RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – To American officers at Guantanamo Bay, Ahmed Zaid Salem Zuhair was inmate No. 669 — a hardcore, veteran Muslim terrorist suspected of having killed an American in Bosnia. But here in Saudi Arabia, he is a "beneficiary," a former religious deviant who, having learned the true meaning of Islam, has been rehabilitated.
Repatriated from Guantanamo in mid-2009, Zuhair, 45, continued to proclaim his innocence in an interview, asserting that he had only been doing peaceful relief work in Bosnia and Pakistan prior to his arrest in 2002, when Pakistani officials robbed, tortured and "sold" him to the Americans, he said in halting English. But Saudi Arabia's rehabilitation program had taught him that good Muslims "should not put ourselves in suspicious places or situations," he said. When he is released, he said, he would ensure that none of his 10 children by three wives would do what he had done.
Saudi officials said last week that if all goes according to plan, Zuhair may soon join the ranks of 302 of some 4,200 Saudis imprisoned on terrorism charges who have been released in the past two years under a controversial Saudi program that aims to transform would-be and even hardened "jihadists" into peaceful, law-abiding, God-fearing Saudis.
The program was widely praised by American and foreign counterterrorism officials until 11 of its graduates, nearly half of them former prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, showed up in Yemen, the latest battleground in the militant Islamists' holy war against regional and foreign "infidels." Two of the former Guantanamo prisoners, Said al-Shihri and Mohammed al-Awfi, emerged last year as founders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which has targeted Saudi Arabia and claimed credit for the alleged attempt by the Nigerian "underwear bomber" to blow up an American airliner over Detroit last Christmas. Four others came from the same group of Guantanamo detainees who were turned over to the kingdom in November 2007.
Saudi Ministry of Interior officials who developed the program defended it in interviews last week, saying they had already taken steps to correct deficiencies, specifically, for example, in how they evaluate prisoners for release. Saudi Arabia's approach to de-radicalization relies heavily, as does religious socialization here in general, on Islamic education or re-education, psychological counseling, family support and help in finding past or prospective enemies of the kingdom a job, wife, car and other keys to social stability.
The bottom line, say Saudi officials, is that the overwhelming majority of veterans of the Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care — roughly 80 percent — have not returned to terrorism.
"We are proud of such a low recidivism rate," said Abdulrahman A. al-Hadlaq, an adviser to Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, who helped pioneer and oversees the effort. The rate is particularly impressive, he adds, when compared with the almost inverse success-to-failure rate in most drug or prison rehabilitation programs in the West.
The expensive, intensive program, which is now being offered at nine of the kingdom's 13 security prisons and has an annual budget of between $40 and $50 million, has been so successful that the Interior Ministry plans to open five new counseling and care centers throughout the kingdom. In Riyadh, the current care center, which specializes in small group and one-on-one mentoring, is scheduled to move an expanded new facility on the outskirts of Riyadh in about two months. The new, 48,000-square-yard site, located on what was once a Saudi resort called "Lotus," will house the last and crucial stage of this multi-phase program until a permanent facility is built. The new center, still under renovation, offers recovering inmates swimming pools and even a jacuzzi, a soccer field and other sports facilities, a library and computer center, and villas for conjugal visits, which the program encourages. When their families are not visiting, "beneficiaries" sleep four-to-a room in bungalow villas made of stucco and wood. All are air-conditioned, and many have individual fireplaces to combat the desert's winter cold.
Last week in Riyadh, the Ministry of Interior offered this reporter a tour of the new and current showpiece care centers, discussed their multi-stage program's philosophy and strategy, and arranged interviews with former and current security prisoners in several days of meetings in Riyadh.
"We don't have 100 percent results and we never expected to have them," said Dr. Hameed K. Al-Shaygi, the chairman of the social studies department at King Saud University and the center's director.
Many American counterterrorism officials and non-government experts on such de-radicalization efforts agree that the Saudi program seems to have produced impressive results for all but the most hard-core terrorists. Christopher Boucek, an expert on Saudi Arabia and Yemen at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, praises the program and has urged Yemen to try again to devise a program based on the Saudi model. But he cautions that "there are still no good methods to determine when to let a security detainee out of custody."
Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the Ministry of Interior's spokesman, stressed that the program's goal was to woo beneficiaries away from violence, not necessarily to make them less rigid in their beliefs. "You can be very strict on religious doctrine, without resorting to violence against those who disagree with you," he explained. "You can be extreme -- but without denying others their rights."
The first stage of the program, which is voluntary, occurs long before a prisoner is scheduled to be released. Prisoners are told that participation does not affect when and whether they will be released. So far, only about 15 percent of prisoners jailed for terrorism-related crimes have refused to participate, he said. In this "advisory" phase, prisoners take a series of courses on Islam and its history and other subjects while being closely monitored by prison psychologists and counselors. Their families' needs are evaluated and prisoners are encouraged to spend time with them.
Only after a prisoner has served his full term is he transferred to the counseling and care center, which serves as a halfway house between prison and the street. In what officials call this "pre-release care program," a beneficiary is given history, religion and other courses, a sports program that includes afternoon soccer games with fellow inmates and the center's counselors and guards, a fitness program, and even art classes in which he is encouraged to paint or draw images that reflect whatever he feels. The center displays its beneficiaries' art — darker images of prison cells are gradually replaced by paintings of flower-filled vases and dolphins frolicking in the sea by moonlight as the course progresses.
Saudi officials said that the American military successfully borrowed the concept of art classes to help rehabilitate Iraqi detainees it once held at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.
The final stage is a post-release "care" program, in which the program's graduates are encouraged to keep in touch by providing counseling and support for them and their families. The government gives families in need a stipend of between $900 and $1,000 a month for at least a year after a beneficiary leaves the center. The government's effort to ensure that former prisoners have a car, a home and even a wife are designed to encourage stability, officials say.
"The program is still a work in progress," said Al-Hadlaq. In the aftermath of the defection to Yemen, for instance, counselors have begun using the soccer games to assess an inmate's anger, determine how aggressive he remains, and the extent to which he cooperates as part of a team with people he may regard as his jailers or "un-Islamic."
Because the program depends on the intense involvement of families and other community-based groups, the Saudi government has been resisting pressure from the Obama administration to accept some 90 Yemenis still being held at Guantanmo. Ministry of Interior officials say that their program is designed exclusively for Saudis, since it relies so heavily on family and community reinforcement. One of the program's graduates who returned to terrorism in Yemen — Mohammed al-Awfi — was recently wooed back to the kingdom with the help of his family, officials said.
Given its cost and heavy reliance of family support, Saudi Arabia's program is unlikely to be effective in other societies. For instance, a much cheaper rehabilitation effort in Yemen several years ago failed to produce comparable results and was abandoned.
The release of prisoners like Zuhair to Saudi Arabia has prompted criticism in Congress. But many Republicans and even some Democrats are even more fiercely opposed to releasing such prisoners in the U.S. or transferring them to the planned Gitmo-like facility near Chicago. With its options narrowed by such political pressures but determined to close the Cuban-based detention camp at Guantanamo, the administration has continued to send Gitmo inmates abroad.
Republicans attacked John Brennan, the White House's senior adviser for counterterrorism, for saying recently that a 20 percent recidivism rate for terrorists released from Guantanamo -- which is what the Saudi rehabilitation program has achieved -- was "not that bad." Brennan was comparing the terrorist recidivism rate with that of the American prison system, where it averages around 50 percent.
The lengthy incarcerations of men like Zuhair and the sometimes murky circumstances that led to their incarceration highlight the American legal system's difficulties in dealing promptly and justly with such detainees.
Counterterrorism officials insist that Zuhair was a hard-core Muslim militant who has blood on his hands. Specifically, the government has argued in legal briefs that he was a member of an Al Qaeda-affiliated group and was previously convicted on terrorism charges in Bosnia before having been picked up in Pakistan. Citing evidence ranging from "multiple press reports" to convictions for terrorism by foreign courts, it says that in 1995 Zuhair murdered William Jefferson, an American working for the U.N. in Bosnia, and prior to that he was involved in bombings and attacks in Croatia and Bosnia, including his "direct involvement" in a September 1997 car bombing in Mostar in which dozens were injured. In 2000, the Bosnian supreme court sentenced him in absentia to 12 years in prison for terrorism.
Zuhair's lawyers and human rights activists, by contrast, have portrayed his case as a gross miscarriage of justice. His lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, has filed briefs arguing that the 1997 conviction for the Bosnian bombing was a setup based on coerced testimony of an unreliable witness. He also says Zuhair was not involved in Jefferson's murder, although the slain U.N. official's watch and portable radio were allegedly found in his possession. Kassem said that Bosnian and U.N. investigations of the murder did not mention Zuhair as a suspect, and that they identified another Saudi as the probable killer. Finally, Kassem said, Attorney General Eric Holder testified in Congress that there was "insufficient evidence" to charge Zuhair with a crime.
Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a terrorism analyst who has written extensively about the cases against Zuhair and other Gitmo detainees, says the evidence against Zuhair — such as eyewitnesses having identified him as responsible for war crimes against civilians in Bosnia as early as 1993, and contact information for him that was found in an Al Qaeda member's possession — is both ample and convincing. The only U.S. allegation that does not necessarily hold up, he says, is the government's claim that Zuhair may have been involved in the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, which was apparently based on his bragging to other detainees.
Saudi officials at the center declined to comment on Zuhair's alleged guilt or innocence or on what specifically he told them about his previous activities. "We know that they weren't playing chess in Afghanistan," said Hameed. But what beneficiaries may have done in the past is less important to them than what these men are likely to do when they are reintegrated into society, he says.
Zuhair said he initially resisted being transferred to Saudi Arabia. "The Americans at Gitmo told me I would be tortured and hanged if I went back," he said. "I was even thinking of accepting asylum in a third country." Then word drifted back that "things were OK in Saudi Arabia," so he accepted repatriation. He said he has been at the center for seven months -- which is an unusually long stay.
Officials at the center said Zuhair had just begun a week's "vacation" with his wife and family and will return to the center soon.
Now, he says, he wants only to be reunited with his wives and children, live a tranquil life and avoid questions about his past. "I don't want to leave Saudi Arabia anymore," he said. "And I don't want my children to do what I did."
"I fear no one but God," he says.
Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, is an award-winning author, and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book, "The Story: A Reporter's Journey" (Simon & Schuster, April 7, 2015).