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A Test For Saudi Arabia's Terrorist-Rehab Program

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A Test For Saudi Arabia's Terrorist-Rehab Program

Middle East

A Test For Saudi Arabia's Terrorist-Rehab Program

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In Saudi Arabia, members of al-Qaida and other militants are getting a second chance with mostly positive results. Some of them served time at Guantanamo Bay prison, and after their release were sent to a rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia. Some eventually found their way back to the battlefield, but Saudi Arabia says it has been largely successful in rehabilitating militants.

Kelly McEvers reports from the capital, Riyadh.

KELLY MCEVERS: To understand what works and what doesnt work about Saudi Arabias rehabilitation program, consider the case of Mohammad al-Awfi. Just after 9/11, he traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Authorities arrested him on suspicion of aiding terrorist groups. As he recently told the BBC, he later was sent to Guantanamo.

Mr. MOHAMMAD AL-AWFI: (Through translator) They put you in shorts in an area with extremely cold air conditioning for months, until you're requested to see the interrogators and tell them things.

MCEVERS: In all, Awfi spent six years in Guantanamo. He was released in November 2007 and sent to the rehabilitation center just outside Riyadh. The idea is to reeducate extremists in the nonviolent principles of Islam and reconnect them with their social networks. The center is led by academics and religious scholars, many of whom earned advanced degrees in the U.S. back in the '70s and '80s.

Turki al-Otayan is the center's lead psychologist. He was one of the first to evaluate Awfi.

Dr. TURKI AL-OTAYAN (Psychologist): He hates Americans so much about what they have done to him. He said, they destroyed me. They affect on me(ph). They killed my brothers. These kind of things.

MCEVERS: At the center, Awfi took classes in anger management, Islamic law, history and art therapy.

So far, nearly 300 men have completed the program, and about 80 percent of these have gone on to lead normal lives.

Awfi graduated the program in early 2008. Then, during the holy month of Ramadan, he decided he wanted revenge against the Americans. He fled to Yemen and joined al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. In 2009, he appeared in this video, alongside the group's leaders.

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. AWFI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We warn our fellow prisoners about this rehabilitation program, Awfi says to the camera. We were used. But thank God, we were able to escape their power.

Back in Saudi Arabia, psychologist Otayan and other officials from the center paid a visit to Awfi's family.

Dr. OTAYAN: They thought the security force would come to the house to search the house, to arrest some of them.

MCEVERS: But instead, officials said...

Dr. OTAYAN: We can help you. He's our son. Yes, he has done a mistake. We do not hate him personally. We hate his behavior. They're shocked. After what he has done, you are saying this? And we said, yes. Then they ease up. They said, we will ask for your cooperation, if you - for his own protection, for your own protection. Try to help us.

MCEVERS: Otayan says Awfi's relatives then started making phone calls to Awfi in Yemen. Not long after, the Saudis say, he turned himself in.

Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says it wasn't the classes that brought Awfi back into the fold, but the government's contacts with his family.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK (Middle East expert, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): In a society where you get everything from the government, it can be really, really powerful when the government comes and asks you to do something. I think people understand what that message is that's being sent, that you have a duty and you have a responsibility, and we're going to take care of you. You know, we're doing our part. You need to do your part.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

(Soundbite of whistle)

MCEVERS: At the rehabilitation center, inmates play soccer with guards. Inmate Ahmed Zuhair spent more than six years at Guantanamo for suspected terrorist activity in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Mr. AHMED ZUHAIR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: When Zuhair is released from the center, he says the government has promised to set him up with a new house and seed money to start a business running a mini-market in the holy city of Mecca.

Mr. ZUHAIR: Okay, I change my life. I change my city, go another city, because forget everything. I now better my family. A new house. Good, this.

MCEVERS: Zuhair's story is similar to Awfi's. I'm not guilty of terrorism, he says, but I'm mad at the Americans for holding me for so long in Guantanamo. Now that I'm with my family, though, I promise to stay away from bad guys.

In both cases, Saudi authorities at the rehab center say they're less concerned with the truth about the detainee's past than they are about his behavior in the future. Whether he's fully rehabilitated or not, officials say, at least they know where he lives.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MCEVERS: For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Riyadh.

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