RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care feels like a resort. There is a large indoor swimming pool, with pictures of swimmers in action on the walls. Next door is a spacious gym with large windows and a banquet hall. Inmates here are referred to as beneficiaries. But these men were part of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS), fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Here they walk around freely in flowing white robes that cover green electronic ankle monitors. Through an individually tailored program, which includes group sessions and art therapy, they are taught to eschew violence and are prepared for a peaceful future on the outside.
In his speech in Riyadh on May 21, US President Donald Trump called on Muslim nations to “drive out terrorists.” But this program in Saudi Arabia shows another approach: how to bring them back into the fold. The center is a showpiece of the Saudi government’s soft approach to terrorism. It was started in 2004 in response to a growing number of domestic terror attacks. Since then, more than 3,300 people have graduated, including 123 former inmates of Guantanamo Bay.
A stay of three months is usually sufficient, though some stay longer; those beyond reproach are returned to “the judiciary process,” which usually means jail. There are currently 84 men staying at the Mohammed bin Nayef Center in Riyadh, and there are another 45 at its sister facility in Jeddah. The walls are decorated with paintings painted during art therapy sessions. Some are reminders of the past. One depicts a brick watchtower behind a concrete wall topped with barbed wire, bearing the sign “Camp VI Guantanamo.” In the clear blue sky, there is an all-seeing eye. But there are also pictures of hope: a single burning candle in darkness, or a pair of shackled, balled-up hands breaking free from their chains. “Many beneficiaries initially don’t want to draw humans because they think it is contrary to Islam,” said Badr Alrazain, who oversees art therapy at the center. “But the paintings really show the changes they go through.”
Some of the artworks even show the face of Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. A key idea in the ideological reprogramming is that holy war, or jihad, is only allowed to be carried out if the ruler — in this case, the Saudi king — commands it. All prisoners sign a patriotic contract before being allowed to re-enter society.
Ali Rimi, a 32-year-old with a stubbly beard, is on the cusp of freedom. He was just 16 when he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where he was held for 15 years. His US file says he attended the Al-Farouk al-Qaeda training camp in September 2001, and his brother is believed to be the current emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Transferred to Saudi Arabia in April 2016, he has spent the last 10 months at the Nayef center. He was worried about life on the outside when he initially left Guantanamo, saying, “I am worried about how people will look at me.” But he said his time at the center has helped him overcome such concerns. He said he is a reformed man, and he dismisses violence. “Only crazy people would kill someone,” he said in basic English, which he picked up at Guantanamo.
Rimi married in April. His family arranged the match with relatives of the bride. “I’ve only seen her on Skype,” he said, smiling. After the fasting month of Ramadan, he will be let out and the pair will celebrate their union. The center supports this — marriage help is a pillar of the program, as it allows an individual to anchor in society.
According to the center’s statistics, 80% of the Guantanamo returnees have stayed on the straight and narrow. But there have been some embarrassing failures. Said al-Shihri completed the program in 2008 and then crossed the border into Yemen and went on to become the deputy chief of al-Qaeda there.
You never truly know whether someone is deradicalized, admitted Yasser al Mazrua, a psychologist at the center. “You try to build up a therapeutic relationship, and you observe their behavior. But we aren’t perfect.” Mazrua has seen radicalization up close; when he was 16, his best friend joined al-Qaeda in Iraq and was killed several months later. Now he is concerned about the next generation he will treat who have joined not al-Qaeda, but IS. More than 2,500 Saudis have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight for the extremist group, the highest number second only to Tunisia. Treating them will be the biggest challenge yet, Mazrua said. “IS has corrected the weaknesses of al-Qaeda’s ideology.” Right now he is working with half a dozen men who returned from Syria. Recently, one boy was sent back to jail after six weeks at the Nayef center. “We couldn’t get through to him.”
But the changes achieved can be striking. A group of prisoners who had spent 15 years in Guantanamo Bay did not rule out the possibility of forgiving the Americans who jailed them. “There is a different administration now to the one that imprisoned us,” said Mansour al-Qattar, who spent 10 years on a hunger strike and was force-fed. “If you are in Guantanamo, you hate the people who do this to you, but this program has helped me overcome.”
For those who do change their views, the center stays involved with them after they walk out the door. There is up to a year of financial support to help the men get back on their feet and help with getting a job if need be.
Trump’s call to “drive terrorists out of this earth” does not fall entirely on deaf ears. Not everyone is given a second chance; those linked to attacks in the kingdom are executed. Last year, Saudi Arabia executed 47 men for “terrorism offenses,” a term encompassing government critics as well as violent extremists. According to Human Rights Watch, 43 were associated with al-Qaeda attacks in the 2000s.
That might be the fate for some returnees from Syria and Iraq, too. It is unclear how many of the IS fighters will come home to Saudi Arabia, if at all. But through the country’s unique approach, combining Islamic theology with science, it hopes to reintegrate them and deter others from traveling in the future. As the founder of the center, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, has said, “If a man reverts to violent extremism having been given everything by the state, he attracts little if any public support, whereas if a man returns to violence because he has been tortured or otherwise mistreated, he is likely to take others with him.”