When much of the world thinks about America’s treatment of detainees in Iraq, it thinks of torture, humiliation, abuse, and pictures from Abu Ghraib. But do most people know that the American military is now running one of the Middle East’s largest Islamic schools for those detainees? Or that it sponsors religious discussion programs among them about Islam? Or that it trains suspected insurgents to be carpenters, farmers, and artists who are paid for their work each day? The school, programs, and training are core elements of the American military’s radically new approach to detention in Iraq, an integral part of its counterinsurgency effort.
For the past nine months, Task Force 134—led by Major General Douglas M. Stone, a two-star Marine general who oversees civilian detention in Iraq—has been experimenting with a series of unconventional initiatives at two large “camps” where 23,245 suspected insurgents, Iraqi and foreign, are being held. The aim of these programs, which I visited in April, is not only to accelerate the identification and release of those falsely accused of “jihadi” activity, but also to de-radicalize and rehabilitate others who may have joined the insurgency primarily to feed their families, or because they were motivated by a militant, perverse interpretation of Islam.
The results to date suggest that Stone’s approach seems to be working, at least for the vast majority of those people who have been arrested as suspected threats to American forces and are now being detained. While a relatively small hard core of detainees probably cannot be safely released any time soon, officers say that the overwhelming majority of detainees, probably over two-thirds of them, are likely to be freed by the end of 2008. Initial data, once in short supply, are impressive: of the 8,000 detainees released so far under the program, only 21 have been recaptured as a result of suspected insurgent activity, a rate that officers say is unprecedented. “It means that only .2 percent of those detained have returned to the fight,” Stone told me after I spent five days with his 9,000-person task force, drawn from all the uniformed services. “At no time in the history of collected data in Iraq do we have anything remotely like this.”
While I was not permitted to talk privately with detainees, I visited both Camp Cropper, near Baghdad International Airport, and remote Camp Bucca, near Basra in southern Iraq. I also attended the educational, religious, and vocational classes and watched three-member administrative panels as they questioned detainees, reviewed their records, and decided their fates. I saw detainees praying, watching television, and playing soccer, volleyball, and ping-pong. I also interviewed more than a dozen American soldiers and Iraqi teachers, social workers, and religious clerics working in the program.
One detainee who agreed to talk with me as he was being released said that he had never been physically abused or mistreated during his 11-month detention and had learned how to read, write, do carpentry, and play chess. “Because I had never played chess before, I had to cheat to win,” joked the apparently relaxed 30-year-old Sunni, who identified himself as Ahmed. “None of this would have happened in an Iraqi jail.”
Another unusual aspect of the program is the military’s effort to involve detainees’ families in their rehabilitation through frequent visits, letters, and cell-phone contact. At Camp Bucca—the largest detention facility in Iraq, holding some 20,000 of the country’s more than 23,000 detainees—over 1,200 family members visit interned relatives each week; at Camp Cropper, some 100 families visit loved ones each day. All graduates of Stone’s “anti-Jihad U.,” as some of his troops call the program, take a pledge before an Iraqi judge prior to their release, vowing not to resort to violence and to respect Iraqi laws. Whenever possible, pledges are guaranteed by family members. Over 7,200 detainees have made such pledges.
Terrorism experts are closely watching Stone’s program, as Saudi Arabia and several other countries plagued by Islamic militancy have launched de-radicalization programs that rely on similar initiatives. They, too, have begun reporting progress in rehabilitating militants. In a world in which militant Islam is not only already endemic but growing, there can be few more crucial challenges.
The effort to train and educate detainees to enable them to lead productive lives after their release is the reverse of the military’s former “feeding and warehousing system,” which wound up breeding an insurgency in America’s own internment facilities, officers told me. The programs are also teaching the American military much about the causes of Islamic extremism and how best to defeat such impulses.
The task force’s data show that the overwhelming majority of suspected insurgents—81 percent—are Iraqi males and Sunni. Only 14 women are being detained, as well as 575 juveniles, whose average age is 15. Non-Iraqi fighters hail from 21 countries, but there are just 240 of them. Most detainees are between the ages of 18 and 29, and most are motivated mainly by money, or lack of it. Some 78 percent said they had participated in attacks against coalition forces to feed their families, and 79 percent have children. Only one in three said that they had a strong religious belief. Some 64 percent are illiterate.
A major tipping point in the program, say officers, was when detainees began volunteering for the classes being offered. Although al-Qaida detainees and the Takfiris (another group of religious extremists) pressured fellow Iraqis against participating in the very popular religious discussions, over 3,000 detainees have done so. “After Iraqis here learn how to read and write, they can read the Koran themselves for the first time,” says Sheikh Ali, a Sunni who counsels detainees and who, like most of the Iraqis working in the program, declined to have his surname used and must live in an American-guarded compound to avoid reprisals. “I’ve seen detainees break down and cry when they realize that the conduct they thought was sanctioned by God is actually a sin.”
Detainees began volunteering for religious discussion—in addition to the Arabic, civics, history, science, geography, and math that are also offered—after American soldiers physically separated “extremist” elements from the overwhelming majority of camp “moderates.” “Empowering the moderates and isolating extremists has been key for us,” says Stone. When moderate inmates identified the extremists to soldiers and demanded their removal, Task Force 134 knew that its approach was working.
Al-Qaida and Takfiri detainees are now housed in special trailers in separate compounds. Though they get the same privileges as more moderate detainees—access to radio, TV, movies, books, newspapers, and sports—they lose them if there is violence or intimidation in their compounds. Officers say that 20 weeks have passed without such a violent outbreak, another tipping point. Now, even some of the “worst of the worst,” as the most militant, violent detainees are known, have asked to join religious discussion groups in which non-extremist interpretations of the Koran are vigorously debated.
The detention program is not cheap. The task force will spend about $1 billion this year, including the construction of two new “theater internment facilities” with additional classrooms and vocational facilities for its 23 different work programs now planned or underway. But a continuation of the insurgency would be even more expensive in terms of American and Iraqi lives.
The program has its critics. Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist, former CIA case officer, and expert in Islamic radicalization, considers the program promising, but says that it’s too early to call it a success before more data are available. He also fears that many detainees considered de-radicalized and then released may eventually revert to their former militancy and violent habits once they move into a still insecure environment that has not substantially improved. Several human-rights groups complain about the lack of access on their own terms. In a March report, Amnesty International called the American detention system “arbitrary” and a “fundamental violation of human rights.” New York–based Human Rights Watch complained that it too—along with the United Nations’ anti-torture monitor—has not been permitted to interview detainees privately to ensure that they are not being mistreated or abused.
But the U.S. military argues that in time of war, only the Red Cross is entitled to make such unescorted visits, and that the organization has routinely done so. Officers insist that a UN resolution authorizes them to detain anyone who endangers coalition forces, and that those detained are not traditional prisoners of war. But the U.S. military’s program applies Geneva Conventions standards to those it now holds. Indeed, the Geneva rules are posted in many locations at both camps, along with the task force’s unofficial motto for how it wants all detainees to be treated—with “respect.”