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Can we retrain terrorists?

Rehabilitating jihadis is controversial and difficult. But we may have to consider it.

As the Obama administration continues struggling with how to close Guantanamo, it finds itself with few options. The recent announcement of plans to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other detainees in federal court is a positive step, but it also reminds us that little headway has been made on most of the Guantanamo detainees. About 75 are deemed too dangerous to release, and 90 are suitable for transfer but have no place to go.

Without any good choices, rehabilitation has emerged as a possible alternative. A recent trip I took to Saudi Arabia suggested that updated rehabilitation strategies could be a viable, though unorthodox, solution to the Guantanamo problem.

Every debate about whether President Obama can close Guantanamo by his self-imposed January deadline considers the "deradicalization" option, particularly for the 97 Yemenis who make up nearly half the remaining detainees. U.S. officials are actively considering sending the Yemenis to Saudi Arabia's rehabilitation program, which seemed tremendously successful until earlier this year, when some "rehabilitated" former Guantanamo detainees joined al-Qaeda groups in Yemen.

And yet the Saudis are still committed to deradicalization. Even Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a leader in Saudi counterterrorism efforts, wholeheartedly supports the program - despite having watched one of its graduates try to assassinate him.

What do the Saudis know that we don't? How have they adapted in response to their recent failures? And can the United States be assured that this is an effective way to deal with terrorists?

While I was in Riyadh, Saudi officials told me why they were still confident in their approach. Having worked with 297 detainees since 2007, the staff at the Saudis' Center for Counseling and Advice has developed a wide range of new programs and addressed the effort's most serious weakness, taking steps to ensure that committed, unchanging jihadists don't go unnoticed.

One key development reflects a growing appreciation for the impact of a detainee's family. One expert in Riyadh told me, "Family is more important than ever." Though the Saudis previously included family members in holiday meals, visits, and post-release efforts, they now stress family involvement throughout the program and, most important, during the evaluation process.

This involves multiple staged releases to observe the detainees and ensure that family members can help keep a former violent extremist from becoming a threat again. Monitoring is still critical, but the family, rather than the government, has become the first line of defense.

The Saudis have also developed new ways of evaluating results, addressing critics who lament that the program's efficacy can't be measured. Previously, they relied largely on trust in an individual's rehabilitation, the family's taking responsibility for him after release, and security services' monitoring of his activities.

Center staffers admit that key aspects of their work still cannot be measured. But they have developed a multifaceted, continuous approach to evaluating detainees. Even sporting events now offer a chance to assess a detainee's level of aggression. The data collected help the staff create an individualized program for each detainee and recognize when someone is not responding to rehabilitation efforts or is not suitable for release. While the process is still imperfect, these refinements have given the Saudi leadership renewed confidence in the detainees it set free.

Though deradicalization is extremely time-consuming and difficult to implement for large groups, U.S. officials should take note of these developments. They need to determine whether deradicalization is a mere buzzword or a real alternative for terrorists in U.S. custody at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan.

The Saudis see progress, but they still rely heavily on monitoring detainees, financially supporting them, and keeping in contact with them and their families. Recidivism will remain a concern, especially as more extremists, and more committed ones, join deradicalization programs. For the public, the programs' most troubling aspect may be that they rely on trial and error, and that they will never be totally effective.

But even with these pitfalls, rehabilitation efforts are still worth supporting. And they provide notable side benefits, including helping to prevent the radicalization of a detainee's family and friends. While deradicalization is not a perfect solution, it's ultimately better than releasing a former terrorist and hoping for the best.