The fifth of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps is to admit “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”—the reason being that honest confrontation of past misdeeds and mistakes is central to any process of recovery. That sort of open acknowledgment, however, is largely absent from the work carried out by the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center, a Saudi Arabian treatment facility that was founded by its namesake to help rehabilitate Islamic terrorists. Certainly, no one profiled by Jihad Rehab (premiering Jan. 22 at the Sundance Film Festival) seems interested in truly confessing their jihadist crimes to the camera, and that willful omission is a pressing problem throughout Meg Smaker’s documentary, which is undermined by a frequent desire to buy into its subjects narratives and, in doing so, to let them craft their own self-serving self-portraits.
Following 15+ years in Guantanamo Bay for a litany of terrorist offenses as members of al Qaeda and the Taliban (and as bodyguards for Osama bin Laden), Yemeni nationals Nadir, Mohammed and Ali are transferred—via a new agreement struck between the United States and Saudi Arabia—to the latter’s Center, where they’re enrolled in a 12-month program designed to transform their hearts and minds. Jihad Rehab provides snippets of some of the classes this trio (and their comrades) are compelled to take regarding law and marriage, but any larger sense of the place’s guiding philosophy, or prime syllabus, is left vague. Nonetheless, the motive is clear: to convince ex-terrorists that extremism is wrong, that the cause they were willing to sacrifice their lives for was misguided, and that they should strive to fashion a peaceful and upstanding future for themselves through the attainment of a job, a wife, and a family.
Superficially speaking, the Center sounds very much like a rehab facility for substance abuse, gambling, or incarcerated felons (or gang members) intent on reforming themselves before reentering society. The twist is that, pre-Center, Nadir, Mohammed and Ali weren’t just in any prison; they were residents of Guantanamo Bay, where they claim to have been tortured and mistreated, thus inciting in them a deep anger at the United States. Left unsaid, at least directly, is that this trio wound up in Guantanamo Bay because of their deep hatred of the U.S.—or, at least, their participation in a war initiated by al Qaeda brethren who felt that way. Such elusion is central to Jihad Rehab’s desire to elicit empathy for these terrorists, and it’s epitomized by an early animated sequence that depicts Ali being pushed out of a window as a kid (symbolically, into terrorism) and landing directly in a Guantanamo Bay cell, where horrors follow—a vision that imagines him as a passive victim of both jihadists and Americans, and which skips directly over all the evil he perpetrated in al Qaeda’s name.
None of the three men featured in Jihad Rehab discuss their actual time as jihadists, and a fourth individual—Abu Ghanim, who was detained by the U.S. government for being Osama bin Laden’s security henchman, joining al Qaeda and the Taliban, having knowledge of chemical weapons, smuggling missiles internationally, and being involved in the USS Cole bombing—repeatedly refuses to answer Smaker’s questions about his past before outright severing ties with the production. To her credit, the director does occasionally press Ghanim and others on their terrorist behavior. Yet upon coming up empty, she falls back on detailing their horror stories about their Guantanamo Bay stay, as well as letting them talk about the direness of their current situation, all as melancholy orchestral strings play on the soundtrack and mournful slow-motion shots of flocks of pigeons by the sea (meant to evoke the freedom these men seek) strive to pull at one’s heartstrings.
The Center claims that 85% of those who pass through its doors are successfully rehabilitated, and that number sounds about as reliable as Nadir, Mohammed and Ali, who state that they want to have normal lives free from the stigma of being a Guantanamo Bay prisoner, and yet conspicuously never express a new cultural or political ideology that might suggest they’ve changed in any fundamental way. In a telling sequence, Mohammed makes clear that Smaker cannot film his new wife because it’s not good to take pictures of women, and in a post-release freak-out during a drive to a drug den, he informs the director that she should stop pestering him with questions and, instead, get married and have children. The portrait cast by Jihad Rehab is not of individuals determined to turn over a new leaf to any meaningful psychological or emotional degree, but rather of beaten-down criminals who are unhappy that their murderous actions have had severe consequences that continue to linger years after the conclusion of their battlefield tours.
Ali’s story is that he only attended al Qaeda’s Al Farouq training camp because he was instructed to do so at the age of 16 by his brother Qasim al-Raymi, the late founder and leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The fact that Ali blames his brother for ruining his life seems genuine. What he doesn’t do, however, is accept any responsibility for his own fate—a scenario that plays out repeatedly in Jihad Rehab, which helps drain its subjects of any agency. The sole things that Nadir, Mohammed and Ali are comfortable relaying are things that happened to them, and as a result, they not only come across as unreliable narrators of their own tales, but unconvincing examples of the possibility of rehabilitating Islamic extremists in this fashion.
In its final passages, Jihad Rehab conveys how the rise to Saudi Arabian power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—and his far harsher definition of, and approach to handling, terrorists—throws these men’s prospects for remaining on the straight and narrow into disarray. The new challenges posed by this situation (having no job or money; being cut off from relatives; failing to find a spouse) no doubt make it more difficult to resist returning to al Qaeda and ISIS. Even at this late stage, though, Smaker’s documentary focuses on external hardships as the catalysts for terrorism, instead of investigating the nagging idea that rehabilitation is only achievable through an essentially altered worldview.