Professor Arie Kruglanski, co-director of the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, has interviewed Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in jails in the Philippines and Singapore, among them prisoners who had planned attacks on Israeli embassies.
"It's not enough to lock them up in order to punish them," he says. "One should, and can, persuade them to rehabilitate."
Kruglanski, a cognitive social psychologist, has been working with several other researchers from the University of Maryland on a new study financed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The research is aimed to help the administration cope with Muslim detainees who have adhered to the global Jihad ideology; Homeland Security has earmarked $12 million for the project.
The researchers interviewed terrorists of the Abu Sayyaf group and the Moro Liberation Front, both based in the Philippines, as well as the Southeast Asian group Jamaa Islamiya, but have not been allowed to meet the Al-Qaida and Afghani detainees held in Guantanamo - the prison the new U.S. administration is seeking to shut down.
"We are trying to understand," says Kruglanski, "what would persuade detained terrorists to desist from returning to violence." He says initial results indicate at least two primary motives that might cause what is called 'de-radicalization.' One group of motives is intellectual-cognitive and the other is emotional. "On the intellectual-cognitive level, we try to present theological arguments that they might accept. We try to convince them Islam is a religion that forbids harming innocent people. This approach is more effective when you speak with terrorist leaders who possess religious authority. However, in order to persuade them, you have to bring in senior religious personalities whose authority they will accept. You can call it a theological battle of the minds."
This method proved itself, especially in Egypt. Over the past decade, the Egyptian authorities succeeded in convincing Muslim militant groups such as Jamaa Islamiya and the Jihadists to abandon the armed struggle. Those authorities managed to do so with the help of distinguished religious leaders from the Al-Azhar University, who held long meetings with senior leaders from those two terror organizations. After the terrorist leaders were convinced - through the help of theological arguments - they published articles, books and manifests, calling upon their followers to cease terror and violence, and concentrate on political activity and religious studies only.
The second method used to rehabilitate terrorists has been appealing to their emotions. "Terrorists tire in jails," says Kruglanski, "and this opens the door to offer them an alternative. For that you need, of course, to treat their families fairly, and teach them [the reformed terrorists] a profession with which they could make a living and be absorbed into society once they are released from jail."
The Saudis have been the most effective in using this rehabilitative approach, as they are in a position to bestow many benefits - including free housing and cars - upon Al-Qaida terrorists who promise to change their ways.
Immediate gains vs. long-term strategy
Kruglanski was born in Lodz, Poland in 1939, survived the ghetto there during World War II and came to Israel in 1950. He served in the air force, studied at the University of Toronto, earned his Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA, and returned to Israel. He stayed here for 15 years, working in Tel Aviv University's Department of Psychology, where he both taught and conducted research. Since 1984, Kruglanski has been teaching at universities in the United States. His research focus on social motivation and how social matters influence changes in attitude.
Since September 11, 2001, and with the support of former U.S. president George W. Bush's administration, he has been researching topics that concern the social aspects of Islamic terror. Thus, he helped draft a paper which discussed the contradiction between tactics and strategy in the struggle against terrorism: On the one hand, counter-terror law enforcement authorities seek immediate gains that turn out to have only short term benefits; on other hand, while the treatment of the social reasons for terrorism, including the terrorists' motives, may be a lengthy process, it is one that could produce long-term strategic gains.
According to assessments made at a recent international conference in Singapore, on de-radicalization of terrorists, some 100,000 people are terrorists or suspected of involvement in Islamic terror. Many Muslim states have initiated de-radicalization and rehabilitation programs, hoping to cope with the phenomenon. In addition to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, such programs are now underway in Yemen, Indonesia, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Iraq. The United Kingdom, too, has such a program.
U.S. Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, who heads the program for de-radicalization in Iraq, said at the conference that in the past few years the United States and Iraq have freed 18,000 prisoners who had been locked up for suspected terror activities. Most of them have not returned to terror. Similar experiences were gleaned in other countries.
However, Kruglanski says sadly, Israel has no such program for the de-radicalization and rehabilitation of thousands of Palestinian prisoners. On the contrary, Israeli prisons have become the world's best universities for terror. While investigators from the Shin Bet security service's research department have been holding talks with Palestinian prisoners for years, their aim has been to gather intelligence for operational purposes: to study the enemy, but not rehabilitate it.
"I believe," concludes Kruglanski, "that de-radicalization programs are relevant to Israel too. Hamas is, essentially, a religious movement. Its leaders and activists justify their deeds with nationalist reasons, but also with religious arguments. One can try and persuade them that Islam opposes violence and the murder of innocent people."