Six months after 9/11, firefighter turned “Jihad Rehab” filmmaker Meg Smaker left her job as a Bay Area firefighter to travel to the Middle East to better understand the world she lived in.
After making a pit stop in Afghanistan, Smaker moved to Yemen to study Arabic and Islam, and got a job there running a firefighting academy.
“So I was a head fire instructor, teaching Yemeni men to fight fire in Yemen, which is where I was when I first heard about the rehab center, when I was living in Yemen and teaching a firefighting like course,” Smaker tells Sharon Waxman at The Wrap’s Sundance Studio. “I overheard some guys talk about this rehab center, and that was back in 2007.”
The rehab center is the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center which is based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Since 2007, over 3000 terrorist and extremists have been treated there with the intention of rehabilitating former jihadists to re-enter the mainstream of Saudi culture.
The bulk of the documentary unfolds at the center, where the men have arrived through a Saudi-American arms deal in which the Saudi government agreed to take them. Somehow, a belief emerged that they and other men like them could be reformed, and they were put through an extensive program that attempted to teach them how to handle finance, court women, engage with those who disagree with them without resorting to violence, and other life skills.
The story of the rehab center fascinated Smaker. “It was just really interesting that, that this place even existed back then,” she said.
Getting access to the facility took a year. “I think because of my time in Yemen, one thing I realized living there is the way to get something done is usually not to go through official channels, it’s through back-channeling,” Smaker added. “Through building relationships, through kind of understanding who’s in charge of what, and to have a relationship with those people.”
Smaker faced a lot of hurdles for the year she was trying to get access to the rehab center. She did not explain what exactly transpired, but said her persistence paid off.
“The way that a lot of these government’s work is they’ll never tell you ‘no’ but they’ll just put up all these hurdles in front of you that make it like after a while, you just kind of give up and and it was like that for a year and then it got to the point where the the person that I was talking kind of acquiesced,” Smaker explained.
She finally got access however the terms were she had to get the men to agree to be filmed on the day she met them. She got resistance at first from former Al-Qeada and ISIS soldiers at the center. However, Smaker’s time in Yemen would finally pay off.
“But then what did happen is serendipitously that was the first time that Saudi Arabia accepted the first batch of non-Saudi nationals through this rehab program, and those were the next people that I’ve met with, and they happen to be from Yemen,” Smaker added. “And so when I started speaking, their heads popped up, and they’re just like, why do you speak their mother tongue and I told them I used to live there for almost five years.”
Smaker bonded and built a rapport with the Yemenis and finally found the subjects of her documentary. She said, “I wound up interviewing about 150 to 200 of these guys and then follow this small group of them for three years.”
Watch more of the interview with Smaker in the embed above.
“Jihad Rehab” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival as part of the US Documentary competition.
TheWrap’s Sundance Studio is presented by NFP and National Geographic Documentary Films.