Iraqi Prison Tries to Un-Brainwash Radical Youth

Wiry and lean, Abdullah looks on with a glassy stare as the instructor explains the subject for the day: revenge. The case study is the first gulf war, and the instructor lists religious and moral reasons why it was wrong for Iraqi soldiers to loot and kill in Kuwait. Abdullah, 17, and the nine other teenagers sitting with him on wooden benches in the class nod impassively. This isn't an ordinary high school. The teens, all decked out in orange uniforms, are detainees at Camp Cropper, the high-security facility in Iraq that once held Saddam Hussein.

Some of the teens may have tried to kill American or Iraqi soldiers, others may have been picked up for smaller offenses like breaking curfew. But the group, all Sunnis, have one thing in common: they've all been brainwashed for jihad. "They get their education from Wahhabis," says Sheik Abdul Jabbar, 37, an Iraqi cleric working with the teens, as he looks on from the side of the class. "They say their enemy is the Shia first and then the Americans." Abdullah has had his dose of radical education. He is convinced that his stepmother, who is Shiite, is a kafir, or nonbeliever. He has told the instructors in the class that, given the chance, he would kill her. "If they let them out, they would all become suicide bombers," says Jabbar. "Soon we will have two generations of terrorists."

And that's what the "religious education" program at Cropper is trying to prevent. It's not exactly "Scared Straight," but the goal—winning back hearts and minds—is the same. Last week, NEWSWEEK was given an exclusive tour of the facility and allowed to sit in on classes. The program was started two months ago and the classes are taught by imams, psychiatrists and counselors, all Iraqis, who are trying to bring the most hardened youth back into the fold. It's an uphill battle. The number of detainees in U.S. custody has increased by 56 percent since January to a whopping 23,083. A disproportionate number of those in custody, roughly 85 percent, are Sunni. A large part of this is due to the stepped-up security operations linked to the "surge" and the Baghdad security plan. Detainees are now being brought into Cropper at the rate of roughly 60 a day.

As the detainees come in, the insurgents already in custody fan out, looking for new recruits. Many detainees may leave the facility more radicalized than the day they came in. "That's a very real concern," says Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, the deputy commanding general for detainee ops in Iraq who started the "religious education" program. "[Gen. Ray] Odierno is out there killing Al Qaeda. I'm trying to kill the idea of Al Qaeda."

Until now, American detainee ops, still carrying the baggage of the Abu Ghraib scandal, have been a major contributor to losing hearts and minds in Iraq. These days, it's the Iraqi security forces, particularly the police, who are often accused of abusing detainees. A U.N. human-rights report issued in March expressed concern about the "continuing failure of the Iraqi government as a whole to seriously address issues relating to detainee abuse and conditions of detention." But the American system is still problematic, too. Last April, Lt. Col. William Steele was charged with "aiding the enemy" for passing an unmonitored cell phone to a detainee while running one of the camps at Cropper. He is also accused of having a relationship with a female translator and fraternizing with the daughter of a detainee. If convicted by a military court, Steele could face the death penalty.

Still, Stone maintains that things are changing at detention centers in Iraq. The religious education classes are part of a wider reform effort which includes work programs and in-person case reviews. "Certainly there's an improvement," says an independent monitor who has inspected Iraqi-run detention facilities, and who asked for anonymity in order to maintain access to prisons. "But if everything is getting better why don't they open up the facilities to more scrutiny?"

Part of that could be the security risk. Many of those held at Cropper are hardened jihadis who have attacked American and Iraqi security forces. And they don't let up inside. Detainees break off bits of razor wire to fashion crude knives. Pants strings and even volleyballs are torn up to make homemade slingshots. "Chai rocks"—dirt mixed with tea, shaped into hardened balls—are used as ammo. In fact, Cropper doesn't look much different than a maximum-security American prison from the TV show “Oz”. In one portion of the camp, the detainees are broken up into rectangular pens with cyclone fences and concertina wire. Heavily armed guards walk around the pens on elevated catwalks to keep an eye on things. There are unique Iraqi touches—smack in the middle of most pens is a concrete mortar shelter, known as a "duck and cover," that looks like an upside-down U. During the NEWSWEEK visit last week, dozens of detainees in banana-yellow uniforms were lounging in one pen. Some huddled in corners and whispered, others sat under the mortar shelter for a respite from the brutal 120-degree heat. Occasionally, a handful of American guards walked a couple of detainees out of a pen, hands behind their heads, and asked them to squat on their haunches in front of the gate, perhaps waiting for a family visit or a question session.

There are approximately 3,800 detainees at Cropper, 747 of them juveniles. For now, the religious education classes target a focus group of 10 young men. At Camp Bucca, a facility with nearly 20,000 detainees near the Kuwait border, the religious classes are aimed at adults. General Stone, who says he reads the Koran every day, looked at classes aimed at de-programming jihadis in the region, including one in Saudi Arabia, and pushed to have a similar program started within the U.S. detention system in Iraq. This class is part of the broader counterinsurgency efforts within the detention system. The premise is simple: imams use the Koran and Hadith to teach extremist detainees that their beliefs are not supported by Islam. Sheik Jabbar, who currently lives outside Iraq, came to work on this program on contract. He says he wasn't prepared for the bile many of the teens spewed at him. "I was shocked," he says. Some of the students couldn't even read and weren't particularly knowledgeable about the Koran but there was no shaking their conviction. Jabbar, a pudgy, lively man dressed in a simple button-down shirt and slacks, marked out the ayat, or passages, in the Koran that could be misinterpreted for extremist beliefs. "Jihad comes from the word juhood—struggle. You can make something good or bad with this. We show them that jihad means doing something good for the people."

Despite the efforts, the prospects of changing these teens seems bleak. Part of it is the way the detention system is set up: all the detainees at Cropper and Bucca are separated by sect. But many of them seem too far gone. It's during the 90-minute general education classes, the only time when the Shiite and Sunni juveniles are put together, that the stark sectarian divide becomes most apparent. All of the juveniles like one thing: the Harry Potter movies, dubbed in Arabic, which line a bookcase in the classroom. That fondness for Harry Potter may be the only thing they have in common.

The Shia and Sunni kids never sit next to each other or talk to each other in class. The teacher, a young Iraqi woman named Huda, says she even tried to force interactions, like a game of chess, but the kids refuse. Fights are common. When a tape of the recent Asia Cup soccer-match final was aired for the class, the Shia kids were jumping up and down and singing. Some of the Sunni kids refused to even look at the TV. The Iraqi national team, which won the cup, is mostly Shia. "They hate. They hate. They hate," says Huda, clearly frustrated. "I ask them what changed? The Sunnis say these are rafidha [a derogatory term for Shiites] and we will kill them. The Shia also say bad things. They are so afraid of each other. It makes me sad."

Even General Stone admits that the jury is out on how well the religious classes may work on juveniles. Still, more imams are on the way. Standing on the side of the classroom, Sheik Jabbar looks at Abdullah with a worried expression. He says he has noticed a positive change in the way some of the juvenile detainees interact with the American guards but he's not sure it's going to last. "This is not only a problem for Iraq, it can be a problem for Europe or the U.S.," Jabbar says. "We have to succeed to show them what is the real Islam."

Join the Discussion