As US seeks to close Guantánamo, Saudi center may be an option


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — No one was home on the dusty brown campus of the reintegration center to scoop up Islamic extremists. The pool was motionless. The lights were on at the therapy art gallery, but there were no visitors. Not a scrap of paper was moved to the psychological and social services unit.

Beneficiaries of the Saudi government program, which helps prisoners reintegrate into society, were on leave for family visits for Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice season, leaving the place eerily empty, like a campus American university at Christmas. Pause.

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

The program, with its campus in Riyadh and another in Jeddah, has grown from a anti-terrorism campaign launched in 2004 to re-educate citizens who had returned home after leaving jihadist training camps in Afghanistan and others influenced by them.

About 6,000 men have gone through some form of this program, including 137 former detainees from the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, none of whom have been convicted of war crimes.

Guantánamo’s last 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 shut down the Guantánamo prison, which opened more than 20 years ago to hold terrorism suspects arrested around the world in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

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

The Trump administration has released only one Guantanamo prisoner, an admitted al-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 jihadist rehabilitation.

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 that Congress considers too unstable to receive Guantánamo troops.

Other inmates are in plea negotiations with talks about whether the convicts can serve their sentences in custody overseas.

The Obama administration had tried to shut down the prison, and Saudi Arabia was one of the countries that figured prominently in resettlement plans. Another was Oman, which took in 28 Yemeni men under a top-secret scheme that found them wives, homes and jobs, as long as they didn’t tell their neighbors they had done time. at Guantánamo, according to former detainees.

None of these resettled men has ever been 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 Russians, sparking human rights protests that returnees risked persecution.

With that program seen as a failure, the Biden administration sought other options for the exonerated captives, foremost among them Yemenis.

A recent visit to the dusty brown campus on the outskirts of Riyadh highlighted a possibility.

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

As officials described, the program combines classes in nonviolent interpretations of Sharia with fitness, recreation and counseling aimed at sending graduates back to their families.

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

Library offers recommended reading on successful Saudis, ‘good people, to avoid bad role models, not the way that turns you into darkness or death,’ program director Wnyan Obied Alsubaiee, who holds the rank of a major general, said through an interpreter.

A book tells the story of a Saudi who studied in New York in the 1970s and rose to prominence in civic life in his homeland, including a role in a Saudi-American dialogue after the 9/11 attacks september. Another is a biography. of a former government minister, “Building the petrochemical industry in Saudi Arabia”.

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

The director bristled program representations like a five-star hotel for extremists.

“It’s not a prize,” he said. “They are no longer prisoners. They must return to society. We want them to feel accepted and to have another chance.

Of the 137 men sent to Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo, some via Saudi jail, 116 have reintegrated into society and stayed out of trouble, 12 have been recaptured, eight have been killed and one is ‘wanted’, according to a report. program information sheet.

None of the men were identified by the Saudi government during the visit. But some of the dead are known, including those who were sent under 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 rooms arranged around a courtyard with a mosque, a kitchen and a small open-air stove for making tea on cool desert nights.

As program administrators have described, Saudi participants’ first home visits are short but turn into long-term stays with family – for example, the two-week vacation leave that virtually emptied the center in July.

The nation’s security apparatus is invisible but present. The warden is a military officer, and security workers and care providers dress identically in the classic white robe and red checkered headgear favored by government workers and businessmen. In the gym, a guide gestured to a camera in a corner of the weightlifting area and explained that facial expressions there were under surveillance.

But during this visit, Saudi transparency did not go that far. No one would say how many of the program’s 200 slots were occupied, or when the newest person or oldest resident arrived.

At the gallery, an art therapist, Awad Alyami, described his program as an opportunity for men to express their feelings and for the program’s sponsors to evaluate them.

One painting was an expressionist take of the crowds surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, but clockwise rather than ritual counterclockwise. Program staff members were concerned about the depiction of the holy site and asked the artist to meet with a cleric.

A section of the gallery features the work of former Guantánamo prisoners.

“A lot of weird stuff here,” Dr. Alyami said.

The section has no sign but is distinguished by its image of a guard tower, barbed wire and men in orange uniforms. The art of other participants in the program tended towards desert scenes and other Saudi themes.

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