The first look inside the Al-Qaeda Rehab Camp in Saudi Arabia.

By Syed Nazakat in Riyadh & Jeddah

He is an expert in plotting terror strikes. His first mission was to fight the US in Afghanistan and then help the cause of jihad (holy war) worldwide. But in Guantanamo Bay detention camp, Khaled Al-Bewardi was merely No. 68. Al-Bewardi was 21 when he first heard about al Qaeda’s recruitment forAfghanistanin 2003. The jihadi videos about Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and Afghanistan convinced him to fight for the “oppressed Muslim”. In November 2003, he lied to his parents that he was off to camp in the desert with friends, a popular pastime of young Saudis. In truth, he, like hundreds of al Qaeda operatives, left for Pakistan. 

At loose ends and casting about for a cause, one of his friends suggested that they go see Osama bin Laden, founder of al Qaeda. But before his group could reach Afghanistan and bin Laden, he was arrested inKarachiby a joint team of the US Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan Special Forces. He was taken to Afghanistan and from there to Guantanamo Bay, a US enclave in Cuba. 

After six years there, he was asked to leave his cell and board an aircraft. He thought he would be killed in the air. As he covered his head with his hands and prayed, the Saudi aircraft winged its way toRiyadh. He disembarked in Thumamah, a former desert resort half an hour’s drive north of the Saudi Arabian capital. Though he did not realise it, he was at another of life’s crossroads. In Thumamah, he could use an indoor swimming pool and a gym, and eat in an airconditioned dining hall with hundreds of other al Qaeda supporters. There was kasba (meat with rice) or theNajdregion speciality, hashi (baby camel). In the evenings, they would paint or play football. On weekends, their wives would join them. 

After few months at Thumamah, Khaled was released, with a monthly allowance of 3,000 Saudi riyals, a car and a job. “When I look back at the dark days of my life, it seems like a miracle that I am alive today,” said Khaled, the first reformed al Qaeda man to speak to the Indian media. “My life has suddenly changed for good.” 

Welcome to anti-Guantanamo; that’s what the Saudis call Thumamah. Technically it is a prison for jihadis, but there is no solitary confinement. Inmates have lavish quarters and are free to relax, play and call home any time. The only giveaway is the curl of barbed wire atop the compound wall.

Thumamah is the base for Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation programme for former radicals and al Qaeda operatives. The centre is run by the interior ministry, and is assisted by the ministries of education and religious affairs. A number of universities and institutes help prepare the rehab programme. 

Saudi Arabiahas successfully rehabilitated more than 3,500 al Qaeda men, of whom 493 were suspected al Qaeda operatives who were arrested in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Around 10 per cent of Saudi detainees have refused to participate in the programme. “Some are still consumed by hatred and corrupt ideology,” said Dr Abdulrahman Al-Hadlaq, director-general, ideological security directorate (see interview). “It will take us some more time to win them over.” 

Al-Hadlaq said that the driving force behind al Qaeda-related terrorism is the ideology. Sometimes, he said, inmates throw tough questions like why they were permitted to wage jihad against the USSR in Afghanistan, but not the US. He said: “We tell them that jihad is admissible in Islam only if it is waged with the consent of the country’s leader, the permission of both parents and if a fatwa [religious decree] is issued.” 

The Thumamah centre is divided into six areas; four for those who fought inIraqand two for those  from Guantanamo Bay. A day at the centre begins early, with a call to prayer. From Saturday to Thursday inmates attend daily classes. There is an exercise session before breakfast. From 10 a.m. till lunch, there are classes on religion and history, where students are engaged in debate and dialogue. Post lunch, there are classes on art therapy and anger management. After dinner, there is roll call at 9 p.m. and then lights off. 

The rehab programme employs dozens of religious scholars, psychologists, psychiatrists and other specialists, who try to persuade the young men that their behaviour goes against the fundamental teachings of Islam. The six-week course covers issues such as jihad, sanctity of human life, suicide bombings, relations with non-Muslims, about people who can issue a fatwa and about takfir, the practice of declaring other Muslims to be apostates. 

Dr Ali Al-Afnaan, coordinator of the rehab centre and psychologist at the interior ministry’s King Fahd Security College, said it was difficult to put the inmates through art therapy. “They are not interested in art and painting,” he said. “They say it is for school kids.”

But by and by, the men start expressing their feelings through art. Most begin with sketches of rugged mountains, maybe a hangover fromAfghanistan. Others paint in red or orange, indicating bloodshed and experiences inGuantanamoBay. “As time passes they start sketching different objects in different colours,” said Al-Afnaan. “That gives us an indication that the person is recovering.” 

Khaled, who now lives with his wife and two children inRiyadh, said the rehab programme was the best thing that happened in his life. “Allah has given me a chance to correct myself,” he said. 

Tamir Al-Fahad was picked up fromIraqand spent three years inGuantanamoBay. He now lives with his family in Hafar Al-Batin, 480km north ofRiyadh. Talking to THE WEEK, he came across as a jovial man who held no grudge towards his American interrogators. “I want to forget the past,” said Tamir. “God has given me a new life and a chance to serve my parents.” 

Another al Qaeda operative, Ahmed al-Shayea, exploded an oil tanker near the Jordanian embassy inBaghdad, killing scores of passersby. He was catapulted from the tanker and was burnt badly. “I repent those killings,” said Ahmed. 

Most of the former al Qaeda men interviewed by THE WEEK were not ideologues, but foot soldiers. Saudi officials said these ex-jihadis lacked understanding of Islam and were easily influenced by al Qaeda propaganda. Hence, the rehab programme’s module on Islam and the sanctity of human life. 

Another thorny issue was the return of the prodigals to their families. Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, deputy minister of the interior and architect of the rehab experiment, often hosted Guantanamo inmates and their families in posh Riyadh hotels, encouraging them to bond and relax. 

Once free, The kingdom pays the freed inmates a monthly allowance: SR 3,000 for those fromGuantanamoBay, and SR 2,000 for the rest. It also helps them find work and, in some cases, even a wife. There is a gift of SR 50,000 towards wedding expenses. The rehab programme began with an act of generosity by Prince Mohammed. After 9/11, where 15 of the 19 aircraft hijackers were Saudis, the prince’s father, Minister of the Interior Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, vowed that there would be no mercy for any al Qaeda operative in the kingdom. The world was looking atSaudi Arabia, because Osama bin Laden himself came from one of the richest families in the kingdom.

In July 2003, Abdul Rahman Al-Ghamdi, a hardcore al Qaeda operative, surrendered to Prince Mohammed. Instead of throwing him in a high security prison, the prince asked one of his sheikhs to live with Al-Ghamdi and ensure that he did not abscond. After living with the sheikh, who challenged his radical ideas, Al-Ghamdi repented his joining the al Qaeda. The prince was then convinced that rehab would work. So, in late 2007, the Thumamah centre was opened.  

The centre had been widely praised and has had a clutch of high-profile visitors, including former British prime minister Gordon Brown.Saudi Arabiahas submitted a draft of the intellectual security strategy to the council of Arab interior ministers. Indian ambassador toSaudi Arabia, Talmiz Ahmad, said 9/11 helped Saudi reformers fight religious extremists. “The Saudi authorities have initiated awareness programs in schools, in communities and even in mosques,” said Ahmad. “But it is the rehab program that has made a huge difference. It has given an alternative to the world to deal with terrorism.” 

The kingdom is building five more centres across the country. The new centres will be more spacious and comfortable with professional playgrounds and music system for each individual. Interestingly, Osama’s family concern, the Saudi Binladin Group, is building these centres. Interior ministry spokesman General Mansour Sultan Al-Turki said, “We have cracked down on terrorist cells and financing. We have killed and arrested many terrorists. But we realised that the use of force alone will not contain al Qaeda. This is the struggle of one of mind over another.” He said military officers with extremist views have been fired, along with teachers and imams who gave hate speeches. 

The rehab programme has had its challenges as well. At least six freed inmates escaped toYemenand rejoined al Qaeda. One of them, Said Al-Shihri, is now a senior commander in theArabian peninsula. Turki said after Osama’s killing, al Qaeda leadership was concerned more with establishing a broad ideological programme for the network, rather than maintaining control. “That is why it is important for us to combat the ideology of al Qaeda,” he said.  

And, al Qaeda has made it amply clear that it has the centre and its sponsors in its gunsights. Prince Mohammed, reportedly, has had four attempts on his life. In 2009, during the holy month of Ramzan, he granted audience to an al Qaeda man who said he wanted to surrender. The prince had a narrow escape when the man blew himself up. 

I was travelling to Jeddah, with my interpreter Majid Al-Gandhi, when an assassin attempted to kill Prince Naif. Returning to hotel that night, our car was stopped and searched at one of the many checkpoints that had sprung up in the city. Jeddah, some 800km fromRiyadhand on the coast, is Osama’s hometown and he founded al Qaeda here. Between 1982 to 1992, around 20,000 men, mostly from this area and from the south, joined him in Afghanistan. Over 5,000 died fighting. 

Nowhere are the contradictions of modern Saudi Arabia more evident than in Jeddah. Restaurants in the city are manned by Indian cooks and the taxis by Pakistanis. Seen from afar, soaring, sparkling, stunning modern buildings tower above the desert and camels. Amid the luxury cars and SUVs, slip the mutaween (religious police) hurrying the faithful to prayer. During the holy month, everything is closed during the day. Dusk sees the miles of freeways choked with cars headed to shopping malls that remain open until dawn. 

“We are being carried backward and forward at once,” said Jamal Khashoggi, former editor of Al-Watan, a Saudi daily. A good friend of Osama, he last met him inSudanin 1995. “The kingdom officially supported the Jihad against theUSSRinAfghanistan,” he said. “Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, the then Grand Mufti, declared jihad and supported Osama’s call. Today, we are fighting the same guys.” 

He said the Arab Spring disproved al Qaeda’s ideology of violence and bloodshed. “All his life, Osama propagated that only violence can bring change,” he said. “That ideology was defeated the day thousands of people took toTahrir Square[inEgypt] to seek political change and freedom.” 

Saudi experts said that pampering by the state made the youth lazy. Saudi has around six million expat workers, nearly half the number of the kingdom’s working-age population. “Those who join al Qaeda are a product of our social failures. They are raised in a welfare state,” said Dr Saleh bin Sulaiman Al-Wahaibi, secretary-general of the Riyadh-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth. “We allowed them to grow up in isolation and in a pampered atmosphere until they turned to Osama in an effort to find themselves.” 

Yusef Abdullah Saleh Al-Rabiesh, No. 109 in Guantanamo Bay, returned to Saudi Arabiain 2006. He echoed the views of Al-Wahaibi: “Most of us who joined al Qaeda were restless youth. We had no clue about the outside world. We just wanted to go and fight theUS.” Some of his friends from the neighbouring province of Al Bahah, one of the kingdom’s most obscure regions, brought the world to a standstill when they carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Authorities in Jeddah admit that al Qaeda is trying hard to fills its ranks with the alienated Saudi youth. But it does seem clear that the kingdom is taking the challenge seriously. As al Qaeda enlists 36 per cent of its recruits through the internet, the kingdom has hired hundreds of Islamic scholars to blog and fight online radicalisation. 

On a sunny afternoon, Al-Afnaan took 20 inmates from the centre to Masjid al-Haram, the holiest shrine in Islam and the world’s largest mosque, inMecca. In the grand mosque, walking slowly across the vast square of polished marble, some sought God’s blessing and refuge, while others wept loudly. Al-Afnaan said: “Who would have imagined that one day these people with such a violent past would leave the path of terrorism?” After a brief pause, he whispered: “Allahu Akbar.” 

(THE WEEK, Oct 2011)


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