He is an expert in plotting terror strikes. His first mission was to fight the US in Afghanistan and then help the cause of jihad (holy war) worldwide. But in Guantanamo Bay detention camp, Khaled Al-Bewardi was merely No. 68.
Al-Bewardi was 21 when he first heard about al Qaeda’s recruitment for
Afghanistan in 2003. The jihadi videos about Palestine,
Chechnya, Kashmir and Afghanistan convinced him to fight for the
“oppressed Muslim”. In November 2003, he lied to his parents
that he was off to camp in the desert with friends, a popular
pastime of young Saudis. In truth, he, like hundreds of al Qaeda
operatives, left for Pakistan.
At loose ends and casting about for a cause, one of his friends suggested
that they go see Osama bin Laden, founder of al Qaeda. But
before his group could reach Afghanistan and bin Laden, he was
arrested in Karachi by a joint team of the US Central
Intelligence Agency and Pakistan Special Forces. He was taken to
Afghanistan and from there to Guantanamo Bay, a US enclave in Cuba.
After six years there, he was asked to leave his cell and board an
aircraft. He thought he would be killed in the air. As he
covered his head with his hands and prayed, the Saudi aircraft
winged its way to Riyadh.
He disembarked in Thumamah, a former desert resort half an hour’s
drive north of the Saudi Arabian capital. Though he did not
realise it, he was at another of life’s crossroads. In Thumamah,
he could use an indoor swimming pool and a gym, and eat in an
air-conditioned dining hall with hundreds of other al Qaeda
supporters. There was kasba (meat with rice) or the Najd region
speciality, hashi (baby camel). In the evenings, they would
paint or play football. On weekends, their wives would join them.
After few months at Thumamah, Khaled was released, with a monthly
allowance of 3,000 Saudi riyals, a car and a job. “When I look
back at the dark days of my life, it seems like a miracle that I
am alive today,” said Khaled, the first reformed al Qaeda man to
speak to the Indian media. “My life has suddenly changed for good.”
Welcome to anti-Guantanamo; that’s what the Saudis call Thumamah.
Technically it is a prison for jihadis, but there is no solitary
confinement. Inmates have lavish quarters and are free to relax,
play and call home any time. The only giveaway is the curl of
barbed wire atop the compound wall.
Thumamah is the base for Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation programme for
former radicals and al Qaeda operatives. The centre is run by
the interior ministry, and is assisted by the ministries of
education and religious affairs. A number of universities and
institutes help prepare the rehab programme.
Saudi Arabia has successfully rehabilitated more than 3,500 al Qaeda
men, of whom 493 were suspected al Qaeda operatives who were
arrested in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Around 10 per cent
of Saudi detainees have refused to participate in the programme.
“Some are still consumed by hatred and corrupt ideology,” said
Dr Abdulrahman Al-Hadlaq, director-general, ideological security
directorate (see interview). “It will take us some more time to
win them over.”
Al-Hadlaq said that the driving force behind al Qaeda-related terrorism is
the ideology. Sometimes, he said, inmates throw tough questions
like why they were permitted to wage jihad against the USSR in
Afghanistan, but not the US. He said: “We tell them that jihad
is admissible in Islam only if it is waged with the consent of
the country’s leader, the permission of both parents and if a
fatwa [religious decree] is issued.”
The Thumamah centre is divided into six areas; four for those who
fought in Iraq and two for those from Guantanamo Bay. A day at
the centre begins early, with a call to prayer. From Saturday to
Thursday inmates attend daily classes. There is an exercise
session before breakfast. From 10 a.m. till lunch, there are
classes on religion and history, where students are engaged in
debate and dialogue. Post lunch, there are classes on art
therapy and anger management. After dinner, there is roll call
at 9 p.m. and then lights off.
The rehab programme employs dozens of religious scholars, psychologists,
psychiatrists and other specialists, who try to persuade the
young men that their behaviour goes against the fundamental
teachings of Islam. The six-week course covers issues such as
jihad, sanctity of human life, suicide bombings, relations with
non-Muslims, about people who can issue a fatwa and about takfir,
the practice of declaring other Muslims to be apostates.
Dr Ali Al-Afnaan, coordinator of the rehab centre and psychologist at the interior
ministry’s King Fahd Security College, said it was difficult to
put the inmates through art therapy. “They are not interested in
art and painting,” he said. “They say it is for school kids.”
But by and by, the men start expressing their feelings through art. Most
begin with sketches of rugged mountains, maybe a hangover from
Afghanistan. Others paint in red or orange, indicating bloodshed
and experiences in Guantanamo Bay. “As time passes they start
sketching different objects in different colours,” said
Al-Afnaan. “That indicates that the person is recovering.”
Khaled, who now lives with his wife and two children in Riyadh, said the
rehab programme was the best thing that happened in his life.
“Allah has given me a chance to correct myself,” he said.
Tamir Al-Fahad was picked up from Iraq and spent three years in Guantanamo Bay.
He now lives with his family in Hafar Al-Batin, 480km north of
Riyadh. Talking to THE WEEK, he came across as a jovial man who
held no grudge towards his American interrogators. “I want to
forget the past,” said Tamir. “God has given me a new life and a
chance to serve my parents.”
Another al Qaeda operative, Ahmed al-Shayea, exploded an oil tanker near
the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, killing scores of passersby.
He was catapulted from the tanker and was burnt badly. “I repent
those killings,” said Ahmed.
Most of the former al Qaeda men interviewed by THE WEEK were not
ideologues, but foot soldiers. Saudi officials said these ex-jihadis
lacked understanding of Islam and were easily influenced by al
Qaeda propaganda. Hence, the rehab programme’s module on Islam
and the sanctity of human life.
Another thorny issue was the return of the prodigals to their families.
Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, deputy minister
of the interior and architect of the rehab experiment, often
hosted Guantanamo inmates and their families in posh Riyadh
hotels, encouraging them to bond and relax.
Once free, the kingdom pays the freed inmates a monthly allowance: SR 3,000
for those from Guantanamo Bay, and SR 2,000 for the rest. It
also helps them find work and, in some cases, even a wife. There
is a gift of SR 50,000 towards wedding expenses.
The rehab programme began with an act of generosity by Prince Mohammed.
After 9/11, where 15 of the 19 aircraft hijackers were Saudis,
the prince’s father, Minister of the Interior Prince Naif bin
Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, vowed that there would be no mercy for any
al Qaeda operative in the kingdom. The world was looking at
Saudi Arabia, because Osama bin Laden himself came from one of
the richest families in the kingdom.
In July 2003, Abdul Rahman Al-Ghamdi, a hardcore al Qaeda operative,
surrendered to Prince Mohammed. Instead of throwing him in a
high security prison, the prince asked one of his sheikhs to
live with Al-Ghamdi and ensure that he did not abscond. After
living with the sheikh, who challenged his radical ideas, Al-Ghamdi
repented his joining the al Qaeda. The prince was then convinced
that rehab would work. So, in late 2007, the Thumamah centre was opened.
The centre had been widely praised and has had a clutch of high-profile
visitors, including former British prime minister Gordon Brown.
Saudi Arabia has submitted a draft of the intellectual security
strategy to the council of Arab interior ministers.
Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Talmiz Ahmad, said 9/11 helped Saudi
reformers fight religious extremists. “The Saudi authorities
have initiated awareness programmes in schools, in communities
and even in mosques,” said Ahmad. “But it is the rehab programme
that has made a huge difference. It has given an alternative to
the world to deal with terrorism.”
The kingdom is building five more centres across the country. The
new centres will be more spacious and comfortable with
professional playgrounds and music system for each individual.
Interestingly, Osama’s family concern, the Saudi Binladin Group,
is building these centres.
Interior ministry spokesman General Mansour Sultan Al-Turki said, “We
have cracked down on terrorist cells and financing. We have
killed and arrested many terrorists. But we realised that the
use of force alone will not contain al Qaeda. This is the
struggle of one of mind over another.” He said military officers
with extremist views have been fired, along with teachers and
imams who gave hate speeches.
The rehab programme has had its challenges as well. At least six freed
inmates escaped to Yemen and rejoined al Qaeda. One of them,
Said Al-Shihri, is now a senior commander in the Arabian
Peninsula. Turki said after Osama’s killing, al Qaeda leadership
was concerned more with establishing a broad ideological
programme for the network, rather than maintaining control.
“That is why it is important for us to combat the ideology of al
Qaeda,” he said.
And, al Qaeda has made it amply clear that it has the centre and its
sponsors in its gunsights. Prince Mohammed, reportedly, has had
four attempts on his life. In 2009, during the holy month of
Ramzan, he granted audience to an al Qaeda man who said he
wanted to surrender. The prince had a narrow escape when the man
blew himself up.
I was travelling to Jeddah, with my interpreter Majid Al-Jhandi, when
an assassin attempted to kill Prince Naif. Returning to hotel
that night, our car was stopped and searched at one of the many
checkpoints in the city. Jeddah, some 800km from Riyadh and on
the coast, is Osama’s hometown and he founded al Qaeda here.
Between 1982 to 1992, around 20,000 men, mostly from this area
and from the south, joined him in Afghanistan. Over 5,000 died fighting.
Nowhere are the contradictions of modern Saudi Arabia more evident than
in Jeddah. Restaurants in the city are manned by Indian cooks
and the taxis by Pakistanis. Seen from afar, soaring, sparkling,
stunning modern buildings tower above the desert and camels.
Amid the luxury cars and SUVs, slip the mutaween (religious
police) hurrying the faithful to prayer. During the holy month,
everything is closed during the day. Dusk sees the miles of
freeways choked with cars headed to shopping malls that remain
open until dawn.
“We are being carried backward and forward at once,” said Jamal
Khashoggi, former editor of Al-Watan, a Saudi daily. A good
friend of Osama, he last met him in Sudan in 1995. “The kingdom
officially supported the Jihad against the USSR in Afghanistan,”
he said. “Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, the then Grand Mufti, declared
jihad and supported Osama’s call. Today, we are fighting the same guys.”
He said the Arab Spring disproved al Qaeda’s ideology of violence and
bloodshed. “All his life, Osama propagated that only violence
can bring change,” he said. “That ideology was defeated the day
thousands of people took to Tahrir Square [in Egypt] to seek
political change and freedom.”
Saudi experts said that pampering by the state made the youth lazy.
Saudi has around six million expat workers, nearly half the
number of the kingdom’s working-age population. “Those who join
al Qaeda are a product of our social failures. They are raised
in a welfare state,” said Dr Saleh bin Sulaiman Al-Wahaibi,
secretary-general of the Riyadh-based World Assembly of Muslim
Youth. “We allowed them to grow up in isolation and in a
pampered atmosphere until they turned to Osama in an effort to
Yusef Abdullah Saleh Al-Rabiesh, No. 109 in Guantanamo Bay, returned
to Saudi Arabia in 2006. He echoed the views of Al-Wahaibi:
“Most of us who joined al Qaeda were restless youth. We had no
clue about the outside world. We just wanted to go and fight the
US.” Some of his friends from the neighbouring province of Al
Bahah, one of the kingdom’s most obscure regions, brought the
world to a standstill when they carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Authorities in Jeddah admit that al Qaeda is trying hard to
fills its ranks with the alienated Saudi youth. But it does seem
clear that the kingdom is taking the challenge seriously. As al
Qaeda enlists 36 per cent of its recruits through the internet,
the kingdom has hired hundreds of Islamic scholars to blog and
fight online radicalisation.
On a sunny afternoon, Al-Afnaan took 20 inmates from the centre to Masjid
al-Haram, the holiest shrine in Islam and the world’s largest
mosque, in Mecca. In the grand mosque, walking slowly across the
vast square of polished marble, some sought God’s blessing and
refuge, while others wept loudly. Al-Afnaan said: “Who would
have imagined that one day these people with such a violent past
would leave the path of terrorism?” After a brief pause, he
whispered: “Allahu Akbar.”