'Curing' terrorism in Yemen: why more is needed than rehabilitiation detention programs

Published November 12th, 2013 - 04:00 GMT

In a sign of déjà vu, the Obama administration has held discussions with Yemeni officials to establish a detention facility for those detainees that remain at the US military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba according to a report by David Cloud of the Los Angeles Times.

“Deep disagreements remain on funding, and about whether it would function as another prison or as a halfway house for detainees to reenter society after years of confinement and isolation,” Cloud writes.

We have been down this road before. Previous attempts by the Yemeni government to establish facilities to rehabilitate terrorists and extremists have, by many accounts, failed.  It has been tried before and many of the rehabilitation participants have returned to their old ways and have failed to reintegrate into society without parting ways with their radical ideologies.

A similar program in Saudi Arabia was only partially successful and points to the risks that come with such program. In 2010 a senior Saudi official said that 25 of the 120 former detainees at Guantanamo who returned to the country and participated in a rehabilitation program relapsed and returned to extremism.

“It's more than 20 (percent) among Guantanamo guys,” reported Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, director of ideological security at the interior ministry.

The lack of success in Saudi Arabia doesn’t bode well for Yemen, a country that lags behind in several different aspects, including most notably its economic situation.

Yemen has not denied that it is discussing the creation of a rehabilitation facility that would house detainees from Guantanamo. Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi stated last month that the facility “is to focus on a religions and cultural dialogue and job creation.”

"An environment where there are few to no opportunities available creates an opening for extremism to flourish. This leads some to be attracted to the idea of violence and radicalism."

Several years ago Yemen tried to rehabilitate suspected terrorists. Hamoud al-Hitar, minister of Islamic Endowment, ran one such program from 2002 to 2005. The program had mixed results, but the United States criticized it and questioned its success after participants were later found fighting in Iraq.

Would this most recent attempt to set up a Yemeni program be different than past attempts to help suspected terrorists return to society and give up their extremist ideologies? Are we to simply accept that programs that attempt to accomplish this mission will have mixed results and possibly result in a certain percentage of participants that relapse? This is a huge gamble, but few alternatives exist especially if the Obama administration is to follow through on its much delayed-promise to close its detention facility in Cuba. This is especially true considering that more than half of the prisoners that remain at Guantanamo are from Yemen.

This all leads to a much bigger question that rarely gets asked anymore. While rehabilitating terrorists certainly comes with a high degree of risk, why is it that they are drawn to this ideology in the first place?

We can’t certainly blame it solely on the United States’ policy in the Middle East and the wars it fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yemen-based AQAP, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has thrived in particular because it has taken advantage of the extremely poor economic state of the country.  Yemenis have few opportunities for success and struggle to provide for their families.

An environment where there are few to no opportunities available creates an opening for extremism to flourish. This leads some to be attracted to the idea of violence and radicalism.

While rehabilitating those attracted to extremism is a noble cause, it misses the broader point on what needs to happen.

Without a better outlook on life and without an improved economic situation, many will continue to be attracted to the only option that seems like a possibility for them. AQAP thrives partly because of this. 

The United States, instead of solely focusing on closing down Guantanamo Bay, should not only assist in setting up rehabilitation centers but focus more on the bigger picture in assisting the Yemeni government create opportunities at home.

While the international community has pledged billions of dollars in assisting Yemen’s development, the country remains underdeveloped and poverty-stricken. The unemployment rate hovers around 35 percent, with youth unemployment sitting at around 50 percent for those between the ages of 18 to 24.

It is encouraging to hear from Yemeni officials that any new rehabilitation program will focus on job creation, but more needs to be done on the ground in order for this to happen.

Yemenis and others who are attracted to AQAP and other militant groups need to be drawn away from these organizations. If progress is made on the economic front, it might result in some to possibly think twice about joining these organizations in the first place.  If no headway is made, people will continue to be lured toward radicalism and view it as the only way out of their dire situations.

While an improved outlook at home may not stop every individual from being drawn to jihadist organizations, it is a first step toward weakening the core-attraction that extremism provides.

In order for rehabilitation to even have a shot, it should only be viewed as part of a very long road ahead. Without job opportunities or additional economic development in Yemen to accompany such a plan, it is likely that any further attempt at rehabilitating individuals will fail.

By Garret Pustay

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