A Betty Ford clinic for jihadis

PlayStations, new kitchens and art classes are part of Saudi Arabia’s softly, softly approach to rehabilitating terrorists

TABLE TENNIS - former terrorists being reprogrammed in a centre outside Riyadh.

<!– Remove following

to not show photographer information –><!– Remove following

to not show image description –><!– Remove following

to not show enlarge option –>

It has been called the Betty Ford clinic for jihadists and within minutes of arriving at the Care Rehabilitation Centre on the outskirts of Riyadh, you can see why. The small complex, where the Saudi Arabian government is exploring a new way of reforming its wayward radicals, feels more like an exclusive boarding school than a Saudi jail.

Inmates have access to swimming pools, table tennis and PlayStations. In the evenings, guards and prisoners play football. An air-conditioned tent sits adjacent to the sports field, serving as a dining hall and common room where, when I visited, the prisoners were tucking into rice and lamb with fresh fruit for pudding.

In return for this privileged treatment, the prisoners – Islamic extremists, some of whom are convicted murderers – are obliged to attend lessons based around Islamic law and the jurisprudence of jihad. A team of psychologists teaches detainees how they should manage their emotions, particularly when reacting to world events.

Art therapy classes help inmates to “reveal their softer side”. And it is not just the artwork that is surreal. It is quite a sight to see men in flowing robes, with unkempt beards and their trousers hoisted above their ankles, sit down with a pack of crayons to express themselves. “The unconscious mind holds a lot of things,” said the therapist.

The Saudi government insists all this is necessary to promote genuine rehabilitation and foster a meaningful relationship with the jihadists. But in the easy-going atmosphere of the “resort” – nobody calls it a prison – where inmates are referred to as “beneficiaries”, it is easy to forget the seriousness of some of their crimes.

The centre is divided into six areas, four of which hold Saudi nationals who fought (or tried to) in Iraq. The other two hold returnees from Guantanamo Bay.

Ahmed al-Shayea, a failed suicide bomber, travelled to Iraq in 2003, aged 19. His bomb killed nine civilians and injured 60. Abdullah al-Shayea, his father, told me that Ahmed had said he was going camping in the desert with friends, a popular pastime among young Saudis. He disappeared and Abdullah later received an anonymous call from Iraq declaring that Ahmed “fell as a martyr”.

“I was stunned,” he said. “I had no idea he was going there.” Ahmed insists he was tricked. After slipping into Iraq through Syria, he says, he joined the insurgency but is adamant he did not intend to be a suicide bomber. “There were 12 of us in my group,” he said, “and we all refused.”

It is impossible to assess the veracity of this story. Ahmed was given an oil tanker and told to drive it to the Mansour district of Baghdad where other insurgents would meet him just outside the Jordanian embassy. Two Iraqis drove the tanker first before passing it over to Ahmed just short of its final destination. “They got out and drove away in another car,” he says.

As he approached the embassy, the tanker exploded in a fireball, killing passers-by and engulfing Ahmed in flames. He was catapulted from the vehicle and survived but has been left with horrific burns to his hands and face.

He was treated at the scene by American soldiers who assumed he was an innocent victim of the blast. His role in the plot became clear only after five days of questioning. Ahmed’s father realised his son had survived when he later saw him, bandaged and charred, being interviewed from a hospital bed on al-Arabiya, the pan-Arab satellite television channel. “If I had known this would happen, I would never have gone,” Ahmed says in an uncertain tone.

The Saudi authorities accept his version of events and insist that Ahmed’s youthful exuberance was exploited by sophisticated jihadist recruiters. That willingness to join the jihad has caused problems among young Saudis in a kingdom where the austere form of Wahhabi Islam is endorsed by the state and two-thirds of the population are under 30. Since the war in Iraq began five years ago, Saudi nationals have constituted the largest band of foreign fighters in the country.

This is not a new phenomenon. During the Afghan jihad against Soviet forces in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia officially supported the campaign, with Abdul-Aziz Bin Baz, then the Grand Mufti, declaring jihad, while the government subsidised flights for militants wanting to make their way there.

The Islamist campaign is no longer exclusively focused against the West: it also regards Muslim governments around the world as heretical, making them targets, too. Saudi Arabia has suffered attacks in Riyadh, Yanbu and al-Khobar since 9/11; more than 200 civilians have been killed, prompting a crackdown in which more than 120 Al-Qaeda fighters were killed and hundreds more detained.

The government has realised that the use of force alone will not contain Al-Qaeda. It has created an ideological security unit that coordinates the kingdom’s efforts in the war of ideas against its native jihadists. Those arrested in connection with terrorism are routinely subjected to attempts to reform their thinking.

Five jails, each housing 1,200 prisoners, have been built specifically for jihadists with the purpose of promoting ideological reform through dialogue and debate. Religious instruction in these prisons is directed by an advisory committee, which is also closely involved with the care centre.

The new prisons are far from the relaxed environment of the Care Rehabilitation Centre. Housing some of the most senior Al-Qaeda leaders in the kingdom, they are maximum security with sophisticated systems to deter any militants hoping to target them, including the use of buried seismic cables and microwave detection equipment.

CCTV also operates in the prisons, including cells and interrogation rooms. Most prisoners have a cell to themselves or occasionally share, although the rooms have been designed to minimise contact with other prisoners and are largely self-contained.

Cells are fitted with their own televisions, encased behind toughened glass, and are centrally controlled by the guards. They are used to transmit religious education lectures prepared by the advisory committee directly into cells where inmates later have an opportunity to debate ideas and ask questions using an intercom.

After serving their sentence in these jails, prisoners are moved to the rehabilitation centre, which opened 18 months ago. It is designed to be a halfway house where ideas first introduced by the advisory committee in prison are consolidated and developed. The men are also given extensive support to help to reintegrate them into society after they leave, the thinking being that so doing makes them less likely to reoffend.

The initiative was largely inspired by circumstance after a senior Al-Qaeda figure surrendered in response to a royal amnesty. Unsure about what to do with him, the government asked a local sheikh, Ahmad Jilani, to live with him and ensure that he did not abscond while it searched for a more permanent solution.

“We discovered that after living with the sheikh, who challenged his ideas, he began telling us everything about how he was recruited, what attracted him [to jihad] and how Al-Qaeda is operating in the kingdom,” said General Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the interior ministry.

Since its inauguration, the centre has attracted a merry-go-round of visitors and now has purpose-built exhibition and reception centres for guests. Pictures from the visit of David Miliband, the foreign secretary, are proudly displayed alongside the carefully selected artwork of prisoners.

In the months before being released, inmates are allowed to make occasional unescorted visits to family members on the understanding that they will return later. “We have to trust them because one day they’re going to leave here,” says Professor Turki al-Otayan, a psychologist.

Families are encouraged to make regular visits to the centre, allowing inmates to socialise with spouses and children. Families have a crucial role to play in reforming the radicals and the centre offers advice on how to help prisoners to readjust after release. The emphasis on preparing both the families and the inmates for reintegration is particularly relevant to those returning from Guantanamo Bay. Jumah Mohammed al-Dossari spent six years there and was held at the care centre after being repatriated.

“It prepared me to go back into society gradually. You cannot just go from Guantanamo back to normal life. It’s too difficult. Everything changed. Saudi Arabia changed. The whole world changed,” he says. “I have a great wife. She tells me to forget Guantanamo. She says, ‘Just forget it’. She says, ‘You’re a new man. You have a new life.

You have your family. Focus on that’. That makes me feel much better.”

How successful the centre is being in challenging jihadist ideas is hard to measure. The majority of men I met there were not Al-Qaeda’s ideologues but its foot soldiers. Most had answered the call to jihad without fully understanding the Islamist world view and, although religiously motivated, were fuelled by events.

Since its inception none of the inmates from the care centre has reoffended, but a visit to the home of Mohammed al-Fawzan, who tried to join the Islamic army in Iraq and was arrested on the Syrian border, reveals a more intriguing reason why some of those released from the care centre might want to sustain their good behaviour.

Parked outside his modest one-bedroom apartment in a poor district of Riyadh is Fawzan’s new Toyota Camry, costing just under £15,000. The flat has been renovated and modernised with a fitted kitchen and bedroom furniture installed in preparation for his wedding. Fawzan’s living room hosts a 37in high-definition television with surround sound and a Blu-ray player. All this has been provided by the government, including an additional £15,000 for his wedding. And incentives are not limited to financial aid. The government also ensured that Fawzan was reinstated in his old job.

Ahmed al-Shayea enjoys financial benefits, too, despite having killed civilians. “If you were to rehabilitate me mentally, physically and psychologically, why would you not financially rehabilitate me if I were in need?” he says.

It may be startling to us, but most Saudis are sanguine about it. They insist that such generous financial packages are not bribing the jihadists. Khalid al-Maeena, editor of the Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s only English-language newspaper, said: “We are a patriarchal society. These people are sons of the soil. When a son makes a mistake, the father forgives him and the king has pardoned them.”

The traditional relationship between the state and its citizens in the West has no parallel in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is paternalist and the care centre is indicative of King Abdullah’s wider ambitions to promote social reform. Whether these softly, softly tactics will work long term remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher’s film for Newsnight about the care centre will be broadcast at 10.30pm on Wednesday on BBC2



Comments are closed.

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:

Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop a comment on a post or contact us so we can take care of it!