RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — With its indoor swimming pool, sun-splashed patios and liveried staff, the Saudi complex has the trappings of a five-star resort, but it is actually a rehab center — for violent jihadists.
Riyadh’s Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center, a cushy halfway house between prison and freedom, spotlights a controversial Saudi strategy for tackling homegrown extremists.
While the global fight against terrorism is often associated with drone strikes and torture, the philosophy that underpins the center’s approach is that extremism requires not coercion but an ideological cure.
Overseen by clerics and psychologists, it works to prevent convicts who have served their sentences from returning to jihad, through what it calls religious counselling and ideological detoxification.
“Our focus is on correcting their thoughts, their misconceptions, their deviation from Islam,” Yahya Abu Maghayed, a director at the center, said while giving AFP a golf cart tour of the sprawling, palm tree-lined complex.
The convicts are housed in a series of low-slung buildings, outfitted with large-screen televisions and king-size beds, all framed by manicured lawns.
Many linked to groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban walk around freely in flowing white robes, and have access to a spacious gym, a banquet hall and furnished apartments reserved for visits from spouses.
“We make the ‘beneficiaries’ feel they are normal people and still have a chance — a chance to return to society,” Abu Maghayed said, insisting the center refrained from calling them prisoners or inmates.
‘Talking cure’ for terrorists
Saudi Arabia, long accused of exporting its ultraconservative Wahhabist Sunni doctrine around the world, is itself a victim of domestic terror attacks.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has sought to roll back the influence of the ultra-conservative religious establishment, this week jump-started a 41-nation military coalition to combat Islamist extremism, vowing to wipe terrorism from the face of the Earth.
But the rehab facility, founded in 2004, is one of the centerpieces of Saudi Arabia’s strategy to expunge violent extremism at home.
It claims to have treated more than 3,300 men convicted of terrorism-related crimes, including repatriated Guantanamo Bay detainees.
The center boasts of a “success rate of 86 percent,” Abu Maghayed said, measured by those men who did not return to jihad for at least a decade after graduating from the center.
Of the remainder, he said, most only showed signs of “deviant behavior” and only a minuscule number relapsed into violent jihad.
An American terrorism expert who has closely studied the Saudi program said the recidivism rate was higher, pointing out media reports of graduates from the center who have shown up on battlefronts.
“Saudis are to be applauded for trying something different — they were one of the first to try a ‘talking cure’ for terrorists,” John Horgan, another expert at Georgia State University, told AFP.
“(But) without greater transparency about its participants… it’s impossible to know what value added, if any, this program brings in reducing the threat of re-engagement in terrorism.”
‘Ideas can fight ideas’
AFP was given a chance to interview “beneficiaries” if they agreed, but when two bearded, gym-buffed men were approached in their living quarters, they declined to talk.
Critics say there is a moral hazard in treating jihadists, many with blood on their hands, with lavish facilities and financial incentives.
But Saudi officials say the threat of sanction is always hanging over them.
Those who refuse to reform after a minimum stay of three months at the center are returned to “the judicial process,” Abu Maghayed said.
But more than coercion, the center pushes for increasing familial bonds, encouraging marriage and children, a psychological tether meant to make it harder to return to violent ways.
“You cannot counter terrorism by force,” said Ali al-Afnan, an educational psychology specialist at the center. “Only ideas can fight ideas.”
The center uses art therapy as one of its tools. Comparisons between portraits in the early days of incarceration and those at later stages are used as a metric to study inmates’ frame of mind.
Abu Maghayed showed AFP one early painting, which he said depicted a gloomy “Guantanamo mentality” — with splashes of orange, the color of jumpsuits at the infamous prison.
Another canvas painted weeks later showed bold brushstrokes and sparks of color, depicting hope.
As Afnan spoke to AFP, he fielded an abrupt telephone call from a former “beneficiary” who once traveled to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban.
Now married and with children, he was seeking advice from Afnan over returning to university for a graduate program.
“This man is our role model,” Afnan said after hanging up. “A shining example of how people deserve a second chance.”