When Khalid Suliman al-Jhari stands up to speak in his freshly pressed white thobe (a traditional Arab tunic), he doesn’t look like a hard-core jihadi who scurried around Tora Bora with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
And he’s not – anymore. Today, he’s the soft-spoken father of two daughters who has returned to his native Saudi Arabia, thanks in part to a jihadi rehabilitation centre set up by the government five years ago to help ex-Guantánamo detainees reintegrate.
“I have good life, a good wife,” says Mr. Jhari, former Guantánamo prisoner No. 155, who is referred to as Khalid Sulaymanjaydh al-Hubayshi in US government documents. “I believe that this idea is working because the people … are honest about fixing [ex-jihadis]…. It’s not just a job.”
The Mohammed bin Naif centre for Counseling and Care, where Jhari spoke recently to a US media delegation, is part of Saudi Arabia’s carrot-and-stick approach to tackle both the threat of domestic terrorism and the spread of violent Islamist ideology abroad. Of the 19 9/11 hijackers, 15 were Saudis.
Now, as more than 5,500 Saudis arrested on suspicions of terrorist involvement are making their way through the country’s courts, the government is moving to open five more deradicalization facilities. Designed as halfway houses, the centres are meant to “reeducate” ex-jihadis to help them see that their former ways are inconsistent with Islam.
The approach is remarkably successful, according to Saudi officials, who say that only 3 per cent of the program’s more than 850 graduates have returned to violent extremism. Foreign researchers, however, say many of the “graduates” were far from hard-core and never convicted of any crime.
But it’s also expensive. Saudi officials declined to disclose costs. But more than 300 employees work here, with 200 alleged militants in their care. They enjoy buffet meals, classes in everything from Islam and history to art therapy, and various financial incentives. Upon graduation, the men receive a lump sum of 10,000 rials ($2,665) and about $700 per month for the first six months out.
The government helps the men secure a job, get married, and make a new start. It’s a solution Saudi Arabia appears eager to promote for a problem it helped to create, first by providing a haven for exiled Arab Islamists in the 1960s and ’70s, and then by giving its ultraconservative religious establishment wide latitude in the decades that followed.
Jhari was a student living away from home when he became interested in jihad. He saw footage of the Bosnian war and felt impelled to help fellow Muslims. He headed first to Chechnya, then Afghanistan. “I was believing that if I die, I’ll be a martyr.”
But on his jihadi travels, he found himself trapped in a life he didn’t deeply believe in. He felt he couldn’t escape because of his past violations of Saudi law. When the US-led war in Afghanistan began, he was swept up in the search for militants and became prisoner No. 155 at Guantánamo, where the US identified him as Khalid Sulaymanjaydh al-Hubayshi. He spent three years there and one more in Saudi jail before entering the centre.
He says he has now changed his view of jihad.
“Jihad is a good thing in Islam,” he said, but it’s often misinterpreted. “If someone fought in my country and [takes] my house, I’m going to fight. This is what we call jihad. But if I go to some area to help one group against another group,” that wouldn’t be Islamic.
Some of the beneficiaries who graduated from the centre say they were never involved in extremism, but are nonetheless grateful for their time there.
Juma al-Dossari spent 2001-07 in Guantánamo after Saudi embassy officials in Pakistan turned him over to the Americans. He says he had merely been helping with a humanitarian project in Kabul, Afghanistan, but lacked the proper documentation and fled to neighbouring Pakistan; the US government says he fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya and was present at Tora Bora.
Whatever his background, when Mr. Dossari arrived at the Saudi rehabilitation centre, he was in dire need physically and mentally, he says. “After I came here, I was broke,” says Dossari, who received mental health treatment and today works in construction in the eastern city of Dammam, where he lives with his new wife and three young children, with a fourth on the way. “I think this centre is very much like mercy from God to us…. I found here a cure to my wound.”
Christa Case Bryant traveled to Saudi Arabia on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organised by the International Reporting Project.
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