RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Signaling renewed effort in its battle against Al Qaeda, the Saudi government has for the first time released a list of 83 Saudis living abroad who are wanted for extremist activity, including 11 former inmates of Guantanamo Bay detention center.
A handful of other returnees from the U.S.-run prison camp, whose exact number is unclear, have been re-arrested for alleged violations in the kingdom in recent months.
The new disclosures by the government mean that of the 117 Saudis so far released from Guantanamo, at least 11 and possibly several more have allegedly backslided into extremist activity.
Publication of the most-wanted list on Monday came less than two weeks after two Guantanamo returnees showed up in an internet video Jan. 23 declaring they had joined an Al Qaeda affiliate in neighboring Yemen.
The revelation that former Guantanamo detainees have gone on to join Al Qaeda raises questions among many experts about the wisdom of the decision by President Barack Obama to shut down the facility within a year.
The video was an embarrassment to the Saudi government, as well as a warning that the rugged, hard-to-police Saudi border with Yemen was allowing Saudi militants to rejoin Al Qaeda networks.
"We should not dismiss" the declaration by Al Qaeda in Yemen that it intends to use that country as a base from which to launch operations against other Gulf countries, said Mustafa Alani, a counter-terrorism expert at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. "Potentially, it is going to pose a major challenge for Saudi Arabia."
The list of names released Monday by the Interior Ministry also included photographs and mini-biographies of the 83 Saudis — and two Yemenis — being sought.
A ministry statement said the 83 Saudis, who include the two in the internet video, were intent on "harming their country and relatives as part of their deviant way of thinking" and are awaiting "suitable opportunities for carrying out or assisting in carrying out criminal acts in the homeland."
"Deviant thinking" is how the Saudi government refers to the extremist ideology of Al Qaeda.
The statement, which also referred to the men as "human devils," said their names had been supplied to Interpol and that rewards would be paid for help leading to their arrest.
Interior Ministry spokesman General Mansour Al Turki said the government did not know exactly where most of the men were.
Other Saudi officials speaking anonymously to the local press suggested that fugitives may be in various places, including Yemen, northern Pakistan and Iran.
One man on the list, Saleh Abdullah Saleh Al Qarawi, 27, was last thought to be in Iran, according to the ministry's list. Sometimes called "Star of Virtue," one of his many nicknames, Al Qarawi allegedly holds a leadership position in Al Qaeda, and "is one of the key suppliers of facilities, finances, fake documents" for its traveling members.
Al Qarawi allegedly financially supported Abu Musa'ab Al Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq until his death in 2006. He also purportedly funneled extremists to Lebanon for training "in order to come back to the Kingdom and execute operations there," the ministry added.
Al Qarawi's short bio underscores Iran's ambiguous relationship with Al Qaeda. There is no love lost between the Sunni Muslim terrorist group and Iran's Shiite Muslim government.
But Tehran allows Al Qaeda limited freedom within its territory in order to use it as leverage against Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Al Qaeda members in Iran "are under restrictions and basically most of their movements are linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard's intelligence service," said Alani.
"They can be used by the Iranians," he said. "They were used in Iraq to fight the Americans."
Debriefings of captured militants suggest that there are about 100 Saudi members of Al Qaeda in Iran, Alani said.
In another sign that the government is stepping up its vigilance against extremists, the Saudi Gazette reported on a major security sweep Tuesday in the town of Buraida, north of Riyadh.
Buraida is the home town of many Al Qaeda members, including Al Qarawi. It is not known if the two-hour operation, that included helicopters, led to the arrest of any militants.
Most counter-terrorism experts say that Saudi Arabia has successfully broken the back of Al Qaeda's underground networks inside the kingdom over the past five years.
Part of its success is due to the wide net of arrests that has filled Saudi prisons with more than 3,000 detainees for alleged involvement in extremist activities.
Nearly 1,000 of those have been formally charge and their trials are to begin sometime this year, officials have said.
The news that possibly up to 17 former Guantanamo residents have allegedly reverted to extremist activities underscores the risk in releasing the camp's detainees, who include 13 Saudis.
In one of his first acts, Obama has ordered Guantanamo closed within a year. Of its 245 inmates, 94 Yemenis make up the single largest group.
The Saudi returnees' relapse is also a blow to Saudi Arabia's widely praised rehabilitation program for jailed militants, which was mandatory for all ex-Guantanamo inmates.
It involves intensive psychological and religious counseling aimed at discrediting Al Qaeda's radical ideology, as well as cash incentives, and help finding jobs, in order to smooth ex-militants' reintegration into Saudi society.
Other Dispatches by Caryle Murphy