This is the fifth part of a GlobalPost series of reports by Caryle Murphy that goes inside the House of Saud and its internal struggle to reclaim Islam from Al Qaeda.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Last month, the Yemen-based deputy leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Said Al Shihri, called on Saudi military personnel to join the extremist movement's jihad to overthrow the Saudi monarchy.
Al Shihri is a former Guantanamo Bay inmate, and a graduate of Saudi Arabia’s much-touted rehabilitation program for detained extremists, the most publicized aspect of its counter-terrorism strategy.
He is also the rehabilitation program's most high-profile failure.
In a recent briefing with journalists, Abdulrahman Al Hadlaq, director of the Interior Ministry’s Ideological Security Directorate, said the program's relapse rate for Guantanamo returnees came close to 20 percent, or 18.9 to be exact.
Of the 109 former Guantanamo detainees who entered the program, three were still in the program as of July, according to a ministry spokesman. Among the 106 who had been released, eleven fled to Yemen to join Al Qaeda’s affiliate there. (One later returned and surrendered to Saudi authorities; two were killed in a shoot-out with Saudi police.)
Nine other relapsed graduates did not rejoin Al Qaeda but violated the conditions of their release from detention; they are either back in prison or under stricter monitoring, the spokesman said.
Hadlaq said Guantanamo returnees felt a close bond with each other because of their common experience and this solidarity meant that “basically one or two of them can influence others.”
The ex-Guantanamo inmates are among approximately 300 detainees who have gone through the rehabilitation program. The others were caught trying to go to Iraq to fight U.S. troops or detained for minor offenses related to extremist causes.
The non-Guantanamo program participants had a lower relapse rate of 9.5 percent, which is not surprising given that hard-core militants who show no intention of giving up their beliefs are not eligible for the program.
Deputy Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, regarded as the architect of the rehabilitation program, told Robert Lacey, author of Inside the Kingdom, that these “hard nuts who cannot be cracked” make up about 20 percent of Saudi security detainees. The government is believed to be holding at least 3,000 suspected extremists.
The so-called “after care” rehabilitation program is part of a larger re-education effort in Saudi prisons that targets these detainees. Through psychological and religious counseling, the program aims to persuade prisoners to abandon what Saudi officials call “deviant” or “misguided” beliefs that led them to extremist groups. Officials say the program is voluntary, but acknowledge that completing it is a condition for a prisoner’s release.
Some Saudis say this in-prison program depends too much on Islamic scholars who promote a traditional approach to Islamic concepts like jihad, and would be more effective if clerics with different views were part of the religious counseling staff.
“Maybe they stop them from doing terrorism but they don’t give them a more liberal way [of thinking],” said Saud Al Sarhan, an expert on Islamist politics in the kingdom. “They only use the old traditional way of talking about jihad, that it is [legitimate] when the ruler says it’s okay. They don’t talk about dealing with the West in a different way.”
Then Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in written testimony in 2009 that the rehabilitation course did “not address anti-Western/anti-U.S. views, focusing only on the difference between Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's conservative branch of Islam, and takfirism, the violent ideology espoused by al Qaeda.”
Saudi officials designed the specialized “after care” component of the rehabilitation program in 2007 for returnees from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. It has become a sort of half-way house intended to ease released prisoners back into society. It involves intensive, one-on-one interactions between detainees and staff members, including Muslim clerics, psychologists, art therapists and employment counselors.
Recently, a history course was added to the curriculum to rectify misconceptions of extremists, according to Al Hadlaq. Al Qaeda always presents history as a fight between Muslims and non-Muslims ... which is not true,” he said.
The rehab program is rooted in Saudi cultural norms, which stress the importance of family connections and personal interactions. And its success depends heavily on families, who are asked to support and monitor the men after their release.
“The closer the family, the better the program,” said Al Hadlaq.
Prior to the return of Guantanamo inmates, Prince Muhammad often called their families himself and brought them to Riyadh, where they were put up at a hotel at government expense to facilitate meeting their relatives as soon as they arrived in the kingdom.
Later, if the Guantanamo returnee successfully passed the rehabilitation course, the government helped him find a job and a wife. He also was given money for the wedding and a car. The idea, officials said, is to engage the returnees in the responsibilities of a regular life.
Participants in the after care program also usually met the prince, who invited them to stay in touch, even giving them his cell phone number.
Khalid Al Hubayshi, one of the first Saudis released from Guantanamo, said that he and his family were taken to the home of Prince Muhammad. There, he recalled, the prince told him and two other former Guantanamo inmates: “You are our people and we trust you ... and we hope you learn from the past. We are going to take care of you. You are going to get married. We are going to get you back to your jobs. Don’t worry about anything.”
Al Hubayshi, who said he met the prince again twice, described his attitude as “Okay you made a mistake ... maybe following the wrong fatwa, being zealous. You are young, and you have been used. We will give you another chance. Are you going to take the chance or be stupid and miss that chance?”