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U.S. Sees Saudi Program As an Option for Detainees

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Four years after Khalid al-Jehani's release from the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the 34-year-old Saudi lives a peaceful life in this sprawling coastal city. He has a car, a job and a well-furnished apartment -- courtesy of the Saudi government.

The rehabilitation of militants such as Jehani has convinced the Obama administration that Saudi Arabia is the ideal place to send dozens of Yemenis being held at Guantanamo. For months, U.S. officials have applied pressure on Riyadh. But Saudi officials say their success with former detainees such as Jehani lies in members of his family and tribe, who keep constant watch over him, and cannot be duplicated with those whose social networks and roots lie outside Saudi Arabia.

"If I try to do something bad, my family will tell the government about me," said Jehani, who joined a radical Islamist movement in the Philippines and trained al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. "How can you trust that will happen with a family living in Yemen?"

As President Obama's promised January deadline to close Guantanamo approaches, the fate of 97 Yemenis remains the administration's biggest obstacle to closing the facility and forging a new detention policy. They are the largest community left at Guantanamo, roughly half of the prisoners who remain there, and are viewed as among the most radicalized, with deep jihadist roots inside Yemen, Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland.

Yemen is ruled by a weak central government battling an insurgency in the north, secessionists in the south and a growing al-Qaeda presence. The Obama administration is unwilling to send the detainees there because it has no faith in Yemeni security guarantees. Only 15 Yemenis have been sent back to Yemen in the past seven years, even as hundreds of Saudi and Afghan detainees have gone home.

Most countries that have agreed to resettle detainees from other countries are willing to take only those who have been cleared for release by the courts or by a Justice Department-led review team and who cannot be returned to their home countries because of fears of torture or other abuse.

The Yemenis do not meet those criteria. The majority of them have not been cleared for release. Moreover, the United States is reluctant to repatriate the 26 Yemenis who have been cleared, citing security concerns. That heightens suspicions among Saudi officials, as well as among European nations, that the Yemeni detainees constitute a risk they do not want to take.

Despite the impasse, U.S. officials hope to send the majority of the Yemenis to Saudi Arabia. They would be the only detainees, other than Saudis, sent there. "The talks with the Saudi and Yemeni governments over the disposition of the Yemeni detainees have been productive and are ongoing," an administration official said.

Publicly, Saudi officials have said they will accept the Yemenis only if they come willingly. Privately, Saudi officials interviewed here say they would like to find a different solution. If Saudi Arabia were to accept the Yemenis -- a decision that most observers say will require the blessing of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz -- it risks becoming a greater al-Qaeda target. The kingdom also has close ties to Yemen's government, which would probably consider the detainees' transfer to Saudi Arabia a public embarrassment. Yemen has publicly declared that it wants its detainees to return home.

If the Yemenis participated and then rejoined al-Qaeda, it would be a severe blow to the program as well as to the kingdom's pride.

"It's a no-win situation for the Saudis. They can't rehabilitate these guys, and they don't want to become America's jailor," said Christopher Boucek, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has studied the rehabilitation program.

Ties That Bind

When detainees from Guantanamo land in Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a high-ranking member of the Saudi ruling family and head of the kingdom's counterterrorism operations, personally informs their families that their sons have returned home.

A mix of religious, psychological and social programs wean participants off extremist ideology. At least 1,500 detainees have been released from the six-month-long program. Of the 120 detainees from Guantanamo, 108 have graduated; more than 80 percent remain active participants in the rehabilitation efforts and have not rejoined al-Qaeda, Saudi officials said. Nearly 20 percent have escaped abroad, disappeared or been rearrested.

Human rights groups have criticized the program, saying people have been detained without being charged. Earlier this year, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that it was hard to measure the program's success. It has released "mostly minor offenders," and "many of the more hardened terrorists do not undergo rehabilitation," he said, according to a declassified document from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that was obtained and released by the Federation of American Scientists.

Upon a detainee's release, family and tribal leaders sign guarantees vouching that he will not return to terrorism. At stake is their honor and family name -- essential in Saudi society. Security officials keep in close contact but rely heavily on the family to alert them to any potential problems. Financial assistance flows freely -- for education, jobs and marriage. Jehani said the government even paid for his wife's fertility treatment.

"When you get married and have children, you are busy," said Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, who heads the counter-radicalization unit at the Saudi Interior Ministry. "You value the meaning of life, and you understand the culture of death more."

At the rehabilitation center last weekend, teachers learned that the baby son of one graduate, a former Guantanamo detainee, had died. Ahmed Gelan, the program coordinator, immediately called him to offer condolences -- and assistance.

"If we don't help the family, al-Qaeda will," said Hameed al-Shaygi, a sociologist at the center.

Shaygi said the system could never be as effective with the Yemeni detainees. Only about 20 of the Yemenis have some familial ties inside Saudi Arabia, and it is unclear how strong those are. "How will their families work with us?" Shaygi asked. Also, Yemenis and Saudis practice different strains of Sunni Islam. The vast majority of Saudis are in a higher economic class than Yemenis, which could lead to resentment.

"We will have a Riyadh-namo," Shaygi concluded. "We will become a target of al-Qaeda. Saudis will be seen as continuing what the Americans are doing."

High Stakes All Around

Saudi officials say they are most concerned about the Yemenis after graduation. In February, the government released a list of 85 most-wanted Saudi terrorists. At least 11 were graduates of the program; most had fled abroad, including at least two across the kingdom's porous southern border into Yemen.

They included Saeed al-Shehri, who became the second-ranking leader of al-Qaeda's wing in Yemen, and Mohammed Awfi, who became an al-Qaeda field commander. "You cannot guarantee results," said Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman. "What we are doing is like a last-chance effort. We can't put them behind bars since we have nothing against them."

Six weeks ago, a Saudi militant -- No. 40 on the most-wanted list -- nearly assassinated Prince Nayef after crossing over from Yemen with a bomb hidden in his body. "The Saudis have no way of controlling them once they leave for Yemen," Boucek said. "But the world will hold the Saudis responsible."

The stakes are high for the Obama administration, too. Barring a deal with Saudi Arabia, most of the Yemenis could end up in some system of prolonged detention, justified by the administration under the laws of war. And if Guantanamo is closed, they could end up in a prison camp on U.S. soil, probably on a military base, ensuring more political headaches for Obama.

Still, Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in ensuring the Yemenis don't rejoin al-Qaeda. One scenario, said Boucek, is that Saudi Arabia might be willing to host the Yemenis for a few months to buy the U.S. and Yemeni governments time to find a solution.

In interviews, some Saudi and Western officials said a possible solution is for the United States, Saudi Arabia and others to build a rehabilitation program in Yemen. But with Yemen plagued by official corruption and domestic turbulence, many are skeptical.

"Will this succeed with all the Yemenis? Maybe not," Jehani said. "Even in Saudi Arabia, it has not succeeded 100 percent."

Finn reported from Washington.

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