RIYADH — With its spa, its Olympic-sized swimming pool, its gym and family suites, you might think that the Mohammad bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center, located just outside Riyhad, is just another Persian Gulf luxury palace.
But the people staying here are neither businessmen nor celebrities. They are jihadists.
This complex, named after the current Saudi Interior minister, is used for the rehabilitation of local jihad fighters, former al-Qaeda militants who were arrested after their release from Guantanamo or during anti-terror operations in the kingdom.
After they served their jail sentences, these former Osama bin Laden followers must spend a few months in this strange place, half-sanatorium and half-boot camp. Everything is geared toward getting them back on the right track. Here, they can reunite with their families, take religion courses and painting classes, play sports and — ultimately — have a psychological follow-up.
"In two years, 3,000 former Islamist terrorists came out of jail, and we've only had a 10% relapse," says Mansour al-Turki, a Saudi police spokesman. "We successfully deconstruct the social, psychological or religious factors that lead to extremism."
The idea originated in the middle of the 2000s, at a time when the monarchy was hit by a wave of terror attacks and abductions against security forces or Western targets. A Saudi himself, bin Laden called for the "impious" regime allied with the United States to be overthrown. Mohammad bin Nayef, who was then the head of domestic intelligence, led the counterinsurgency with an iron grip. Thousands of Islamist militants or suspected militants were arrested, sometimes tortured, and the fighters who were not killed retreated to Yemen or Afghanistan.
Jihad vs jihad
But bin Nayef was aware that strong-arm tactics would not be sufficient and so he green-lighted this softer treatment, the rehabilitation program, which has since become one of the kingdom's sources of pride. Even a simple journalist is followed in his visit of the care center by an entire television crew. "We've had close to 300 foreign VIPs since 2007," says Mansour al-Qarni, director of al-Mounasaha ("the Counsel"), the program's official name. "Even the U.S. attorney general came."
The visit begins with a bitter cup of coffee in an immense diwan, the living rooms lined with couches, typical of Arab societies in the Gulf. Then the visitor is led to an auditorium, where a PowerPoint presentation helps him get acquainted with the care center's methods.
In a country as conservative as Saudi Arabia, these methods naturally have a very religious dimension. Carefully selected sheikhs ("elders" in Arabic) are there to realign the believers who lost their way. During discussion sessions, many are surprised by the fact that, for instance, the Afghan jihad against the Soviet army in the 1980s was ruled as halal ("permissible") while the same commitment against the United States in Iraq in the 2000s was considered haram ("non-permissible"), as is the one against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"It's good that Muslims help each other out, but there are conditions allowing or prohibiting jihad," explains Sahl al-Otaibi, one of the center's religious leaders. "A country's leader must approve it, and the parents must give their permission."
Well-being is important (courtesy of Mohammad bin Nayef Counseling Center)
Residents are also frustrated by the impression that the West is carrying out a war against Islam. "I tell them that it is up to the king to solve those issues," Otaibi says. "After a Dutch politician insulted our religion, he ordered limited economic ties with that country."
The Saudi method to de-radicalize its jihadists is first and foremost a reconditioning, a reminder of the rule upon which the regime in Riyadh is based: Politics are a matter for the house of Saud and religion for the Wahhabi clergy.
The program also tries to rebuild a kind of human cocoon around the former outcasts. From the moment they are in jail and even more often in the center, they have many visits, from their fathers, uncles, tribe leaders, police officers, history teachers, in other words authority figures that surround them, as do the center’s employees who behave very paternalistically towards them.
"Al-Qaeda recruits have isolated themselves from their communities," says psychologist Ali al-Afnan. "Our goal is to favor their reintegration."
Patriarchs vs patriarchs
After the Mounasaha, Khaled al-Jihani, who fought in Tora Bora with the Taliban before spending four years in Guantanamo, was received by Mohammad bin Nayef. "I will always remember what he told me," Jihani says. "He said, 'You are our son.' It really surprised me. In Afghanistan, I was told that Saudi leaders were not Muslims."
Straight after, he received from the hands of bin Nayef himself a brand new car and a check for $800, with the promise to get one every month until he finds work. The Interior minister also paid for his wedding.
"It’s a patriarchal program, adapted to a patriarchal society," one foreign diplomat notes.
There is, however, room for doubt as far as the official 10% relapse rate is concerned. In May, a 60-strong suspected jihadist cell was broken up, and half of the militants turned out to be recidivists. In February, 29 Saudis suspected to be part of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had be extradited to Riyadh by the Yemeni authorities and, again, among them were a few "graduates" from the Mohammad bin Nayef care center.
The pampering/brainwashing mix might work on people who have a similar profile to Khaled al-Jihani, whose departure for Afghanistan had been more motivated by the taste of adventure than by religious zeal. But with hardcore fanatics, the method seems less efficient. Besides, hadn't Said al-Shihri, one of the founders of AQAP in 2009 and killed in an American drone strike four years later, also been "rehabilitated"?
To cure the jihadist cancer, isolated voices have called for a complete revision of the famously archaic Saudi education system.
"It's the root of our problems," admits Fouad al-Farhan, a liberal blogger. Although it was controlled for a long time by Wahhabi fundamentalists, the Education Ministry was recently placed under the leadership of a moderate, Khalid al-Faisal.
But it will be a long time before the mentalities change. "My 10-year-old son once came back from school saying that music was haram," recalls Mansour al-Turki, the police spokesman. "It was one of his teachers who had put that idea into his head."