WASHINGTON – A new program in Saudi Arabia is offering young terrorists rehabilitation from a life of violence in the name of jihad. A Saudi government-sanctioned program to try to reverse the terrorist way of thinking has already begun to help some participants who have survived their own crimes.
Ahmed al-Shayea, for instance, is recovering not only from being a member of Al Qaeda, but from the burns over most of his body and missing fingers that are the result of an attack he carried out three years ago in Baghdad.
Al-Shayea is the among the newest members to join hundreds of other Islamic fighters, including detainees released from Guantanamo Bay, at a halfway house located on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Al Janderea.
"I would like to say to the American people that Islam forbids killing innocent people," said the seemingly deprogrammed al-Shayea through an interpreter.
Al-Shayea had dreamed of being a suicide bomber like the ones he saw in Al Qaeda propaganda videos. He was unemployed, 19 years old and lured to Baghdad by a school friend. He nearly blew himself up while driving a tanker filled with explosives outside the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad. The attack killed nine Iraqis.
He ratted out his Al Qaeda handlers, including the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had flown al-Shayea and 23 other Saudis to Damascus, provided them safe houses in Syria and then smuggled them into Iraq.
"No doubt, they used me as a tool to kill innocent people," he said of his handlers.
Al-Shayea and other inmates say the Internet is much to blame for their indoctrination. Twenty-year-old Saddam Saleh said he got his fatwa, the religious edict that serves as marching orders, from a questionable cleric who he found over the Internet.
"That is what caused all this problem that I am in right now," he said.
The former jihadists are given a second chance through the three-year-old program sponsored by the Saudi interior ministry. During their recovery, the men stay in a rehabilitation center that looks more like a spa than a halfway house. The Saudi facility maintains a pool, a library, a volleyball court, gardens and other leisurely quarters.
Similar government-sponsored pilot programs are also being tried in Egypt and Yemen.
The staff uses art therapy, sports and reading to rehabilitate the "students" through a "12-step program." Among their lessons is a new education about Islam.
"We tell them that they should give the right picture of Islam. They should not kill or bomb or do anything against Islam," said Dr. Ahmad Hamad Jilan of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs.
Jilan and other instructors teach the inhabitants that jihad should not be waged against any non-Muslims with whom an Islamic nation has a truce or peace treaty. Jihad must also be approved, he said, by the state and by one's parents.
Some Al Qaeda members just need an attitude adjustment, argued this psychiatrist for the Interior Ministry.
"It's important for us to give them more skills, how to also learn from their experience," said psychiatrist Dr. Turki Mohammad.
Sociologist Hameed Kahaleel said many of the inmates had social problems before they were lured by jihad, but they know now it was a mistake for which they are repenting.
"We want to reintegrate them again into society," said Kahaleel, noting they've already had some successes. "We have some examples outside. Now they are in the universities. They are in jobs. They are married. Some of them even have children. So, this program has been successful in this area."
Nearly half of all foreign detainees in Iraqi jails and most of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were from Saudi Arabia The royal family, whose kingdom is also under threat from Al Qaeda, knows it must address the problem.
The halfway houses are designed to show the West as much as anyone that they are taking the problem seriously. So far, the effort is trickling down.
"I regret strongly for what I had done because unfortunately I was instead of building Islam, I was destroying Islam," said Saleh.
FOX News' Jennifer Griffin contributed to this report.