RIYADH (AFP) – It was seeing the now notorious photographs of American soldiers torturing Iraqis inside Abu Ghraib prison that set Abdullah al-Hammami on the path of jihad.
“I wanted to kill Americans,” he said. But instead he was arrested in Saudi Arabia as he was heading to Iraq in 2005 and spent 44 months in prison.
Now he says that what he had wanted to do was wrong. “We had a corrupted concept about jihad,” Hammami told AFP during an organised visit to the Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Care and Counselling.
Saudi Arabia set up the pioneering rehabilitation facility three years ago for returnees from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and for militants arrested inside the country.
Hammami had just come from a class in his “resort”, as his centre unit is called, where Sheikh Ahmed Hamid Jelani, a smiling, pudgy-faced cleric, led a discussion on the principles behind jihad, or Islamic holy war.
The care centre is Saudi Arabia?s front line for ensuring that Al-Qaeda does not rear its head again, after a series of lethal domestic attacks between 2003 and 2006 forced Riyadh to concede the country was breeding terrorists.
More than 270 detainees — 117 released from Guantanamo — have already been put through the centre’s programme to draw them back into the bosom of the Saudi state and persuade them to abandon politics.
The centre is the polar opposite of Guantanamo, where harsh interrogation methods aim to break the will of detainees.
Instead, the Saudi authorities mother them with ample food, recreation and classes designed to persuade them that they may have had good intentions, but that they had made the wrong choice.
“Now I know the rules and regulations for jihad,” Hammami said. “First, it needs the consent of the government. Second, the consent of my parents.”
According to Abdul Rahman al-Hadleq, the interior ministry’s director of ideological security, “the hard approach is not the only approach.”
Named after the assistant interior minister for security who launched it, the care centre opened in early 2006, and Saudi officials are proud of the low recidivist rate among those released back into society.
Of the former Guantanamo inmates, only 11 have gone astray. Five were jailed, five are still missing and one, Mohammed al-Awfi, returned voluntarily after linking up with Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
While the care centre has a bevy of psychologists and other experts to figure the detainees out, its approach boils down to convincing them that in going on jihad they rejected Saudi society — family, tribe and the state that provides for them.
The programme offers ample financial and social benefits, aiming to ensure that a graduate turns to the right people when he has questions on how a good Saudi Muslim should behave.
“We tell them it’s not your responsibility to decide,” said Turki al-Otayan, the centre’s main psychologist.
This approach is underpinned in the deeply conservative Wahhabist school of Islam, the basis of the Saudi state, where the patriarchal royal family rules with the support of powerful clerics over a heavily tribal and family-based society.
“There is a lot in Wahhabism about obedience and recognition of authority,” said Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, who has researched the care centre.
The Guantanamo detainees get a taste of this as soon as they arrive. They are hugged, kissed and well-fed. They meet Prince Mohammed himself one-on-one. Much of the first week home is spent with their families.
After some weeks, a centre “beneficiary” receives multi-day leave of absence for family holidays, also paid for by the government. The family gets stipends too. In return, all are held responsible if he backtracks to militancy.
Hadleq said a primary goal is to get the ex-militant married, to saddle him with responsibilities that would prohibit time for politics. The graduates get money for dowries and homes to live in, and babies also get financial support.
After graduating, “you have to live in the area of your family and your tribe. It is strong social control,” said one security official.
The care centre is located behind three-metre-high (10-foot-high) walls in a nondescript suburban Riyadh neighbourhood, just off a main thoroughfare lined with family amusement parks and karting tracks.
The compound is made up of separate “resorts”. There are bedrooms, a kitchen, classrooms and a fake bedouin tent used for meetings and prayers. The wall of one building sports a large painting of a leafy tree being watered by the hand of Prince Mohammed.
The detainees are not lost for recreation for the three to 12 months they spend there. There is a swimming pool and gym, a billiards table, computer game consoles and a well-used volleyball court.
They take drawing classes from an art therapist, who says many often start by depicting violent scenes and end up painting bucolic landscapes.
“We do not do negative brainwash. We do positive brainwash,” Otayan said.
Foreign security officials praise the centre’s innovative approach, but say it is unlikely the same model could be applied to militants from other states — like the Yemenis at Guantanamo that some have suggested be placed in Saudi hands.
In addition, the centre is only for the least strident militants the Saudis have arrested. The government has jailed at least 1,500 militants and stresses that “anyone with blood on their hands” is a terrorist and will not be freed.