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To stanch spread of radical Islam, Saudi Arabia woos detainees

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—Alarmed to find that detainees are emerging from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and other U.S. detention centers more devoted than ever to radical Islam, Saudi Arabia is offering counseling, financial aid and even matchmaking to pull young militants away from terrorism.

To keep the former detainees from deep-pocketed militant recruiters, Saudi officials have treated them to perks that have included new cars, resort stays, job placement and help in finding brides. They've also exposed them to moderate clerics and reminded them of Islam's restrictive rules for waging holy war, or jihad.

Saudi officials said the goal is to stop the proliferation of radical ideology that they said is bred in prisons and on the Internet. The ideology has flourished at Guantanamo and is evident among the returning Saudi detainees—even those who were moderates before they were imprisoned, Saudi officials said.

"When you associate with those guys, you become one of them," said Mansour al Turki, the Saudi government's security spokesman.

The multimillion-dollar rehabilitation program is available to most Saudis who've been accused of terrorism-related crimes, and officials estimate that as many as 2,000 have participated in the program since its inception in 2004.

The program pays special attention to those released from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Nearly every Saudi returning from American captivity undergoes up to 10 weeks of intense psychological tests, starting with an evaluation on the private plane that whisks him home from the American prison, Turki said.

The United States announced last month that it's released 390 people from Guantanamo, more than the 386 it continues to hold there. But there's little comprehensive information on what's become of those who've been released. Pentagon officials have reported that as many as two dozen have returned to the fight, but they've refused to provide specifics.

The Interior Ministry here said 65 Saudis have been released from Guantanamo, though other counts place the number at 60.

Counselors in Saudi Arabia said that the prisoners returning here are broken, humiliated and angry—the perfect prey for militant recruiters. Turki said that many men who rarely prayed before they were detained emerged from Guantanamo with bushy beards and fundamentalist beliefs.

Distracting former detainees with new jobs and marriages helps Saudi authorities keep them out of trouble and away from vengeance missions.

"People still kill each other for revenge, you know, and it's part of the custom," Turki said. "It's no good for a man to be treated in that situation and just go back and sit at home. ... If you do not actually get involved at least in the beginning of their life, then there might be actually somebody who could take advantage of this and recruit them again for terrorism."

Researchers monitor all the program's cases for common threads they've used to profile a "typical" Saudi militant: born to a middle- or upper-class family, educated past high school, in his 20s and single. His No. 1 role model is al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, a fellow Saudi; he's highly knowledgeable about Islam; and he uses the Internet to communicate with like-minded Muslims across the globe.

The U.S.-led war in Iraq is the biggest factor in radicalizing Saudi youths, according to a Saudi government report.

"In Saudi Arabia, al-Qaida has been destroyed as an organization," said Abdulrahman al Hadlaq, the chairman of the committee that oversees the rehabilitation program. "What is happening now is a battle, a war, of ideas."

That's why the program enlists counselors such as Sheik Mohamed al Nejeimi. He's one of 100 state-backed clerics who counter radical teachings with moderate passages from the Quran, Islam's holy book. The detainees pepper Nejeimi with easy questions such as when jihad is valid or how to fight tyranny within the framework of Islam.

But he said there's one frequently asked question that always stumps him: "Why did you let us go to Afghanistan to fight the Russians then, but won't let us go there now to fight the Americans in similar conditions?" The government's reply is that jihad should be in the interest of one's homeland. Fighting the secular Soviets in the 1980s was permissible; fighting Kabul's Muslim-led government today is not.

Critics of the rehabilitation program say the Afghanistan question illustrates the conservative Saudi monarchy's confused policies—it turns a blind eye to the radical teachings of prominent clerics but prosecutes young Saudis who put those lessons into practice.

Reform activists said the program will fail until it addresses how the kingdom's stifling social conditions, intractable monarchy and powerful religious establishment contribute to Islamist extremism.

"Most of those who were detained in Guantanamo were only volunteers, but the real fighters cannot be affected by these programs," said Abdulaziz al Gassim, an attorney and reform activist in Riyadh. "It's some sort of a bargain: They let up on their (radical) preaching, the government lets them out."

Eager to highlight a success story, Saudi security officials recently introduced journalists to a short, wiry man they said had been detained at Guantanamo. They identified him only by a nickname, Abu Suleiman, and they refused to allow reporters to ask the man his real name. It was impossible to verify his account.

Abu Suleiman said that when he was 20 years old and impressionable, he was recruited into a militant cell in the Philippines. With dreams of fighting alongside Chechen rebels, he received training in Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden "a few times" and where he was captured in late 2001 by U.S.-led forces in the mountains of Tora Bora.

In his four years at Guantanamo, one of them in isolation, Abu Suleiman said, he underwent severe U.S. interrogations "from the first day to the last day." When he was finally released last year, he expected even harsher treatment from the Saudi prison system.

Instead, Saudi authorities enrolled him in the then-nascent rehabilitation program and offered him a monthly stipend of $800. He's among 750 of the 2,000 graduates to be fully released and back in society.

Abu Suleiman jokes that his last vestige of Guantanamo is the near-perfect English he learned from his American jailers. Now 33, he's a newlywed financial analyst working in Riyadh. The program found him the job and sent a representative to congratulate him on his marriage.

"I was shocked by the good treatment," Abu Suleiman said. "They make it easy for me to forget what happened in Guantanamo."


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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