Attempting to rehabilitate Riyadh's jihadists

The hits and misses in the Saudi rehab program.

Al-Qaeda's Yemen branch reportedly has a new deputy chief, a Saudi named Saeed al-Shihri.

When I was in Saudi Arabia in 2007 to report on the Kingdom's much publicized rehabilitation program, which aims to turn jihadi fighters into peaceful citizens, al-Shihri was one of the enrollees.

Saeed al-Shihiri, from an undated video posted on a militant-leaning website on Jan. 23, 2009. The identity was confirmed by a U.S. intelligence official but has not been independently verified. (SITE Intelligence Group/Associated Press)

After spending six years in U.S. custody at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, he was sent to his homeland and entered the Saudi rehab in November 2007.

But the lessons there clearly didn't take.

According to an internet news release by Yemen militants, corroborated by the New York Times quoting an unnamed U.S. intelligence official, al-Shihri has become a top member of Yemen's al-Qaeda affiliate.

Several media outlets have claimed that al-Shihri was involved in an attack on the U.S. embassy in Yemen in September 2008, though that is difficult to prove.

Other reports say that many ex-Guantanamo inmates have returned to the battlefield. The Pentagon puts the number at 61.

These numbers, too, are unverifiable. But they serve to underscore the dilemma facing U.S. President Barack Obama as he seeks to shut down the controversial detention centre.

It is clearly going to be a problem as well for the Muslim and Western nations, including Canada, who are being asked to consider taking back their own detained citizens and somehow deal with them. 

'Soft approach'

Former Saudi militants and Guantanamo detainees in a rehab classroom at the Saudi "soft-approach" centre near Riyadh. (CBC)

The Saudis themselves refer to their program to rehabilitate former jihadists as the "soft approach" and boast 225 graduates since its inception in the summer of 2007.

Those in charge employ art therapy as well as religious and psychological counselling to try to alter the radical outlook of the participants. To qualify, ex-jihadists need to show a willingness to change and must not have Saudi blood on their hands.

Listening to art therapist Awad Alyami's description of al-Shihri's behaviour in rehab, it is difficult to understand how he ever made the grade.

"He (al-Shihri) was not really interested in doing anything with any of us," the U.S.-trained Dr. Alyami recalled during a telephone interview from Riyadh.

"He even accused me of being psychologically ill to come and treat him. He's got big problems, big psychological problems."

Now, from his new home in Yemen, al-Shihri is using the internet, "threatening everybody. He's threatening the centre and I know my turn is coming" Dr. Alyami says.

But he is undeterred. "Many students have learned how to see things in a positive way and created balance in their lives through art."

The problem with rehab

Art therapist Dr. Awad Alyami shows British Prime Minister Gordon Brown how the rehab program works. (CBC)

Is al-Shihri proof that rehab doesn't work? Not for the Saudi Ministry of the Interior. It considers rehab so successful that it plans to build three permanent centres in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam to meet the growing need to counter Islamic extremism.

The current site, on the outskirts of Riyadh, is located in a former family holiday resort.

"We never said that our program can guarantee that the graduate will be rehabilitated 100 per cent," says Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, adviser to the minister of the interior.

To date, he says, only 10 per cent of graduates have been sent back to prison. "Sometimes they don't show you what is their aim or goals." In the case of al-Shihri, al-Hadlaq says, "even his wife said she did not notice anything."

During my visits to the Saudi centre, I met a failed suicide bomber, a militant who went to Baghdad to join the insurgency to, in his words, "kill Americans" and others who merely thought about becoming jihadists. It is a very mixed group.

Still, "there's a growing recognition that this is not a problem you can jail your way out of or shoot your way out of," says Christopher Boucek, a Middle East specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington who has been studying the Saudi approach for the past few years. 

"There's value in rehabilitation," Boucek says. But what is missing at this point is the risk assessment. 

"There's a whole process about letting pedophiles and murderers and rapists out of jail but how do you decide to let a former terrorist out?

"We've come to a point where rehabilitation is good but where are the tools to make this decision? That's the gaping hole."

The trouble with Yemen

Yemenis make up 40 per cent of the remaining Guantanamo Bay inmates (97 out of 245). The government in Yemen is trying to find a way to deal with them. It says it is setting up a Saudi-like program now.

Boucek has just returned from Yemen where he asked the authorities to show him its plans.

"I said I wanted to see it, where it's going to be and how it's going to work and they couldn't do it. They wouldn't take me," he says.

"I said I want to go into prisons. I want to know where the doctors are and how it's going to work. It's not just painting a building, or getting a building ready to take these guys."  

In the meantime, Yemen seems to be a magnet for determined militants eager to escape Saudi Arabia. One of the advantages for them is that you don't need a passport to get to Yemen from Saudi Arabia because the mountainous border area is porous and difficult to control. 

'Not the ideal student'

In late 2007, I witnessed ex-jihadists in flowing white gowns as they expressed their feelings in art class with pastel crayons and paper. Dr. Alyami encouraged them to "Get that negative energy out on the paper!" as the men drew abstract pictures.

Although al-Shihri was in rehab during my visit, I did not meet the man Dr. Alyami describes as "not the ideal student."

The therapist is philosophical about al-Shihri's reported new leadership role in al-Qaeda.

"Guantanamo Bay people have their own issues that are really different from the other types of our students," he says.

Still, he adds, "It's a good thing that something like this happens so we can pay more attention to not letting them go till we make sure that everything is all right.

"But it is not just our own decision to let them go or to stay. It's a collective decision and it is the government who has to say the final word. We do our best."

A model graduate

Like al-Shihri, Juma al-Dossary also spent six years in Guantanamo Bay and is one participant I did meet during my visit. He's been free for a year and, so far, he's a model graduate.

Former Guantanamo detainee Juma al-Dossary, a rehab graduate, recently married. (CBC)

The men who pass through this centre are encouraged to marry since having a wife is thought to bring stability to their lives.

At the end of my interview with al-Dossary, he told me, smiling, "by the way I am romantic." Within months of graduation he found a wife and their first baby is due in March.

As Guantanamo Bay winds down and prisoners are released, dozens of countries around the world need to find ways to deal with their returnees. Many are closely watching the Saudi experiment.

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown is just one of many visitors Dr Alyami has met since the program opened its doors in the summer of 2007. Lawyers for Canadian detainee Omar Khadr have also made enquiries about it.

The Americans are even using a version of the Saudi approach with certain insurgents held inside Iraq.

The so-called soft approach is an option getting serious consideration around the world. But it clearly has its limitations.