There was no one on the dusty campus of the reintegration and recovery center for Islamic extremists. The pool was empty, the lights were on in the art therapy workshop but there were no visitors. Not a piece of paper was seen out of place in the psychological and social services unit.
Beneficiaries of the Saudi regime’s program that helps prisoners reintegrate into society were on leave for Eid al-Adha, the feast of Sacrifice, having left the place strangely empty. Only one painting in the gallery hinted at the religious tolerance that is the show’s hallmark: a woman smelling a flower, her uncovered hair blowing in the wind.
The program, with a campus in Riyadh and another in Jeddah, grew out of a counterterrorism campaign that began in 2004 to re-educate citizens returning from jihadist training camps in Afghanistan and others influenced by them.
Some 6,000 men have been through some form of program, including 137 former inmates of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, none of whom have been convicted of war crimes. The last Guantánamo detainee was sent to the program in 2017, shortly before then-President Donald Trump shut down the office that negotiated transfers.
Now the question is whether and how the center fits into Joe Biden’s efforts to close the prison at Guantánamo, which has been open for more than 20 years to hold terrorist suspects in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Thirty-six prisoners remain there today.
Over the years, the US has held about 780 men and boys at Guantánamo, with about 660 of them at its peak in 2003. Saudi citizens were of particular interest because 15 of the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 attacks were Saudis. .
The Trump administration has released only one prisoner, a self-confessed al-Qaeda operative who is currently serving a prison sentence in Riyadh under a Barack Obama-era deal. Biden repatriated another Saudi national in May, but in an agreement to subject him to psychiatric treatment, not jihadist rehabilitation.
More than half of the detainees held today at Guantánamo have been released, but they must wait for the government to find a country willing to receive them with security measures. Most are from Yemen, one of several countries that Congress considers too unstable to receive detainees from Guantánamo. Other detainees are in talks, and there is debate over whether those convicted can serve their sentences in foreign custody.
The Obama administration tried to close the prison, and Saudi Arabia was one of the countries that figured prominently in the resettlement plans. Another was Oman, which welcomed 28 Yemenis into a top-secret project that provided them with a wife, home and job, as long as they didn’t tell neighbors that they had served time at Guantánamo, according to former detainees. None of them had been tried for war crimes.
Obama sent 20 prisoners to the United Arab Emirates, most of them Yemenis, but also several Afghans and a Russian. The country, however, basically arrested and abruptly repatriated them, minus the Russian, drawing human rights protests that those who returned were at risk of persecution. With the program considered a failure, Biden looks for other options for those released.
Other difficult cases include an ethnic Rohingya Muslim who is stateless; a Maryland-educated Pakistani who has become an informant for the US government and fears persecution if he is repatriated; and a Saudi citizen who has been critical of the country’s royal family.
A recent visit to the campus on the outskirts of Riyadh highlighted one possibility. The program was founded by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a former interior minister who had close ties to US intelligence agencies. When he was ousted by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the program was renamed the Center for Counseling and Care.
As described by administrators, it mixes classes on nonviolent interpretations of sharia with physical exercise, recreation and counseling, aimed at returning those who complete the program to their families. Or, as one team member put it, undoing “the brainwashing that is done” when a young person is drawn to religious extremism.
A library features recommended reading on successful Saudis. “The right people, in order to avoid the wrong models that lead to darkness or death,” says, through an interpreter, Wnyan Obied Alsubaiee, program director, who holds the rank of major general.
One 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 performance in a Saudi-American dialogue after the 9/11 attacks. Another is the biography of a former government minister.
Alsubaiee reveals that two former Guantánamo prisoners in the Saudi prison system would be accepted into the program once they completed their sentences. One of them is Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi, the self-confessed al-Qaeda terrorist freed by the Trump administration. The identity of the other is not known.
The director bristles at the program’s portrayals as a five-star hotel for extremists: “It’s not a prize. They are no longer prisoners. They have to return to society. We want them to feel accepted and to see this as another chance.”
Of the 137 men sent from Guantánamo to Saudi Arabia, some through the Saudi prison, 116 returned to society and didn’t get into trouble, 12 were recaptured, 8 were killed and 1 is “wanted.” Some of the dead are known — they 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 individual rooms arranged around a courtyard with a mosque, a kitchen and a small outdoor stove for making tea on cold desert nights.
According to administrators, the participants’ first visits to their homes are short, but they evolve into long-term stays with the family.
The security apparatus is not visible, but it is present. The director is a military officer, and staff are dressed identically. At the gym, a guide gestured to a camera in a corner of the weightlifting area and explained that everyone there was under surveillance. No one said how many of the program’s 200 seats were filled 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 program sponsors to evaluate them. A section of the gallery showcases the work of former Guantánamo prisoners. “Lots of weird stuff here,” he comments. One image stands out, with a guard tower, barbed wire and men in orange uniforms. The art of other show participants tended to desert scenes and Saudi themes.