Source: AUN News
Saudi Arabia’s RIYADH The reintegration center for recovering Islamic extremists’ dusty-brown campus was empty. The water in the pool was silent. The art therapy exhibit gallery’s lights were on, but no one was there. At the psychiatric and social services unit, nothing was out of place.
For Eid al-Adha, the season of the Feast of the Sacrifice, the recipients of the Saudi government program that aids inmates in re-entering society were on furlough for family visits, leaving the location strangely deserted, like a U.S. college campus during Christmas break.
Only one artwork in the exhibition provided a peek of the program’s commitment to religious tolerance: It featured a woman sniffing a flower against a starry night sky, with her hair loose and open.
The program, which has campuses in Riyadh and Jeddah, was born out of a counterterrorism initiative launched in 2004 to rehabilitate residents who had returned from jihadist training camps in Afghanistan and those they had inspired.
A total of 6,000 individuals have participated in the program in some capacity, including 137 former inmates of the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay. They were never found guilty of war crimes.
In 2017, right before President Donald J. Trump shut down the agency that arranged transfers, the final detainee from Guantánamo was transferred to the program.
Suspicious of terrorism
The center’s role in President Biden’s efforts to close Guantánamo, which opened more than 20 years ago to house terrorist suspects apprehended globally in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, is now up for debate.
Approximately 780 men and boys have been detained by the US at Guantánamo Bay over the years, with 660 detainees at their height in 2003. Because 15 of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks were Saudi nationals, Saudi people were particularly concerned.
The Trump administration freed only one Guantánamo detainee; he was a confessed member of al-Qaeda who is now incarcerated in Riyadh after entering a plea deal during the Obama administration. Another Saudi national was sent back to his country by the Biden administration in May, but only after agreeing to send him for schizophrenia treatment rather than jihadi reintegration.
More than half of the Guantánamo inmates are eligible for release, but they must wait until the Biden administration locates a nation prepared to accept them with security measures. The majority are from Yemen, one of several nations that Congress deems too unstable to accept Guantánamo detainees.
Other detainees are currently engaged in plea bargaining sessions where the possibility of convicts serving their sentences abroad is discussed.
Saudi Arabia was one of the countries that played a significant role in the relocation preparations when the Obama administration attempted to close the jail. Another was Oman, which, according to former detainees, accepted 28 Yemeni men as part of a hidden experiment and helped them find wives, homes, and jobs as long as they didn’t tell their neighbors that they had served time at Guantánamo.
None of the men who were relocated underwent war crimes prosecution.
The Obama administration moved 20 inmates, largely Yemenis but also a few Afghans and a Russian guy, to the United Arab Emirates. However, the nation effectively imprisoned them before abruptly repatriating all save the Russian, which sparked outrage over human rights concerns that the returnees may face persecution.
The Biden administration has been seeking alternatives for cleared captives, foremost among them the Yemenis, as that program has been labeled a failure.
One potential was brought to light during a recent visit to the dingy brown college on the outskirts of Riyadh.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a former interior minister with connections to American intelligence services, launched the program and was honored with his name. The program was renamed the Center for Counseling and Care after he was removed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
Managers have described the program as combining classes on nonviolent applications of Shariah law with physical fitness, recreation, and counseling to help graduates reintegrate into their families.
Or reversing “the brainwash that happens” when a young guy is driven to religious fanaticism, as one staff member put it.
The program’s director, major general Wnyan Obied Alsubaiee, spoke through an interpreter about the need to read about successful Saudis to “avoid the incorrect role models, not the route that turns you into darkness or death.”
One book tells the tale of a Saudi man who studied in New York in the 1970s and became well-known in civic life in his native country, playing a part in a Saudi-American debate following the September 11 attacks. A different one is “Building the Petrochemical Industry in Saudi Arabia,” a biography of a former government minister.
General Alsubaiee declared that two former Guantánamo detainees in the Saudi prison system would be admitted to the program after serving their terms. One is Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi, a Qaeda terrorist who the Trump administration released after learning of his guilt. The other’s identity is unknown.
The program’s presentation as a five-star resort for radicals incensed the director.
He declared, “This is not a prize.” They are no longer detained. They must reintegrate into society. We want them to feel welcomed and like they have a second opportunity.
According to a program data sheet, of the 137 men who were moved from Guantánamo to Saudi Arabia, some via Saudi prison, 116 have reintegrated into society and have kept out of trouble, 12 have been recaptured, eight have been dead, and one is listed as “wanted.”
The Saudi government did not identify any of the men there. However, some of the deceased are known, particularly those who were dispatched under the George W. Bush administration and fled to Yemen, where they joined Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Participants in the program reside in pods in Riyadh, which have private bedrooms grouped around courtyards with mosques, kitchens, and small open-air stoves for brewing tea on cool desert nights.
According to the program’s managers, the Saudi participants’ initial trips home are brief but develop into extended stints with family, like the two-week holiday furlough in July that essentially empty the facility.
The nation’s security system is present but not visible. The director is a military officer, and the security guards and medical staff all wear the traditional white robe and red-checked head covering that is popular among officials and businesspeople. In the weightlifting portion of the gym, a guide pointed to a camera and said, “Facial expressions are being watched there.”
However, Saudi transparency was limited throughout this visit. Nobody would reveal how many of the 200 available spots in the program were filled or when the newest participant or oldest resident arrived.
Awad Alyami, an art therapist, explained his program at the gallery as a chance for the guys to express their emotions and for program sponsors to assess them.
Turning in the opposite direction
One artwork depicted the throng revolving around the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest shrine in Islam, but in a circular motion as opposed to the normal counterclockwise movement. Concerned about depicting the sacred location, program staff members arranged a meeting between the artist and a priest.
The artwork of former Guantánamo inmates is shown in one gallery area.
There are a lot of strange things here, the doctor said.
The area is unmarked but sticks out due to its appearance, which includes a guard tower, razor wire, and men wearing orange uniforms—other program participants’ artwork focused on Saudi themes and desert settings.
Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network