Saudi rehabilitation program a model for Guantanamo detainee repatriation

Christopher Boucek [Associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace] "On Friday June 12 it was announced that three more Saudi detainees held at Guantanamo Bay had been repatriated back to the kingdom. With their arrival, 120 Saudi nationals have now been sent back to Saudi Arabia. (The bodies of three Saudi detainees who died at Guantanamo have also been returned for burial). According to a statement from the Justice Department, the former detainees will undergo a judicial review in Saudi Arabia and then enter into a rehabilitation program.

In Saudi Arabia, returnees from Guantanamo Bay participate in a mandatory government-run rehabilitation program designed to facilitate their reunification with their families and reintegration back into society. The program seeks to counter-radicalize extremists and extremist sympathizers by engaging them in intensive religious debates and psychological counseling, supplemented with extensive social support, and the involvement of family members and loved ones. Upon completion of the program, a detainee is released into the custody of his family who is then told that they are responsible for his continued good behavior as they await an eventual as-yet-undefined judicial process.

This extremist and militant rehabilitation and disengagement program is very much a unique Saudi solution to a unique Saudi problem. It incorporates many traditional Saudi methods of conflict resolution and conflict management, including cooptation, conciliation, persuasion, and coercion. Several factors are central to its success, including the focus on extended social networks, the importance of treating families and not just individuals, and the use of time-honored methods of social control including notions of family honor and extended social hierarchies. The program was initially developed in secret and is now the best known example of an extremist rehabilitation program.

It is unclear to what judicial review process the Justice Department referred in its announcement. When the first Saudi nationals were repatriated from Guantanamo back to Saudi Arabia beginning in May 2003, they went through a different process than those who returned later. Early returnees were brought before a Saudi court and charged with several offenses. Most if not all were convicted and served up to two years before entering rehabilitation. However, individuals who were repatriated at the end did not go before a court. These individuals were not charged with any crimes, and entered directly into rehabilitation for a truncated period of, in some cases, only several months. Saudi officials admit privately that there is little appetite in society to try men who have served years in extrajudicial detention. The Saudi government does have plans to try approximately 990 people charged with participating in a series of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia since 2003, although many questions remain unanswered about this process.

Of the now 120 Saudi Guantanamo detainees that have been sent home, 23 have either been rearrested or are wanted by authorities. A total of 12 have been arrested within Saudi Arabia: three for associating with extremist suspects; three for attempting to travel to Pakistan and Yemen; and six have been rearrested based on assessments that they were preparing to reoffend. A total of 11 detainees fled to Yemen and rejoined al-Qaeda. Two Saudis - Said al-Shihri (ISN 372) and Mohammed al-Awfi (ISN 333) - appeared in a January 2009 video and announced the merger of the Saudi and Yemeni affiliates into the newly formed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). (Mohammed al-Awfi has since returned to Saudi Arabia, and is in custody.) An additional citizen from a Gulf Arab country that had returned from detention in Guantanamo Bay was also arrested on security charges within Saudi Arabia and returned to the security services in his home country.

Saudi officials claim the rehabilitation program has a roughly 20% failure rate. Thus far, those figures appear to match with the acknowledged re-arrest rates. It is also likely that additional detainees will be arrested in the future. Thus far Saudi Arabia has developed the most comprehensive reintegration program for Guantanamo detainees. It is the best funded and longest continually run program, and has become a de facto model for other countries seeking to implement a counter-radicalization program. To be sure, such programs will not always work, and there will always by hardcore extremists that are beyond rehabilitation."

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