Ami Angell stood less than 2 feet from the self-proclaimed jihadist, listening intently as he vowed he would slit her throat if not for the fence standing between them.
It was not a totally unexpected encounter.
During her 18 months working at a detention center in Iraq, Angell was spit upon, cursed at, and shot at more than once, both on the base and while travelling in an Iraqi vehicle.
Yet in that time Angell also shared friendly meals with detainees, watched them create stuffed fabric bears and elephants as gifts for their children, and shook the hand of a man with tears running down his face as he thanked her for the programs that taught him to read.
For Angell, the moments of fellowship and expressions of gratitude she experienced far outweighed the indignities and threats, and showed that what she believes and worked for in Iraq and elsewhere is true – terrorists can, and must, be rehabilitated.
“Since implementation of the rehabilitation programs in detention centers, violence was decreased by 50 percent, and intelligence was increased by three times what it was previously,” said Angell, a 1999 Kansas Newman College graduate. “So yes, I think our efforts were successful. In fact, so successful that three previous Al Qaeda operatives went through all the programs, were released, and then returned to work the programs as civilians. I firmly believe that in the long term rehabilitation classes will save lives.”
Angell should know. Since August 2009 she has been a research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, part of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Among her other duties, she has helped develop and implement an international curriculum for detainee rehabilitation.
Her work in the field goes back more than 10 years, however, and is built upon an impressive resume. She holds a doctorate in international public law, a master of law in human rights law and a master of arts in the theory and practice of human rights from the American University of London and the University of Essex, as well as a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, sociology and theology from Newman. She is also a certified United States mediator and facilitator.
Her work in terrorist rehabilitation can be traced to late 2000, when she read an article on human rights violations in the West Bank and decided to go to the area. She arrived just as the second intifada – an uprising among Palestinian Arabs of the Gaza Strip and West Bank to protest Israeli occupation of those territories – had begun.
Angell said her experience there, which included families begging her to bring them water and food, inspired further travel to the region.
She left the West Bank in 2004 and, wanting to do more in the area of human rights, worked as a research analyst on human rights issues and events for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. Then, drawn by her desire to help the people of war-torn Iraq, she went to Baghdad in January 2005.
Angell spent her first six months there doing pro-bono work and serving as a research analyst for an intelligence and communications firm, then worked as a human resources coordinator for an Army communications contractor. In July 2007, she signed on with Operational Support and Services at Camp Bucca, once Iraq’s largest terrorist detention center with more than 22,000 detainees.
When she arrived, Angell saw that the camp, after initially processing detainees, had no planned activity for them, which resulted in some detainees filling the spare time with radical religion classes where moderate detainees were sometimes converted to extremism. Overall, the situation was out of control with deaths, escapes and mutilations occurring daily.
Fortunately the situation would get a drastic overhaul with the arrival of U.S. Major General Douglas Stone in the summer of 2007. Under his command and with his direct support, Angell worked on introducing and implementing religious discussion classes. Angell brought respected Islamic clerics into camp to meet with small groups of about 10 detainees to discuss Islam, including what the Qur’an really says and the true meaning of takfir, jihad, and other concepts.
The program was an immediate success, with the detainees excited about what they had learned, and others in the camp eager to find out for themselves. Rehabilitation efforts quickly expanded, and eventually Angell oversaw several programs in her role as detainee rehabilitation program lead, supervising more than 150 local Iraqi nationals including schoolteachers, clerics and psychologists who directly taught classes to the detainees.
“The programs included the Islamic Discussion Program, and Education, or courses that would actually earn them an Iraq Ministry of Education approved diploma,” she said. “Also Civics and Democracy, which taught them about the changes in Iraqi society since their lock up, and Vocational Training Classes that included carpentry, brick building, agriculture, H.V.A.C. and refrigeration, and sewing and tailoring.”
Angell said an especially successful activity was the Creative Expressions Program, an art therapy program where detainees met with a psychiatrist to discuss violence, the situation in Iraq and their lives, then did artwork to express themselves and their emotions.
Learning as a lifelong pursuit
While the work Angell did was gratifying, it was also demanding. She worked seven days a week, typically 12 hours a day, in a humid environment where temperatures climbed as high as 140 degrees.
For several months she lived in a tent with 19 other people, and later in a small trailer where she shared a cramped bedroom with one other person. A “port-a-potty” stood about 50 yards away, but to use a flushing toilet or take a shower Angell had to walk 300 yards.
“Mind you, this would even be in the dark, like 3 a.m.,” she said, “and since lights were not allowed, it would be very dark.”
To keep herself physically and mentally healthy, she turned to sports, which have always been a passion in her life. She ran in the mornings before it got hot, and with the help of a semi-professional boxer deployed to Iraq she took up the sport. Since coming to Singapore she has became involved in triathlons and marathons, placing fourth in her age group in two recent international events. She is also a SCUBA rescue diver, and goes diving when she has the opportunity.
It was sports in fact that initially brought Angell to Newman. The youngest of four children, Angell grew up in towns in Washington, Idaho and Oregon, and in her high school years lived in Visalia, Calif., where she excelled at basketball. A friend of her coach who was at Newman at the time recruited Angell, and helped her get a partial scholarship and a local part-time job. Two weeks before Angell was to come to Wichita, however, the coach called to say she had taken a job elsewhere.
Angell came to Newman, and played basketball for one and a half years, although she was disappointed with the program, which was in disarray at the time, and very different than in California. Fortunately, she had also been drawn to Newman by something else.
“The values of the school, combined with the small class sizes, the history of the school and the classes offered were ultimately what sealed the deal,” Angell said. “I could have played basketball for a number of schools I had been offered scholarships to, but it was the school itself in Kansas that determined my course of action.”
Angell said she is glad she made the decision.
“Newman was an enlightening and magical experience,” she said. “I have never before, nor ever since, had classes so small with teachers that actually cared about individual success. It was this caring and commitment to the learning process that encouraged my learning and ultimately inspired me to continue on my path of learning.”
Angell added that the academics, service work and involvement with campus life helped prepare her for work in graduate schools – and ultimately in her career.
“Newman encouraged me to expand my options, to explore them and to test their limits,” she said. “Rehabilitating terrorists is about as close to testing one’s limits I think as one can get. And academically, it gave me the thirst of continued learning. I look at learning as a lifelong pursuit. I never want to stop.”
‘A global imperative’
All total, Angell spent 44 months in Iraq, where a typical day included mortar, rocket and gunfire attacks. She left Camp Bucca in December 2008, and worked as a Senior American Policy Advisor for Gillespie International in Zahle, Lebanon, before accepting her current position at the International Centre in Singapore. Camp Bucca was closed in September 2009.
In January of this year, Angell visited Iraq to see how rehabilitation programs have evolved, and later visited Libya and Afghanistan to see rehabilitation programs there. She recently completed a book, Terrorist Rehabilitation: A Look Inside Detainee Rehabilitation Programs in Iraq, which will be released in March 2011.
Angell said she enjoys her current work and, true to her quest for lifelong learning, enjoys exploring options for various projects or other pursuits. Whatever course she takes in the future, it will likely involve her belief that we can deal effectively with terrorism – in fact our survival depends on it – but only if we’re willing to address the root of the problem.
“It is a global imperative. We have to understand, to want to understand why individuals are willing to kill innocents if we want to change their mindset. So we need to interact with them, learn from them and teach them that there are other possibilities out there than the path they have chosen. Otherwise the violence and death will not only continue, but will get worse, and hatred and intolerance will grow along with it.”