Can Terrorists be 'Reprogrammed'?
By Patrick Goodenough International Editor go to original
March 10, 2006

( - Australia is mulling the possibility of trying to "reprogram" captured terrorists by getting clerics or other influential figures to challenge their interpretations of Islamic teachings.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the tactic, being used in several countries, was an attempt "to persuade extremists and terrorists who have been held in prison to change their point of view and to understand that it's not the Islamic way to kill, it's not the Islamic way to murder."

Downer said the effort was reported to have been successful in some cases.

Federal police commissioner Mick Keelty first raised the idea after returning from a regional counter-terrorism conference in Indonesia.

He told Australian television "deprogramming" was being practiced in various forms in countries including Indonesia, Singapore, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Britain.

He cited a case of a former senior operative in Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a Southeast Asian affiliate of al Qaeda, who had been "turned" and was now used by Indonesian law enforcement authorities in a bid to re-educate jailed terrorists.

Indonesia has captured and convicted several hundred terrorists since JI bombed the resort island of Bali in 2002, killing more than 200 people.

Nasir bin Abbas, a top terrorist and brother-in-law of the man who oversaw the Bali attack, was one of those arrested during a sweep in 2003. He spent 10 months in prison but is now a free man, working full time with an Indonesian anti-terrorist unit called Detachment 88.

In interviews, Abbas has described JI terrorists as being driven by a misguided or deviant ideology.

"I want to tell them that they misunderstand about Islamic struggle and they also misunderstand about the meaning of jihad," he told Australian radio Friday.

Abbas' case was discussed during the recent counter-terror conference in Jakarta.

Keelty said the process could work in different ways. "In some places they will use a cleric who has a good reputation with the community and who will be respected and listened to by the people in custody."

Suicide bombers' behavior was not rational, he said. "If they're acting and thinking irrationally, then how do we convert that behavior and bring it back to rational behavior?"

Keelty compared the situation to treating a drug addict, but noted that the Australian legal system did not allow authorities to force addicts to undergo treatment for their problem. Similarly, there would need to be a change of policy to enable "some sort of deprogramming or deradicalization" of terrorists.

Australia, a close ally of the U.S., has not suffered an Islamist terrorist attack on its soil, although 88 Australians were among the victims of a JI bombing in Bali.

Canberra introduced tough new anti-terrorism law following last July's bombings in London, and several dozen Australian Muslims are in custody facing terror-related charges.


Keelty's remarks brought mixed reactions from Muslim groups, with some representatives saying the idea could work if it took the form of voluntary counseling.

But civil libertarians described the proposal as bizarre and a form of "brainwashing."

Daniel Scot, an Australian-based Christian pastor and scholar of Islam who fled his native Pakistan under threat of death under blasphemy laws, said Friday the reprogramming idea was "naive and futile."

Scot said any cleric coming into a prison cell hoping to challenge a terrorist's views on violence and Islam would need to explain away some of Mohammed's teachings and actions during his lifetime.

Violence is "deep rooted" in the Koran and the Hadith, the traditional writings on Mohammed's deeds and sayings, he said, citing a number of references.

Furthermore, extremists' interpretations of concepts like jihad tended to be based on the teachings of some of the most revered scholars in Islam, men like the Pakistani theologian Maulana Maududi.

Maududi, who authored a book called Jihad in Islam in 1930, has been called one of the fathers of the revival of fundamentalist Islam.


In Britain, where the government is more focused on countering radical teaching since the London bombings, Home Secretary Charles Clarke was quoted last October as saying techniques used to deprogram brainwashed members of cults should be used in the struggle.

"What we know about other religious cults may offer some insight into how these men ended up behaving in this appalling way," the Sunday Telegraph quoted him as saying.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia was reported in 2003 to be bringing clerics and copies of the Koran into interviews with captured al Qaeda terrorists, in a bid to wean them off violence. (The Saudi government is itself accused of fomenting extremist views through its fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology.)

How successful "deprogramming" techniques may be remains to be seen. Setting free ostensibly reformed terrorists can be risky, however.

Of the more than 200 suspects released or transferred from U.S. military custody at Guantanamo Bay after signing pledges renouncing violence, at least 10 went on to return to terrorism, according to the Pentagon.

They include Rasul Kudayev, one of seven Russian detainees handed over to Moscow in February 2004 and released by the Russians four months later. Last October the Russian government said he took part in a deadly attack in the southern town of Nalchik, during which some 12 civilians, several dozen police officials and scores of terrorists were killed.

The most notorious example is that of Abdullah Mehsud, a one-legged Pashtun terrorist who, after his release from Guantanamo, was involved in the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers working on a dam project, one of whom was later killed.

Pakistan media reports say Mehsud subsequently became a folk hero and leader among anti-American terrorists holed up in the lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, where he survived a number of armed offensives by the Pakistani military.

The latest such offensive was launched just days ago, and there have been unconfirmed reports that Mehsud has been killed. Last year, however, Mehsud was declared by his followers to have been killed by Pakistani forces, only to re-emerge months later, once the heat was off.

Each time detainees at Guantanamo Bay are released, the Pentagon issues a statement cautioning that the decision is based on the evidence available at the time, adding that "many of the detainees are highly skilled in concealing the truth."

Some statements have also added: "The process of evaluation and detention is not free of risk," noting that several former detainees had since "gone back to the fight."

As of last month, the Pentagon said it had released or transferred to other governments a total of 267 detainees, leaving approximately 490 still at Guantanamo Bay.

Scholars of Islam say Muslims are permitted to lie or deceive under certain circumstances.

Known as "taqiyya," the term is defined in one Islamic encyclopedia as "concealing or disguising one's beliefs, convictions, ideas, feelings, opinions, and/or strategies at a time of eminent danger, whether now or later in time, to save oneself from physical and/or mental injury."