The Delicate Art of Using Terrorist Dropouts (By Susan Sim)

February 24, 2013

When Yazid Sufaat, an al-Qaeda bioweapons expert who hosted two of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Kuala Lumpur for a pre-attack planning summit, was released from a Malaysian jail after seven years of detention in 2008, he was deemed “rehabilitated” by the Malaysian government. For the next four years, Yazid ran a food stall in a Kuala Lumpur courthouse—until Feb. 8 this year, when he was rearrested and charged with trying to recruit Malaysians for suicide missions in Syria.

Sufaat’s rearrest for promoting terrorism raises troubling questions about the effectiveness of terrorist disengagement programs. There are now more than a dozen such programs world-wide, with varying degrees of robustness, objectives and success rates.

Recidivism always gets attention, as it should. But the well-kept secret of counterterrorism is that rehabilitation programs have also produced terrorist dropouts who are speaking out publicly against al-Qaeda and similar groups. Several Southeast Asian governments have found that those who decide voluntarily to leave the region’s most deadly terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), often make the most credible advocates against the use of violence and terror…


Ms. Sim, a former Singaporean diplomat and Internal Security Department analyst, is vice president for Asia of the Soufan Group, a strategic security consultancy. Her forthcoming research paper, “Leveraging Terrorist Dropouts to Counter Violent Extremism in South East Asia” was commissioned by the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies.

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