Is it possible to deradicalize terrorists and their potential recruits? Saudi Arabia, a pioneer in rehabilitation efforts, claims that it is. Since 2004, more than 4,000 militants have gone through Saudi Arabia's programs, and the graduates have been reintegrated into mainstream society much more successfully than ordinary criminals. Governments elsewhere in the Middle East and throughout Europe and Southeast Asia have launched similar programs for neo-Nazis, far-right militants, narcoterrorists, and Islamist terrorists, encouraging them to abandon their radical ideology or renounce their violent means or both.
The U.S. government would do well to better understand the successes and failures of such efforts, especially those that target Islamist terrorists. This is important, first, because, as General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, has noted, the United States "cannot kill [its] way to victory" in the struggle against al Qaeda and related groups. Although military action, especially covert military action, is an essential part of the strategy against the Islamist terrorist movement, the United States' main goal should be to stop the movement from growing. Terrorists do not fight on traditional battlefields; they fight among civilians, which increases the risks of collateral damage. Indeed, Islamist terrorists provoke the governments they oppose into responding in ways that seem to prove that these governments want to humiliate or harm Muslims. Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and "extraordinary rendition" have become for Muslim youth symbols of the United States' belligerence and hypocrisy.
Second, the effectiveness of deradicalization programs aimed at detained terrorists have direct and immediate effects on U.S. national security. This is especially true regarding the detainees at the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Because it is difficult to gather evidence that is usable in court, some truly bad actors, along with some not so bad ones who have been held unfairly, will inevitably be released. Effective deradicalization programs could help make such individuals less dangerous. Abdallah al-Ajmi, who was repatriated to Kuwait in 2005 on the order of a U.S.
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