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In Saudi Arabia, re-educating terrorists held at Gitmo

Former Guantanamo Bay prisoners said to be more likely to return to terror.

Guantanamo Bay inmate
A Guantanamo detainee does pull-ups inside an exercise area at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base, Cuba in 2009. (Michelle Shephard/AFP/Getty Images)

This is the fifth part of a GlobalPost series of reports by Caryle Murphy that goes inside the House of Saud and its internal struggle to reclaim Islam from Al Qaeda.

Part one: Saudi Arabia's struggle to reclaim Islam

Part two: A kingdom divided

Part three: Women join fight againt terror

Part four: A softer approach to fighting terror

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Last month, the Yemen-based deputy leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Said Al Shihri, called on Saudi military personnel to join the extremist movement's jihad to overthrow the Saudi monarchy.

Al Shihri is a former Guantanamo Bay inmate, and a graduate of Saudi Arabia’s much-touted rehabilitation program for detained extremists, the most publicized aspect of its counter-terrorism strategy.

He is also the rehabilitation program's most high-profile failure.

In a recent briefing with journalists, Abdulrahman Al Hadlaq, director of the Interior Ministry’s Ideological Security Directorate, said the program's relapse rate for Guantanamo returnees came close to 20 percent, or 18.9 to be exact.

Of the 109 former Guantanamo detainees who entered the program, three were still in the program as of July, according to a ministry spokesman. Among the 106 who had been released, eleven fled to Yemen to join Al Qaeda’s affiliate there. (One later returned and surrendered to Saudi authorities; two were killed in a shoot-out with Saudi police.)

Nine other relapsed graduates did not rejoin Al Qaeda but violated the conditions of their release from detention; they are either back in prison or under stricter monitoring, the spokesman said.

Hadlaq said Guantanamo returnees felt a close bond with each other because of their common experience and this solidarity meant that “basically one or two of them can influence others.”

The ex-Guantanamo inmates are among approximately 300 detainees who have gone through the rehabilitation program. The others were caught trying to go to Iraq to fight U.S. troops or detained for minor offenses related to extremist causes.

The non-Guantanamo program participants had a lower relapse rate of 9.5 percent, which is not surprising given that hard-core militants who show no intention of giving up their beliefs are not eligible for the program.

Deputy Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, regarded as the architect of the rehabilitation program, told Robert Lacey, author of Inside the Kingdom, that these “hard nuts who cannot be cracked” make up about 20 percent of Saudi security detainees. The government is believed to be holding at least 3,000 suspected extremists.

The so-called “after care” rehabilitation program is part of a larger re-education effort in Saudi prisons that targets these detainees. Through psychological and religious counseling, the program aims to persuade prisoners to abandon what Saudi officials call “deviant” or “misguided” beliefs that led them to extremist groups. Officials say the program is voluntary, but acknowledge that completing it is a condition for a prisoner’s release.

Some Saudis say this in-prison program depends too much on Islamic scholars who promote a traditional approach to Islamic concepts like jihad, and would be more effective if clerics with different views were part of the religious counseling staff.

“Maybe they stop them from doing terrorism but they don’t give them a more liberal way [of thinking],” said Saud Al Sarhan, an expert on Islamist politics in the kingdom. “They only use the old traditional way of talking about jihad, that it is [legitimate] when the ruler says it’s okay. They don’t talk about dealing with the West in a different way.”