Drawing Jihad

“Get that negative energy out on the paper,” urges Awad Alyami waving his arms like an orchestra conductor. The objects of his exhortation – eight convicted jihadi warriors – sit at a long table clutching pastel crayons, as intent as children in a kindergarten.

Each of these young men has served prison time for terror-related crimes. Now, in a highly unusual social experiment, they are being groomed for a return to society by Dr Alyami, an art therapist. Dr Alyami’s therapy programme is taking place at a former desert resort half an hour’s drive north of the Saudi capital Riyadh.

A cluster of low-rise concrete buildings has been turned over to psychology counsellors and religious sheikhs to help try and set the former extremists on a more peaceful track. Only a curl of barbed wire along the top of the perimeter wall betrays the fact that this compound is no longer being used as a family getaway. 

The detainees are free to wander around inside where they enjoy activities such as swimming or a game of volleyball on a grassy courtyard. Their sleeping quarters are modest – the bedroom I saw was a tiny space with three mattresses on the floor.

The Saudi Ministry of the Interior launched the programme after homegrown jihadis began bombing government and foreign installations inside the Kingdom in 2003, but only recently have the authorities allowed outsiders a peak inside. During a recent visit Dr Alyami was leaning over a piece of paper vigorously drawing red lines to demonstrate to the class how he expresses his own negative feelings.

One of the detainees, Mohammed, held up his work showing me an abstract paper canvas smeared with intense red and purple tones. He smiled and said it represented his negative energy. The red, he explained, was Syria, from where he had planned to enter Iraq to join the insurgency. Mohammed never made it to Iraq but when he returned to Saudi Arabia he was arrested anyway. 

Not all the former jihadis’ art is easy to decipher or interpret. During a visit in November I watched as two of them drew lines, curves and dots in shades of pink and pale blue. Dr Alyami told me that when the request first came through that he work with these students, he was reluctant.

He said: “I had that idea that these are criminals. They blow up buildings and stuff and if I go there they might go after my kids one day…when I went there I saw how simple minded these kids are…they were just like tools being used.”

Work from earlier sessions was also on display. One depicted the outline of Saudi Arabia in bright green surrounded by blue as if the country was an island. The common notion that many young jihadis are naïve and easily-led has led to widespread report for this soft approach to curing extremism inside the Kingdom.

Part of the rehabilitation is religious in orientation. The authorities say that a misunderstanding of Islam is often at the heart of the extremists’ path towards violence. Art therapy is only one of several approaches to tackling terrorism inside the Kingdom. Abdulrahman Al-Hadlaq, advisor to the Minister of the Interior, told me he’s fighting a “war of ideas” and the only way to confront it is with ideology.

As a result, Saudi authorities say they are engaging with extremists at all levels: in schools, in mosques, even inside maximum security prisons. The most extreme of the terrorists are not eligible for rehabilitation but even they are invited to attend religious education sessions.  

I was given a tour of a new “more than maximum security” prison at Al Haer 25 miles south of Riyadh. There weren’t yet any occupants for its 1200 places. Saudi security forces are also busy rounding up suspected terrorists.  While I was in Riyadh the Saudis announced the arrest of 208 extremists. And the problem of extremism in the Kingdom appears far from over. US authorities claim 40 percent of the foreign fighters who have headed to Iraq to join the insurgency over the past year are from Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, the Ministry of the Interior claims an 80 percent success rate with its rehabilitation programme, a statistic which is impossible to verify. Dr Christopher Boucek, who lectures in politics at Princeton University, has been closely studying the Saudi programme for the past two years. Initially  a skeptic, he says he is impressed by what he’s seen in Saudi Arabia and told me rehabilitation is fast becoming the model for countries around the world trying to tackle Islamist terrorism.

Similar programmes are underway in Egypt, Singapore and even the Americans are trying this new soft approach at Camp Cropper in Iraq. 

Nancy Durham will be speaking to Nick Fielding at the Club on  4th of February.