**Update: See our response to ABC News’ poor news coverage of Saudi Arabia’s art therapy and rehab program for terrorists.
PBS and reporter Nancy Durham take a look inside Saudi Arabia’s innovative reform program for former militant extremists. The rehabilitation program uses a combination of psychological counseling, religious re-education, and art therapy to help reform these former militant jihadists. This video discusses art therapy and how it’s used for rehab.
From Jihad to Rehab Video
You can see some of the artwork and read more about this here.
From Jihad to Rehab Transcript
Dr. Alyami: Get that negative energy out on the paper. It’s safe here. It’s on the paper, it’s not outside.
Nancy Durham: Saudia Arabia, known for having one of the most conservative governments in the world, has adopted a passionate, creative approach to combating Islamic extremism. At a rehabilitation center, housed in a former holiday resort outside Riyadh, Dr. Awad Alyami is using art therapy as part of a program to reform ex-jihadists.
These men have all been involved with militant Islamic extremism. They’ve done prison time for their crimes and now they’re just a step away from freedom. Men who once set out to fight the infidel are now working out their problems with paper and crayons.
Dr. Alyami learned about this innovative approach while studying in the United States.
Dr. Alyami: It’s not revolutionary a hundred percent because my colleagues in England, Canada, in the states…they’re doing some art in jail, but not with my type of population.
Nancy Durham: Yeah, this is what’s new. I mean these are guys who couldn’t have cared less about art…(tough to understand this part).
Dr. Alyami: Yes, Nancy do you think it was easy for me to start the program with them? No, I was scared to death to start with them. Really…because I had that idea that these are uh…criminals. They blow up buildings and stuff.
Nancy Durham: Mohammed al Shareef arrived at the center one month ago after serving a 1-year prison term for joining the insurgency in Iraq.
Mohammed al Shareef: They want me just to make…blow…explosion…just to fight.
Nancy Durham: They wanted you to be a suicide bomber?
Mohammed al Shareef: Yeah.
Nancy Durham: What was it you thought you could do to help?
Mohammed al Shareef: Just to kill American…to get them outside Iraq…or outside our countries.
Nancy Durham: In order to be accepted into the rehabilitation program, inmates must demonstrate willingness to reconsider their extremist views. Al Shareef now says he was wrong to go to Iraq and that he’s sorry. He says he’s found heaven on earth here. In his picture, the sun rises out of the ground.
Dr. Alyami: Good. So what’s the meaning of this?
Mohammed al Shareef: Naturally, the meaning of this is to walk in the light with guidance.
Nancy Durham: He’s a 30-something guy told who told me he went looking for Al Quaeda in Iraq.
Dr. Alyami: Yes, for me he’s still a kid. He still has a simple mind. It’s like something…hey guys wake up…and smell the coffee. Life is not like this.
Nancy Durham: The participants in this program are part of a generation that grew up with stories of heroic Saudi militants who joined the 1980’s fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. A fight their country sanctioned. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been one of the world’s leading exporters of Jihadists. In the 9/11 attacks, 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.
In May, 2003, Saudi Jihadists hit home with suicide bombings targeted at compounds where foreign nationals lived. Over 30 people were killed, including 7 Americans. This triggered a crack-down on home grown jihadists. Hundreds were arrested and inside Saudi prisons, authorities quietly introduced the idea of psychological and religious counseling for militants.
The rehab center opened 4 years later. Today, the former jihadists are in religious class learning about the proper meaning of Jihad. The word Jihad is commonly translated as struggle, but interpretations vary widely. Jihad can simply mean the internal struggle to become a better muslim. But militant extremists understand jihad as a call to arms. The Saudi government may sanction violence to further the cause of Islam, but here they’re told if they want to fight they need the permission of the King and their parents.
So, Ahmed al-Shaya broke the rules when he traveled to Iraq to fight against the American occupiers…a jihad not sanctioned by the Saudi government. He shouldn’t even be alive because al-Shaya tried, unwittingly he claims, to carry out a suicide bombing.
Ahmed al-Shaya: It’s a miracle that I survived. I was inside a fuel truck.
Nancy Durham: Al-Shaya was thrown out of the truck when it blew up outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad at Christmas in 2004. He killed 12 civilians.
Nancy Durham: And now you have the death of 12 civilians on your conscious.
Ahmed al Shaya: It wasn’t my fault. It’s the fault of the people who planned the plot.
Nancy Durham: I asked Dr. Alyami about the way al-Shaya lets himself off the hook for killing 12 people by claiming he was essentially a pawn in someone else’s plan.
Dr. Alyami: It still haunts the person a long time…maybe forever, and he’s trying to maintain a balance to pay back for what he’s done by being involved into educating young kids.
Nancy Durham: The Saudi government regards these former Jihadists as naive, saying they’re worth a second chance and as long as they have no Saudi blood on their hands. Al-Shaya is one of the first rehab graduates. He now speaks publicly about his experience in Iraq, warning others against waging unsanctioned jihad.
Ahmed al-Shaya: I have learned my lesson and would like to teach others from this experience.
Nancy Durham: This is our third day at the rehab center, and today we’re going to meet guys who’ve been brought here from Guantanamo Bay. How long were you there?
Former Jihadist: For 6 years…long time.
Nancy Durham: Juma al-Dossary was arrested on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in late 2001, and was released without charge in the summer of 2007. Relieved to be back in Saudi Arabia, he says he brought home a lesson from Guantanamo.
Juma al-Dossary: You have to talk to people, to convince people, to use the logic…not to prisons not torture…and that’s the only solution.
Nancy Durham: At the end of what’s usually a 2-month stay at the rehabilitation center, the Saudi government eases the transition back into society by helping to pay for cars, apartments, and even weddings…anything that might encourage the men to lead stable lives instead of turning back to violence.
Juma al-Dossary: By the way, I am romantic.
Nancy Durham: Juma al-Dossary wasted no time. He was married soon after his graduation from rehab in December of 2007. And a baby is due in the spring of 2009.
Dr. Awad Alyami reports that 208 men have completed the program, and only a handful, about 5 percent, have relapsed…trying to make contact with other militants. But the program is still new. I asked Dr. Alyami how he knows the participants in the program are for real.
Nancy Durham: How do you know they’re not pretending?
Dr. Alyami: Well, you’ll never be able to be sure, but from my past experience with patients…patients with post traumatic stress disorders, with depression, with schizophrenia, with phobias…it works.