Two Saudi detainees sent home from the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay will go through the Kingdom’s rehabilitation programme for militants, the Interior Ministry said on Tuesday.
Muhammad Husayn Qahtani and Hamood Abdulla Hamood were repatriated to Saudi Arabia on Monday after spending 11 years in Guantanamo, Cuba, without being charged with any crime.
They were both captured in Pakistan in 2002 and US military documents allege they fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and were working for al Qaeda.
“They will be subjected to the regulations in force in the Kingdom, which include benefiting from the counselling and care programmes,” Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Mansour Turki was quoted as saying by the official Saudi Press Agency.
Saudi Arabia’s programme to reintegrate former Islamist militants features art and sports classes, religious instruction and psychological analysis aimed at pushing them away from interpretations of Islam that favour political violence.
The programme lasts at least three months, according to officials who took reporters on a tour of one of its facilities this year. It is compulsory for all Saudis convicted of offences relating to Islamist militancy after their release from prison.
The authorities say fewer than 10 per cent of those who have undergone the course have taken up arms after their release, but the recidivists include several who became senior al Qaeda figures in neighbouring Yemen after fleeing the Kingdom.
Saeed al-Shehri, who Saudi and Yemeni authorities say was killed in a drone strike in Yemen early this year, went through the programme after being sent home from Guantanamo in 2007.
The Saudi national escaped months later and fled to Yemen to become second-in-command of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, seen as one of the movement’s most dangerous wings.
A new Riyadh branch of the rehabilitation programme is housed in caramel-coloured buildings behind high walls in a down-at-heel neighbourhood in the east of the capital, and boasts a sauna, art classes, a football pitch and pool tables.
Saudi officials have argued in private that the initiative’s main purpose is to convince the Saudi public to support the government against militant groups, according to a March 2009 US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks.
“While these Guantanamo returnees rejoining al Qaeda in Yemen was embarrassing…the programme itself was achieving the true goal of turning the Saudi populace against extremist radicals,” Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, now the interior minister, told diplomats in a conversation reported in that cable.
He said Saudis would be impressed that the government was offering militants “a helping hand”, and would come to see those who rejected it as “deviants”, the cable said.