What should Obama do about hard-core Gitmo cases? The Saudis have had success with a program that has nothing to do with waterboarding. Try money, cars, and wives.
The 240 detainees who remain in Guantánamo Bay are the radioactive waste of the war on terror. Earlier this week, the problem of their safe disposal provoked the first serious congressional upset of the Obama presidency, and they were the central theme of the president’s speech Thursday. Obama conceded that he cannot achieve his keynote ambition to close Guantánamo until he can resolve this dilemma.
So what is to be done with ex-terrorists? Can they ever be recycled safely? On Friday night on PBS NOW, I take a look at the unusual answer that Saudi Arabia has been developing to the question: Treat the boys nice—and rather more than nice, if necessary. At the rehab facility I visited in Riyadh, I met bearded jihadis off the jet from Gitmo who’d been enticed to reform with the offer of a car, a job—and even a wife.
Once you have convinced your minders that you have genuinely turned over a new leaf, the Ministry of the Interior will pay for your new bride—and the deputy minister may even come to your wedding.
Sixty thousand riyals (some $18,000) is the going rate for an arranged marriage in Saudi Arabia these days. But once you have convinced your minders that you have genuinely turned over a new leaf, the Ministry of the Interior will pay for your new bride—and the deputy minister may even come to your wedding.
This policy makes perfect sense if, like certain psychiatrists, you think that jihadi violence is linked to the sexual frustrations of young men in a society that blocks sex before marriage. But it also stems from a peculiarly Saudi tradition of conciliation. The House of Saud built its Arabian empire on the basis of ruthless holy warfare—and on being very nice to those who surrendered. The present king, Abdullah, is the product of a marriage between his father, “Ibn Saud,” and a widow from the Rasheed clan, the Al-Sauds’ bitterest enemies.
“Of course we could build a Saudi Guantánamo,” says one official who has helped shape the creative rehab strategy. “But we believe that being cruel would be counterproductive. It would alienate the inmates’ families.”
Enlisting the families is the key to the Saudis’ “soft” policing policy. When the grisly DNA evidence of a suicide bomber reveals that the young man was Saudi, the ministry gets on the phone to his family before contacting the media.
“We give them our condolences. They have lost a family member—we have lost a citizen,” says the official. “We show an interest in those mothers and fathers because they too are victims. And we know that if we don’t take care of them, there are others who will.”
This February, the Saudis issued a list of 85 extremists known to be operating outside the country, many of them south of the border in Yemen, but they say nine young men have since come back under pressure from their families.
“Yemen is our new Afghanistan,” says one Saudi official. “But at least it is in the same cellphone calling area”—meaning that mom can call any time. In the West, most young people are delighted to be independent of their parents at 18. In Saudi Arabia, a man of 30 will obey instructions from his mother and father, particularly if the whole family is in agreement.
So does this interesting mixture of traditional culture and re-education offer any answers to Obama’s Guantánamo problem? As many as 3,000 young extremists have now been through different versions of the Saudi rehab scheme, and estimates of their reoffending run from as low as 1 percent to 10 percent. This compares very favorably to the 68 percent reoffending rate of American male prisoners.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent visit to Riyadh has prompted talk of the Saudis being entrusted with the custody and care of Guantánamo’s Yemenis, the largest and most intractable group of inmates in Cuba, and the Riyadh rehab has become a routine stopping point for hopeful human-rights activists and media experts.
But the remorseful young men who are willing to appear in front of the Western cameras are not the whole story. While I was filming for PBS in one compound, I was told that the compound next door was occupied by less malleable Guantánamo graduates who declined to spend time with the media circus—and there is yet another group of truly hard-core jihadis who have refused to have anything at all to do with the rehab program. These are the men who were the backbone of al Qaeda. They do not want to change. They remain essentially at war with their own country, and they have been locked up indefinitely in SuperMax prisons, purpose-built to U.S. specifications.
The Saudi Ministry of the Interior makes no secret of these men’s recalcitrance. Under the kingdom’s Shariah laws, these detainees have the right to go to court at any time and can, in theory, secure their freedom if they can convince a panel of Saudi judges that they are not a menace to society. But they choose not to do so, which probably means that they are deeply violent and dangerous—the equivalent, in other words, of the 240 hard cases who are left in Guantánamo.
So let us celebrate the articulate young men you will see in my program Friday night—they are building new lives for themselves. Congratulate, if you wish, the Saudi government for making it possible. They have sought to learn the lessons of 9/11 and to change their cultural role, from being exporters of terrorism to becoming exporters of a creative solution.
But niceness is only one answer, and it only works for young men who are willing and able to change. It does not apply to the 240 dangers to the world who remain in Guantánamo. For them, America has no option but to apply the other Saudi solution—and Obama said as much Thursday—SuperMax.
Robert Lacey is the author of The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud, published in 1981 (and banned in Saudi Arabia). He is based in Jeddah, where he is writing a sequel, Inside the Kingdom
, to be published by Viking-Penguin this October. His website is