Can Guantánamo’s terrorists learn to change?

It appears about a third of the current Guantánamo detainees will be released in the near future and shipped off to some sort of a rehabilitation center in Yemen. In the State of the Union address, President Obama reiterated his administration’s policy to close the detention center, and the Department of Defense has cleared approximately 55 Yemeni detainees for release.

However, Congress placed limits on repatriation, one of which effectively requires Yemen to establish a formal rehabilitation center for returning detainees. Establishing a rehabilitation center in Yemen is sound policy and, if done effectively, will reduce the significant risk of these detainees re-engaging in terrorist activity. In Yemen, plans are in the works for such a center, based largely on a similar center in Saudi Arabia. However, few details have been made public.

There has been considerable debate on the Saudi center’s efforts to “deradicalize” former terrorists. Supporters of deradicalization view it as the strategy to counter violent extremism both at home and abroad. Some critics have questioned the effectiveness of deradicalization; others question its morality, likening it to the brainwashing in the literary and cinema classic A Clockwork Orange.

Simply put, deradicalization is a process to change individuals’ political or religious beliefs through dialogue as a means to convince them to abandon terrorism.

It is not mind control — the detainee still maintains free will. Some detainees may consciously choose to abandon terrorism. Others may not. Still others may feign a change of heart in order to be released.

While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of deradicalization, rehabilitation is not limited to this single approach. Terrorism rehabilitation programs have taken various forms in Pakistan, Indonesia, Colombia and Northern Ireland with positive results.

These approaches have been used in a variety of settings, such as prisons, halfway houses, military detention centers, and even non-custodial settings. These efforts have included various combinations of approaches including deradicalization, demobilization, parole and post-release monitoring.

The objective of any risk mitigation program should be to prevent the individual from re-engaging in terrorism, whether or not the subject truly has a change of heart.

Demobilization is a system of incentives and disincentives designed to convince subjects to abandon violence. However, unlike deradicalization, demobilization does not necessarily aim to change the detainee’s belief system.

In addition to deradicalization and demobilization, parole regimes set various conditions for release, including the threat of reincarceration. Post-release monitoring (such as mandatory meetings with police officers and clandestine surveillance) is also an effective deterrent to re-engaging in terrorism.

Deradicalization, demobilization, parole and post-release monitoring are not mutually exclusive and can be used simultaneously.

While reducing the recidivism risk to zero is impossible, the most promising risk-mitigation program would include deradicalization, demobilization, strict post-release parole, and a rigorous post-release monitoring regime.

The objective of the rehabilitation should be to transition the detainees from long-term detention at Guantánamo into Yemeni society, making the halfway house model the most apt.

The center should be staffed with religious, psychological and social-services experts from outside of government.

As in the Saudi center, religious scholars should use dialogue in an effort to deradicalize detainees.

As part of the demobilization effort, the center should provide financial payments, family counseling, mental-health services, basic education, and job assistance.

Post-release, Yemen must closely monitor the detainees with physical surveillance, home visits and meetings with security services. As a form of group demobilization, the detainees’ tribal elders could be incentivized to enforce parole agreements by acknowledging the parolees’ obligation not to commit terrorist acts or join militant groups.

While it is in the interests of the United States to repatriate the Yemeni detainees who have been cleared for release, it must do so in a manner that does not strengthen al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Beyond relying on deradicalization alone, the most promising strategy to reduce the risk of recidivism is to combine multiple risk-reduction approaches effectively utilized by other countries.

Charles E. Berger is an Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is currently on sabbatical at the Council on Foreign Relations as the National Intelligence Fellow. These are his views and do not necessarily reflect those of the FBI.

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