Saudi Arabia is quietly preparing to release a group of Yemenis once held in Guantánamo, the first non-Saudis to graduate from its 13-year-old deradicalization program. The imminent release of the nine Yemeni men, however, comes at a tense time for the kingdom and a potentially awkward moment for Washington.
The Yemenis will be freed in Saudi Arabia in the coming days, an official at the Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care told Foreign Policy during a visit in late October. Another official confirmed on Friday the men have not yet been released, but will be shortly. Four more Yemenis are slated to leave the rehabilitation facility outside Riyadh in 2018.
President Donald Trump is unlikely to welcome their reentry into society. “There should be no further releases from Gitmo,” he warned when former President Barack Obama’s administration transferred them to Saudi Arabia last year. “These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield.”
A National Security Council spokesperson told FP on Saturday that the president is supportive of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to combat extremism, but that the United States “remains concerned over former Guantánamo detainees and their potential to engage in future extremist activities, and expects foreign governments to ensure appropriate security measures are in place to prevent such activity.”
The center’s deradicalization program has been touted by Saudi and American officials alike as the gold standard for rehabilitating Guantánamo detainees, foreign fighters, terrorists, and their sympathizers. But its namesake has fallen victim to Saudi Arabia’s internal shake-up: Mohammed bin Nayef, the kingdom’s former crown prince and interior minister, was supplanted in June by his cousin Mohammed bin Salman. The new crown prince recently embarked on a purge that has swept aside businessmen and princes tied to the old political order — and the fallout calls into question not only the fate of these Yemeni men, but the program as a whole.
Trump has repeated for years the misleading claim that many of the detainees released from the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay — including to Saudi Arabia — have returned to terrorism. Trump recently reignited the political controversy surrounding Guantánamo after a deadly truck attack in New York, saying he would “certainly consider” sending the suspect to the detention camp. The president later backed down in the face of legal resistance, tweeting that sending the attacker there would take too long.
Most of the 13 Yemenis currently at the Mohammed bin Nayef Center were held at the American military prison in Cuba for more than a decade, without charges or trial, some until just days before Trump took office. The nine men slated for release would be the most high-profile graduates yet of the controversial initiative, which is designed to reverse radicalization through a program that offers theological reinstruction, vocational training, art therapy, an indoor lap pool, foosball, off-site vacation, family visits, and, for some, matchmaking.
Before now, only Saudi citizens who have served out terrorism-related sentences have been released from the program, which boasts that 86 percent of its 3,300 graduates have successfully reintegrated into civilian life.
The former Guantánamo detainees, however, represent a particularly difficult case. Due to the psychological trauma they experienced at the U.S. prison, as well as Riyadh’s acceptance of U.S. intelligence assessments that they represent security risks, they undergo a more intensive program than that offered to others, roughly a year and a half. Though the former Yemeni detainees, unlike Saudi citizens held by the U.S. military, aren’t subject to the kingdom’s justice system once they leave Cuba, they undergo interrogation upon their entry to Saudi Arabia before starting the program.
“If we start talking about Guantánamo … we’re not writing a page or two, it’s a whole encyclopedia,” said Abu Aouf, one of the Yemeni detainees, who spoke on the condition that Foreign Policy identify him using a pseudonym. “It’s 15 years full of pain and sorrow, to be honest, what happened there.”
At 42 years old, Abu Aouf’s curly beard and mustache are flecked with gray — he spent a third of his life at Guantánamo, and was among its first prisoners after then-President George W. Bush opened the detention center in 2002. He said that he was captured in Afghanistan, where Pentagon officials allege he was a low-level combatant. He says he taught the Quran to children in a small village, but someone turned him in after U.S. forces invaded and began broadcasting bounties of thousands of dollars a head for Arabs.
“Not everyone in Guantánamo is an enemy of the United States,” he said.
Part of Saudi Arabia’s broader anti-terror campaign
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman poses for a photograph with chiefs of staff and defence ministers of a Saudi-led Islamic military counter terrorism coalition during their meeting in Riyadh Thomson Reuters
President Donald Trump’s administration has cultivated a close relationship with Mohammed bin Salman, widely seen as the kingdom’s de facto ruler. Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia, where he inaugurated the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, which officials said will expand efforts to fight radical thought online. And Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, traveled to Riyadh in late October, reportedly strategizing until the early hours of the morning with Mohammed bin Salman just days before the crown prince detained at least 11 princes and more than two dozen current and former ministers under allegations of corruption.
Trump publicly backed the prince’s crackdown, saying, “They know exactly what they are doing.”
But before Mohammed bin Salman’s rise, it was Mohammed bin Nayef who had been viewed by Washington’s security establishment as America’s most reliable ally in the kingdom. He helped found the deradicalization program in 2004, and championed it for nearly 15 years.
“I guess they are going to rename it now,” Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, quipped of the rehabilitation center.
The therapeutic deradicalization program was the soft touch to an iron-fisted counterterrorism campaign that’s widely credited with dismantling al Qaeda cells targeting the kingdom. Mohammed bin Nayef helped foil several plots against the United States, and himself survived attacks by al Qaeda operatives.
“It was in their interest to make sure these guys don’t go back to the fight,” said Paul Lewis, Obama’s former Pentagon envoy for closing Guantánamo, “not just the United States’ interest.”
With Mohammed bin Nayef now removed from the political scene, and allegedly under house arrest, some in Washington are concerned not only about the implications for global efforts to combat terrorism. Bruce Riedel, a former National Security Council official and CIA analyst, suggested Mohammed bin Salman’s power grab has raised questions about the stability of the kingdom itself.
“Everything about the Saudi counterterrorism effort is now up in the air,” said Riedel, author of the recently released book Kings and Presidents. “American and other Western intelligence services are very concerned about where it’s going to go.”
“It’s always been a police state, an absolute monarchy, and a theocracy,” he told me, but now, “We’ve passed a milestone in Saudi Arabia, and it is going to be a less stable, more volatile place.”
The deradicalization center has produced tangible results
The center’s staff are eager to convey the impression that they now operate under the young crown prince’s imprimatur. Mohammed bin Salman’s name had been belatedly added to the introductory slideshow welcoming visitors to the center. And Yahya Abu Maghayd, the center’s director, expressed confidence that Mohammed bin Salman is committed to the deradicalization program.
“This is the strategy for Saudi Arabia,” Maghayd said, “so it will stay.”
Removing Mohammed bin Nayef’s influence from Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism strategy would be no easy matter. The Saudi interior ministry runs five high-security prisons with about 5,000 prisoners— mostly former members of al Qaeda charged with terrorism-related offenses — as well as the Mohammed bin Nayef Center and another rehabilitation site which both serve as halfway houses after terrorists have served out their prison sentences. All employ Mohammed bin Nayef’s deradicalization approach.
The two rehabilitation centers hold roughly 130 men, with the center in Riyadh holding about 80, including all the Guantánamo returnees. The centers are run by psychologists, social workers, and religious scholars, who engage the typical beneficiaries in a minimum of three months of intensive religious instruction and counseling intended to reverse their radicalization, as well as assistance with job placement or further education after they graduate.
The three beneficiaries who spoke to Foreign Policy — two Saudis who had already been released, and the Yemeni — detailed how the center had helped turn them away from jihad to rebuild their lives.
One graduate, Abdulrahman Saud, was sentenced to seven years in prison when he was 19 years old for a terrorism-related offense he wouldn’t specify, saying only that he “answered questions for a friend” who had gone to fight in Iraq in 2003. He underwent a six-month program at the center and graduated in 2011. Now he has a wife and two kids, and has secured a Saudi telecom job after graduating from a university with honors. He credits the center for “changing his mind.”
Another former beneficiary, Badr Alenzi, admitted he felt happy when he heard about the 9/11 attacks, “because they took some of the need for revenge from me.” Images of abuse of detainees from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib had left a “time bomb in me, waiting to explode,” he told me, “but I didn’t know when.”
He bought a ticket to Turkey, planning to cross into Syria to join the Islamic State, but security forces stopped him as he left for the airport in 2013. When authorities forced him to enter the program, he says it saved his life. After his release, he said, “I’d be lying if I said it was easy,” but he now goes on television to warn others about similar “brainwashing.”
“I know I was wrong, and I had the power and bravery to say that and to follow my new path,” he said.
But former U.S. counterterrorism officials who worked with the Saudis acknowledge that some of their program’s methods, including those critical to its success in changing participants’ behavior, wouldn’t fly in the United States. For example, Riyadh enlists family members to monitor their relatives post-release to ensure they don’t violate the program’s terms or go astray. Riedel described this aspect of the program as akin to “holding the suspects’ family hostage to the detainee’s behavior.”
Many have voiced doubts about deradicalization
Officially, the deradicalization program is open only to wayward Saudis like Saud and Alenzi. But for years, American officials have looked to Saudi Arabia to also take Yemeni detainees held at Guantánamo. Ongoing conflict made their repatriation to Yemen impossible, along with real concerns over — and legal prohibitions against — transferring detainees to a country where they may be tortured, killed, or released.
“It was always a combination of stick and carrot with the Saudis,” said Lewis, who worked on the transfer. “They wanted their citizens back; we wanted them to take Yemenis.”
In 2007, Mohammed bin Nayef had told U.S. officials that it would be impossible for Saudi Arabia to accept Yemeni Guantánamo detainees, “for domestic political reasons.” In January 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry visited Saudi Arabia as part of an effort to defuse growing tensions between the two countries. It was Mohammed bin Salman — now the crown prince — who told him that Riyadh had approved the long-standing American request to accept the nine Yemeni men now about to graduate.
The Yemenis’ graduation is the culmination of the process that began after Mohammed bin Salman’s agreement to bring them to Saudi Arabia. Lewis said that they were transferred to the Mohammed bin Nayef Center with the understanding they would ultimately be released into Saudi society, with continuous monitoring and travel restrictions.
“That didn’t mean they were footloose and fancy-free,” Lewis said.
But the program’s “relapse” rate has some observers worried: Fourteen percent of graduates eventually returned to violent radicalism. In the first few years after the center opened, Saudi officials reported that at least 11 former Guantánamo detainees had returned to the fight, including one who’d risen to deputy commander of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Last year, among other incidents, one young Saudi graduate blew himself up at a mosque frequented by security forces. In 2014, authorities found 44 of 77 suspects in an attack on a Shiite mosque had gone through the center.
Vocal supporters of Mohammed bin Salman, such as Mohammad Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, are among the program’s critics. Mohammed bin Salman has suggested publiclywhat other Saudi security officials have for years only acknowledged privately: The hyper-conservative strain of Islam which the kingdom has fostered has also contributed in part to violent extremism rocking the region.
“There is an alignment between the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States in not only combating terrorism militarily, but in eradicating the ideology,” Issa told Foreign Policy. But he cast doubt on the effectiveness of the long-standing deradicalization program for achieving this.
“I’m not saying to close the doors of the rehab center, but we must adopt a better strategy,” he said. At the center, he said, detainees would merely feign rehabilitation. “That person would say in the end, ‘I am convinced’ — because he’s imprisoned.”
If the kingdom’s shake-up has not derailed plans as of a few days ago, Abu Aouf and the other Yemeni graduates will soon have their freedom — and Saudi Arabia and the United States will find out whether they are truly rehabilitated. Aouf’s says that his hopes are modest: to obtain computer skills and a wife.