higher: possibly in the region of 20%. One batch of former Guantanamo Bay inmates proved particularly resistant to the programme of de-radicalisation; but that may be because they had developed their own (informal) programme of collective self-radicalisation while in US custody, the cycle of which proved particularly hard to break through subsequent Saudi institutionalisation.

Many, or even most, of the individuals released from Guantanamo Bay after captured fighting for irregular or unrecognised armed forces in Afghanistan were motivated by extremist religious ideologies over an extended period in Afghanistan. One would expect them to be amongst the most ideologically hardened in favour of deviant and violent constructions of political Islam, for whatever psychological reasons relating to their history of participation in heretical forms of jihad and thereafter their incarceration with other extremists in conditions of isolation. Moreover it remains to be observed that a 20% recidivism rate might be regarded an extraordinarily impressive result in respect of so particularly distinctive a group of extremists that virtually no other country in the world has had nearly so successful a plan of action.

Perhaps the most revealing indices of the Saudi programme’s success are the extremists’ response to it. Firstly, an Islamic extremist attempted to assassinate Prince Muhammad in 2009. Secondly, Al-Qaida itself has issued statements in one form or another denouncing the Rehabilitation Centre programme: something which surely they would do only if they perceived it as a grave threat.

Another country – but by no means the only one to do so – that has adopted a de-radicalisation programme is Pakistan, with a view to reintegrating former Taliban fighters into society. The project here is all the formidable, because the relative proportion of resources to candidates for participation in such a programme is necessarily more modest. Jihadists in Pakistan’s frontier provinces with Afghanistan have been present at least since the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. But the religiously ideological nature of their motivations has become more prevalent as the Taliban seized power in 2001 upon an explicit mandate of doctrinal religious fundamentalism so dogmatic that it represented a palpable departure from all standards of moderate Islamic theology.

Pakistan’s efforts to de-radicalise those infected by Al-Qaida’s doctrinaire approach to political Islam has been combined with political efforts at preserving the country’s western territorial integrity. De-radicalisation has therefore been combined on the one hand with peace negotiations with tribal leaders in frontier provinces with whom it has been regarded as possible to work, while at the same time periodically engaging in armed conflict with those tribal leaders regarded as beyond the pale. Statistical information about the success of Pakistan’s de-radicalisation programme is hard to come by, by virtue of the comparative difficulty of collective reliable data in a socio-economic environment more challenging than that of Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless the ultimate success of Pakistan’s de-radicalisation programme will probably stand or fall with the Islamabad government’s ability to reach lasting accord with the tribal authorities in its western frontier provinces, and to eliminate the power of those tribes with whom accord is not possible.

Another country that will inevitably need to embrace the lessons of Saudi Arabia is Iraq. The radicalised Sunni groups that congealed to form the Islamic State are some of the most ideologically hardened in recent times. It also seems intuitively unlikely that once the Islamic State suffers resounding military defeat (as now appears probable), Iraq’s central government, with its distinctive Shia majority, will be able valuably to serve a significant role in any exercise in de-radicalisation that the remnant authorities and fighters after battle of the Islamic State will surely require before they can be released into society to re-begin any semblance of ordinary lives. The Islamic State’s pretensions to be a state; its relative longevity in succeeding in this task; and the unprecedented ideological extremism and barbarity of its leaders and fighters; and all this combined with their technological and administrative sophistication, indicates that the post-Islamic State process of de-radicalisation might be the most demanding yet.

The question therefore arises as to who is it to undertake such a task. For the same reasons as Baghdad, a Damascus-driven de-radicalisation programme is likely unfeasible. Any Sunni sovereign in the region that elects to undertake the process unilaterally risks accusation of renewed unilateral engagement in a proxy war. Although I have no settled answers to this dilemma at the time of writing, it seems likely that a relatively diverse coalition of Sunni authorities in the region might need collectively to take custody of what may turn out to be the most difficult de-radicalisation process attempted to date. Moreover they may need to do that without upsetting the precarious balance of power that appears destined to emerge in post-war Syria. This will be a challenge indeed.

Finally, it is worth observing that whatever the causes of terrorism, the global trend – notwithstanding the sense of perennial alarmism generated by the 24-hour news cycle – is towards a reduction in terrorist incidents. According to a 2012 comparative empirical study by the University of Baltimore academic Ivan Sascha Sheehan, the number of terrorist events globally has persisted at a relatively low level in absolute terms over the last twenty years. There is substantially less violent extremism than there was thirty or forty years ago, albeit that the locations where it occurs may have broadened.

Although parsing the different causes of this statistical drop may well be an impossible task, de-radicalisation should surely be conceived at least potentially as a substantial significant factor in this trend. Although the methods of effective de-radicalisation are a set of lessons still being learned, these lessons have in substantial ways already been learned as well. Hence, I would tentatively suggest, there is cause for cautious optimism, and the phenomenon of uncompromising and politically destabilising radical political Islam may be a subject that we can slowly but surely overcome in the next historical phase of the modern era.

*Matthew Parish is a former UN peacekeeper in the Balkans and formerly served as Legal Counsel at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Washington, DC. He is the Managing Partner of the Gentium Law Group in Geneva, and formerly served as Chief Political Advisor to Vuk Jeremic in the selection process to become the next UN Secretary General in 2016. Mr Jeremic came second. Matthew is now a key political supporter of the Secretary General, Antonio Guterres.,

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