As U.S. Seeks to Close Guantánamo, Saudi Center Could Be an Option
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — No one was at home on the dusty brown campus of the reintegration center for the recovery of Islamist extremists. The pool was quiet. The lights were on at the art therapy gallery, but there were no visitors. There was nothing wrong in the psychological and social services department.
The beneficiaries of the Saudi government program, which helps prisoners rejoin society, were on leave for family visits for Eid al-Adha, the season of the Feast of the Sacrifice, leaving the place eerily empty, like an American college campus on Christmas break. .
Only a painting in the gallery offered a glimpse of the religious tolerance that characterizes the program: it was of a woman smoking a flower, her hair uncovered and wavy, against the night sky.
The program, with its campus in Riyadh and another in Jeddah, grew from a counter-terrorism campaign that started in 2004 to re-educate citizens home from jihadist training camps in Afghanistan and others influenced by them.
About 6,000 men have gone through some form of the program, including 137 former inmates of the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, none of whom have been convicted of war crimes.
The last Guantánamo detainee was sent to the program in 2017, just before President Donald J. Trump dismantled the office that negotiated transfers.
Now the question is whether and how the center fits into President Biden’s efforts to close the Guantánamo prison, which opened more than 20 years ago to detain terrorist suspects across the world in the wake of the September 11 attacks. world were seized.
Over the years, the United States has detained about 780 men and boys in Guantánamo Bay, with about 660 there at its peak in 2003. Saudi civilians were of particular concern because 15 of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks were Saudis.
The Trump administration has released only one Guantanamo detainee, a well-known Qaeda operative who is currently serving a prison sentence in Riyadh under an Obama-era plea deal. The Biden administration repatriated another Saudi citizen in May, but under an agreement to send him for psychiatric treatment for schizophrenia, not for jihadist rehabilitation.
More than half of the detainees currently in Guantánamo have been released, but will have to wait for the Biden administration to find a country willing to take them in with security arrangements. Most come from Yemen, one of several countries Congress considers too unstable to receive men from Guantánamo.
Other detainees are conducting plea negotiations with discussions about whether convicts can serve their sentences in foreign custody.
The Obama administration had tried to close the prison and Saudi Arabia was one of the countries that played a prominent role in the resettlement plans. Another example was Oman, which hosted 28 Yemeni men in a highly secretive project that found them wives, homes and jobs as long as they didn’t tell their neighbors they had spent time in Guantánamo, according to former inmates.
None of those men who were resettled were ever tried for war crimes.
The Obama administration sent 20 prisoners to the United Arab Emirates, mostly Yemenis, but also several Afghans and a man from Russia. But the country put them in jail and then abruptly repatriated everyone but the Russians, sparking human rights protests that put the returnees at risk of persecution.
With that program deemed a failure, the Biden administration has looked for other options for evicted detainees, including the Yemenis.
A recent visit to the dusty brown campus in the suburbs of Riyadh revealed one possibility.
The program was founded by and named after Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a former interior secretary who had close ties to US intelligence agencies. When he was forced to leave by the de facto ruler of the kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the program was renamed Center for Counseling and Care.
As described by executives, the program combines classes on nonviolent interpretations of Sharia with physical fitness, recreation and counseling aimed at returning graduates to their families.
Or, as one employee put it, undoing “the brainwashing that happens” when a young man is drawn to religious extremism.
One library contains recommended reading on successful Saudis, “the right people, to avoid the wrong role models, not the way that turns you into darkness or death,” Wnyan Obied Alsubaiee, the program director, who holds the rank of a major. General, said through an interpreter.
One tells the story of a Saudi man who studied in New York in the 1970s and rose to prominence in public life in his homeland, including a role in a Saudi-American dialogue following the September 11 attacks. Another book is a biography of a former minister, “Building the Petrochemical Industry in Saudi Arabia.”
General Alsubaiee said two former Guantánamo detainees in the Saudi prison system will be included in the program once they have completed their sentences. One is Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi, the well-known Qaeda terrorist released by the Trump administration. The identity of the other is unknown.
The director roared from images of the program as a five-star hotel for extremists.
“This is not a prize,” he said. “They are no longer prisoners. They have to go back to society. We want them to feel accepted and that this is a new opportunity.”
Of the 137 men sent to Saudi Arabia from Guantánamo, some via Saudi prison, 116 have rejoined society and have escaped trouble, 12 were recaptured, eight were killed and one is being charged, according to a fact sheet from the United Nations. program wanted.
None of the men were identified by the Saudi government during the visit. But some of the dead are known, especially those who were sent during the George W. Bush administration and then fled to Yemen, where they joined Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In Riyadh, program participants live in pods, individual bedrooms arranged around a courtyard with a mosque, kitchen and small open-air stove for making tea on cool desert evenings.
As described by program administrators, the Saudi participants’ first home visits are short-lived, but evolve into long-term stays with family – for example, the two-week vacation leave that left the center virtually empty in July.
The nation’s security apparatus is unseen but present. The director is a military official, and security guards and caretakers dress identically in the classic white robes and red plaid headgear favored by government workers and businessmen. At the gym, a guide gestured to a camera in a corner of the weightlifting area and explained that facial expressions were monitored there.
But on this visit, Saudi transparency only went so far. No one would say how many of the program’s 200 slots were occupied, or when the most recent person or longest resident arrived.
At the gallery, an art therapist, Awad Alyami, described his program as an opportunity for the men to express their feelings and for program sponsors to evaluate them.
One painting was an expressionist depiction of the crowd gathered around the Kaaba. circled in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, but clockwise instead of the ritual counterclockwise. Employees of the program were concerned about the depiction of the holy place and had the artist meet with a cleric.
Part of the gallery displays the work of former Guantánamo inmates.
“There’s a lot of weird stuff here,” Dr. Alyami said.
The section has no sign but stands out with the image of a watchtower, barbed wire and men in orange uniforms. The art of other program participants tended towards desert scenes and other Saudi themes.