Saudi Munasaha programme sees solid results, low recidivism

By Sultan al-Barei in Riyadh

Former prisoners convicted of joining extremist groups receive counseling and rehabilitation services at the Mohammad Bin Naif Counseling and Care Centre in Riyadh. [Photo courtesy of the Mohammad Bin Naif Counseling and Care Centre]

Former prisoners convicted of joining extremist groups receive counseling and rehabilitation services at the Mohammad Bin Naif Counseling and Care Centre in Riyadh. [Photo courtesy of the Mohammad Bin Naif Counseling and Care Centre]

Saudi Arabia’s Munasaha programme, which offers a second chance to young offenders serving prison sentences for joining extremist groups, has been largely successful in reintegrating them into society, experts tell Al-Mashareq.

For more than a decade, the pioneering deradicalisation programme has offered counseling, job skills and rehabilitation assistance to young offenders, and has served as a model for other countries.

"The Munasaha programme was initiated after the establishment of the Prince Mohammad Bin Naif Counseling and Care Centre in Jeddah and Riyadh," Umm al-Qura University professor Abdullah al-Muqrin told Al-Mashareq.

Youth who joined groups such as al-Qaeda and the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) but have not killed anyone are eligible to take part after they complete their sentences, said al-Muqrin, who works with the programme.

"The treatment is conducted at centres that do not resemble prisons at all, and are rather educational, social and religious rehabilitation centres," he said.

The treatment, which can extend for up to three years, aims to fully rehabilitate offenders by preparing them for reintegration into society, and by helping them to develop skills that will allow them to enter the workforce, he added.

The programme seeks to counter extremist ideology through the dissemination of moderate thought, he said, and is one of the most important counter-terrorism tools.

"It fosters patriotism, which terrorists are trying to erase with lies and misinterpretations of sharia," al-Muqrin said. "After spending the required period of time at the centre, the youth are ideologically inoculated against deviant ideas."

Updated programme

A number of changes have been made to the programme since its inception to enable it to more accurately address the mindset of young offenders, al-Muqrin said.

These include the decision to build "bridges of trust" by granting programme participants a 10-day furlough to go home "so they may return to a normal family atmosphere", he said.

A little known fact about the Munasaha programme is that it also serves Shia youth, said Fadel al-Hindi, a supervisor at the King Abdulaziz University Centre for Social and Humanities Research.

"Extremism and terrorism are not exclusive to one sect or party, as all people are susceptible to falling into their trap," he told Al-Mashareq.

"The Munasaha programme actually starts in prison upon the issuance of a verdict," al-Hindi said, with the first phase of treatment conducted in prison.

The second phase starts at the end of the prison term, he said, when the subject is transferred to a care centre, while the third phase prepares the offender to rejoin society.

The Munasaha programme is necessary because "the efforts to confront, arrest and bring the terrorists to justice are not enough in themselves", al-Hindi said.

Without it, he added, offenders could potentially revert to committing crimes and become ticking time bombs that could explode at any place or time.

'Low' recidivism

"A total of 3,303 youth have undergone the programme with a failure rate of only about 14%," said King Saud University faculty of sharia lecturer Bassam al-Subaie, who also teaches at the Munasaha centre.

About 500 youth reverted to their extremist views upon resuming their normal lives, he told Al-Mashareq, noting that this may be due to the company they keep once the programme ends.

"There is a somewhat dangerous period after the final release, when the subject is susceptible to shocks, and he either overcomes them successfully or relapses," al-Subaie said.

The programme’s activities extend to families who need counseling, al-Subaie said, noting that these cases involve subjects who are starting to show signs of extremism but who do not yet pose a danger to society.

"In those cases, the families contact the centre and report [the subject] who is then provided with counseling," he said, adding that women are also included in these programmes.

During the treatment programme, al-Subaie said, the lecturers and participants take a critical look at the extremist ideas that have been planted in the minds of the offenders.

"These ideas are then studied to determine the optimal way to counter them," he said, adding that "this method is optimal in the ongoing ideological war against those who espouse misguided ideology".

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