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Postcard: Saudi Arabia

4 minute read
Scott Macleod

Call it the anti-Guantánamo. Young Saudis are captured in Iraq waging jihad against the American infidels. But instead of being shipped off to a bleak detention camp in Cuba, they are dispatched to a cozy chalet an hour outside the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Technically it’s a detention center, but no one is forced to wear an orange jumpsuit or a blindfold. And far from being condemned to solitary confinement, its occupants are free to roam the landscaped courtyard and play Ping-Pong, volleyball and video games.

Welcome to the Care Rehabilitation Center, part of a three-year-old experiment to reform malleable minds who have fallen under the sway of Osama bin Laden’s radical brand of Islam. To get here, jihadis have to demonstrate during a prison interview a readiness to rethink their extremist views. (About 20% of the 1,875 holy warriors invited to participate have refused.) The program, developed by a team of Islamic scholars, psychiatrists and sociologists, tries to convince these men of their mistakes and make them productive members of Saudi society, which has been rocked by terrorism: al-Qaeda attacks have killed 144 people there over the past four years. By not treating the detainees as criminals, the center seeks to avoid reinforcing their radicalism and turning them into role models for more jihadis.

Although the perimeter is guarded by police, the facility feels like a country club or college campus. Detainees have lots of downtime and soda pop. They spend their days in vocational training, psychological counseling and classroom lectures, most of which are given by religious scholars from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, including the center’s director, Sheik Ahmed Hamid Jelan. He walks the detainees through religious texts on jihad–a theological minefield, considering that while the Saudi government forbids fighting in Iraq, it once recruited young Saudis like bin Laden to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. The basic difference, Jelan explains to his charges, is that fighting the Soviets served the interests of Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world, while struggling against the U.S. in Iraq does not. “We answer all the questions about al-Qaeda concepts by referring to the Koran and the message of Islam,” says Jelan. “We have dialogue. They become convinced.”

Among those on the road to reformation: Abdullah Sherif, 28, who went to Iraq in 2003 with four friends hoping to become martyrs resisting the U.S. invasion. At the rehab center, after feasting on lamb, rice, stuffed peppers and Pepsi, he explains how his fellow jihadis died in a U.S. air strike in Kurdistan early in the war. He was captured eight months later by U.S. troops in Mosul and turned over to Saudi authorities. “I had these ideas in my head,” Sherif says of the teachings of bin Laden, whom he once regarded as a hero. “But he made a lot of mistakes, like targeting Saudi Arabia.” The former jihadi now plans to take up Islamic studies and open a car-repair shop when he gets out of rehab.

Once Sherif is deemed fit for release, he will be sent home and, like the 700 or so others who have been discharged by the center, monitored indefinitely. Ex-detainees are given a monthly stipend–typically about $700–and sometimes a new car. Family members are enlisted to help watch over these men, who are strongly encouraged to start families of their own. Having children, the thinking goes, lessens the temptation to rejoin the jihad, which is why the program makes available upwards of $20,000 for an ex-detainee’s wedding.

The Saudi government claims the program has been hugely successful, and security officials from other Arab countries have visited to see if the model might work for them. In the presence of guards, detainees say they want to resume normal lives, but perhaps a more telling sign is a game of Ping-Pong between a detainee and an American reporter. When the visitor makes a particularly impressive play, showing his powerful forehand, cheers from onlookers fill the evening air.

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