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As US weighs Guantánamo options, Saudi center may offer solution

Only a painting in the gallery offered a glimpse of the religious tolerance that is a hallmark of the program: It was of a woman smelling a flower, her hair uncovered and flowing, against the night sky.

The psychological and social services unit at the Counseling and Care Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 11, 2022. About 6,000 men have gone through some form of the re-education program for former extremists, including 137 former prisoners of Guantánamo Bay. (Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times)

Written by Carol Rosenberg

Nobody was home at the dusty brown campus of the reintegration center for recovering Islamic extremists. The swimming pool was still. The lights were on at the gallery of art therapy works, but there were no visitors. Not a slip of paper was out of place at the psychological and social services unit.

The beneficiaries of the Saudi government program, which helps prisoners reenter society, were on furlough for family visits for Eid al-Adha, the season of the Feast of the Sacrifice, leaving the place eerily empty, like a U.S. college campus on Christmas break.

Only a painting in the gallery offered a glimpse of the religious tolerance that is a hallmark of the program: It was of a woman smelling a flower, her hair uncovered and flowing, against the night sky.

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The program, with its campus in Riyadh and another in Jiddah, grew from a counterterrorism campaign that began in 2004 to reeducate citizens who had made their way home from jihadi training camps in Afghanistan and others influenced by them.

About 6,000 men have gone through some form of the program, among them 137 former detainees of the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, none of whom were convicted of war crimes.

The last Guantánamo detainee was sent to the program in 2017, just before former President Donald Trump dismantled the office that negotiated transfers.

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Now the question is whether and how the center fits into President Joe Biden’s efforts to close the prison at Guantánamo, which opened more than 20 years ago to hold terrorism suspects seized around the globe in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Thirty-six prisoners remain at Guantánamo today.

Over the years, the United States has held about 780 men and boys at Guantánamo Bay, with about 660 there at its peak in 2003. Saudi citizens were of particular interest because 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were Saudis.

The Trump administration released just one prisoner from Guantánamo, a confessed al-Qaida operative who is currently serving a prison sentence in Riyadh under an Obama-era plea agreement. The Biden administration repatriated another Saudi citizen in May, but under an agreement to send him for psychiatric treatment for schizophrenia, not jihadi rehabilitation.

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More than half of the detainees currently at Guantánamo have been cleared for release but must wait for the Biden administration to find a country willing to take them in with security arrangements. Most are from Yemen, one of several countries Congress considers too unstable to receive men from Guantánamo.

Other detainees are in plea negotiations with discussions about whether convicts could serve their sentences in foreign custody.

The Obama administration had tried to shut down the prison, and Saudi Arabia was one of the countries that figured prominently in the resettlement plans. Another was Oman, which received 28 Yemeni men in a highly secretive project that found them wives, homes and jobs, so long as they did not tell their neighbors that they had done time at Guantánamo, according former detainees.

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 essentially jailed them and then abruptly repatriated all but the Russian, drawing human rights protests that the returnees risked persecution.

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With that program deemed a failure, the Biden administration has been looking for other options for cleared captives, chief among them the Yemenis.

Other hard cases include an ethnic Rohingya Muslim who is stateless; a Maryland-educated Pakistani who became an informant for the U.S. government and fears persecution if he is repatriated; and a Saudi citizen who has been critical of the kingdom’s ruling family.

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A recent visit to the campus in the outskirts of Riyadh highlighted one possibility.

The program was founded by and named for Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a former interior minister who had close ties to U.S. intelligence agencies. When he was forced out by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the program was renamed the Center for Counseling and Care.

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As described by managers, the program blends classes on nonviolent interpretations of Shariah law with physical fitness, recreation and counseling aimed at returning those who graduate to their families.

Or, as one staff member called it, undoing “the brainwash that happens” when a young man is drawn to religious extremism.

A library features recommended reading about successful Saudis, “the right people, in order to avoid the wrong role models, not the way that turns you into darkness or death,” Wnyan Obied Alsubaiee, the program’s director, who holds the rank of a major general, said through an interpreter.

One book recounts the story of a Saudi man who studied in New York in the 1970s and rose to prominence in civic life back in his homeland, including a role in a Saudi-American dialogue after the attacks of 9/11. Another is a biography of a former government minister, “Building the Petrochemical Industry in Saudi Arabia.”

Alsubaiee said two former prisoners of Guantánamo in the Saudi prison system would be accepted into the program once they completed their sentences. One is Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi, the confessed al-Qaida terrorist released by the Trump administration. The identity of the other is not known.

The director bristled at portrayals of the program as a five-star hotel for extremists.

“This is not a prize,” he said. “They are not prisoners anymore. They have to go back to society. We want them to feel accepted and that this is another chance.”

Of the 137 men sent to Saudi Arabia from Guantánamo, some by way of Saudi prison, 116 rejoined society and have stayed out of trouble, 12 were recaptured, eight were killed and one is “wanted,” according to a program fact sheet.

First published on: 14-08-2022 at 08:06:00 pm
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