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With the US trying to shut down Guantanamo, the Saudi center could be an option

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — No one was home on the dusty brown campus of the reintegration center for convalescent Islamic extremists. The pool was silent. The lights were on in the Gallery of Art Therapy Works, but there were no visitors. In the psychological and social service, no note was out of place.

Beneficiaries of the Saudi government program that helps prisoners rejoin society have been on vacation to visit families for Eid al-Adha, the season of the Festival of Sacrifice, leaving the place eerily empty, like a US college campus on Christmas break .

Only one painting in the gallery gave a glimpse of the religious tolerance that characterizes the programme: it showed a woman with her hair flowing loose and smelling a flower against the night sky.

The program, with a campus in Riyadh and another in Jeddah, grew out of a counter-terrorism campaign begun in 2004 to re-educate citizens returning home from jihadist training camps in Afghanistan and others they influenced.

About 6,000 men have undergone some form of the program, including 137 former detainees of the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, none of whom have been convicted of war crimes.

The last Guantánamo detainee was sent into the program in 2017, just before President Donald J. Trump dissolved the office that negotiated the transfers.

The question now is whether and how the center will fit in with President Biden’s efforts to shut down the Guantánamo prison, which opened more than 20 years ago to hold terror suspects arrested around the world after the 9/11 attacks became.

Over the years, the United States has held about 780 men and boys at Guantanamo Bay, peaking at about 660 in 2003. Saudi citizens have been of particular interest, as 15 of the 19 kidnappers in the September 11 attacks were Saudis .

The Trump administration has released just one Guantanamo prisoner, a confessed al-Qaeda operative currently serving a sentence in Riyadh based on an Obama-era plea deal. The Biden administration repatriated another Saudi national in May, but under an agreement to send him to psychiatric treatment for schizophrenia, not jihadi rehabilitation.

More than half of those currently detained at Guantánamo have been cleared for release but will have to wait until the Biden administration finds a country willing to take them in with security arrangements. Most are from Yemen, one of several countries Congress deems too unstable to accept Guantanamo men.

Other detainees are engaged in plea hearings with discussions about whether convicts could serve their sentences in detention abroad.

The Obama administration had attempted to close the prison, and Saudi Arabia was one of the countries that played a prominent role in the resettlement plans. Another was Oman, which took in 28 Yemeni men in a top-secret project that would give them wives, homes and jobs as long as they didn’t tell their neighbors they’d spent time in Guantánamo, according to former detainees.

None of these men who were resettled were ever charged with war crimes.

The Obama administration sent 20 prisoners to the United Arab Emirates, mostly Yemenis, but also several Afghans and one man from Russia. But the country essentially locked them up and then abruptly turned back all but the Russians, prompting human rights protests that the returnees risked persecution.

With that program deemed a failure, the Biden administration has been looking at other options for released prisoners, most notably the Yemenis.

A recent visit to the dusty brown campus on the outskirts of Riyadh has highlighted an opportunity.

The program was founded and named by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a former interior minister who had close ties to US intelligence agencies. When he was expelled by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the program was renamed the Center for Counseling and Care.

As described by managers, the program combines classes on nonviolent interpretations of Sharia law with physical fitness, recovery and counseling aimed at returning those who have graduated to their families.

Or, as one staffer put it, “undoing the brainwashing that happens” when a young man is attracted to religious extremism.

A library includes recommended reading about successful Saudis, “the right people to avoid the wrong role models, not the way that turns you into darkness or death,” Wnyan Obied Alsubaiee, the program’s director, who holds the rank of major holds general, said through an interpreter.

One book tells the story of a Saudi who studied in New York in the 1970s and rose to a prominent role in civic life in his home country, including a role in a Saudi-American dialogue following the September 11 attacks. Another is a biography of a former government minister, ‘Building the Petrochemical Industry in Saudi Arabia’.

Gen Alsubaiee said two former Guantanamo detainees in the Saudi prison system would be admitted to the program once they had served their sentences. One is Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi, the confessed al-Qaeda terrorist released by the Trump administration. The identity of the other is not known.

The director balked at portraying the program as a five-star hotel for extremists.

“It’s not a prize,” he said. “They are no longer prisoners. You have to go back into society. We want them to feel accepted and that this is another chance.”

Of the 137 men sent to Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo, some through Saudi prisons, 116 returned to society and stayed out of trouble, 12 were recaptured, eight were killed and one is “wanted,” according to a program fact sheet .

Neither man was identified by the Saudi government during the visit. But some of the dead are known, particularly those who were dispatched during the George W. Bush administration and then fled to Yemen, where they joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In Riyadh, participants in the program live in pods, individual bedrooms arranged around a courtyard, with a mosque, a kitchen and a small outdoor oven to brew tea on cool desert nights.

As described by the program administrators, Saudi participants’ initial home visits are brief but are evolving into long-term stays with family — for example, the two-week holiday vacation that virtually emptied the center in July.

The nation’s security apparatus is invisible but present. The director is a military official, and security guards and nurses dress identically in the classic white robe and red checkered headgear favored by government officials and businessmen. At the gym, a guide pointed to a camera in a corner of the weightlifting area and explained that facial expressions were being monitored there.

But on this visit, Saudi transparency only went so far. No one would say how many of the program’s 200 spots were taken, or when the last person or longest resident arrived.

At the gallery, an art therapist, Awad Alyami, described his program as an opportunity for the men to express their feelings and for the program sponsors to evaluate them.

One painting was an expressionist capture of the crowds circling the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, but clockwise rather than ritually counterclockwise. Concerned about the depiction of the holy site, the program staff asked the artist to meet with a clergyman.

Part of the gallery features the work of former Guantánamo detainees.

“A lot of strange things here,” said Dr. Alyami.

The section is unsigned but is distinguished by an image of a watchtower, barbed wire and men in orange uniforms. The art of other program participants tended toward desert scenes and other Saudi themes.

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