Saudi Guantanamo inmates released, "reintegrated," treated like VIPs back home

Washington Post 

For five years, Jumah al-Dossari sat in a tiny cell at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, watched day and night by military captors who considered him one of the most dangerous terrorist suspects on the planet.

In July, he was suddenly released to his native Saudi Arabia, which held a very different view. Dossari was immediately reunited with his family and treated like a VIP. He was given a monthly stipend and a job, housed and fed, even promised help in finding a wife. Today, he is a free man living on the Persian Gulf coast.

Former detainee Jumah al-Dossari was put in the
Former detainee Jumah al-Dossari was put in the "reintegration program." (Courtesy Of Joshua Colangelo-bryan - Courtesy Of Joshua Colangelo-bryan)
The treatment is part of a Saudi "reintegration program" designed to help Dossari, 34, and other former Guantanamo prisoners adjust to modern society and learn the meanings of Islam. About 40 of the more than 100 Guantanamo detainees from Saudi Arabia who have been transferred to Riyadh since last year have been released after participating in the program, and the rest are scheduled to be let go in coming months.

The Defense Department considered more than 90 percent of the transferred detainees to be terrorist threats to the United States and its allies, but sent them home as part of an agreement that Saudi Arabia would mitigate the threat, according to Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.

"Our goal is to transfer out as many individuals from Guantanamo Bay as we can," said Sandra L. Hodgkinson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs. "The Saudis have developed a reconciliation program to address the needs of their population, and we strongly appreciate them finding a way to mitigate the threats that these people pose. We believe this is a very, very good program."

Critics are concerned that the arrangement will simply return some extremists to the streets. Defense officials say about 30 of the nearly 480 detainees released from Guantanamo have again taken up terrorist activities.

Steven Emerson, a terrorism analyst, said the program is intriguing because it is an alternative to holding detainees at Guantanamo indefinitely. But, he said, there is a "major risk" of releasing former detainees into the general population.

"If they are allowed to re-engage in jihad, then I think it's criminal," Emerson said. "I don't always believe the Saudis are doing what they say they are doing. Could it work? Technically, it could work. Would I trust them to become babysitters? Not on my life."

Under an unpublicized agreement between Riyadh and the Bush administration, the Saudis are preparing to repatriate half of the approximately 20 of their citizens who remain at Guantanamo. They have promised that all will participate in the reintegration program, Saudi and U.S. officials said.

That will leave about 10 Saudis in Guantanamo, who are scheduled to be tried by military commissions, according to U.S. officials. A total of 138 Saudis have been held there.

The Saudi government contends that the reintegration program helps break the terrorist mind-set by linking former detainees with their families, their communities and a stable lifestyle. "No one who has gone through the program, completed it and been released has presented a threat," said Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to Washington.

Defense attorneys, human rights advocates and former Guantanamo detainees say, however, that the Saudi program works because most of the men held at Guantanamo were not a threat in the first place.

Ramzi Kassem, a clinical instructor at Yale University's law school who represents two Saudis released to their home country, said the program is a "face-saving" measure adopted for the United States.

"Even the United States has acknowledged that the rhetoric of these men being the worst-of-the-worst is a great exaggeration," Kassem said. "I don't really think the Saudis genuinely believe these men are the sort of hardened men they need to worry about. That's really all fiction."

U.S. officials have become more comfortable with the program over time, and say the reintegration program has enabled the reduction of Guantanamo's prison population to its lowest point since April 2002, with just more than 300 detainees in custody, down from a peak of 680. The nationalities most represented now are 90 Yemenis, 50 Afghans and 20 Saudis.

The Saudis have briefed the CIA, FBI and Defense Department on the program, and U.S. officials have visited the reintegration facility in Riyadh. Saudi officials said officials of several European nations have inquired about the program and want to determine whether it could work in their countries.

President Bush has said he wants to close the prison, though there has been much internal disagreement on what to do with the captives, some of whom are acknowledged terrorists. But "even as Congress and the administration can't reach agreement [on closing Guantanamo], the numbers are declining," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

For Dossari, the transfer home was literally a life-saving measure. He fell into a deep depression at the prison and attempted suicide several times. One try was interrupted by his attorney, who found him hanging from a makeshift noose in a bathroom.

"When we were in Guantanamo, we lived there like in an underground cemetery," Dossari said in a telephone interview last week. "It was like going from underground to paradise."

The flight to freedom for Dossari and other Saudis began when a Saudi jumbo jet -- with three guards per prisoner -- took them back to Riyadh. The detainees were treated like airline passengers and could walk the aisles, according to Dossari and Kassem.

After a reunion of nearly a week with their families, the former detainees begin a six-week program to "correct their ideas" about jihad and non-Muslims, a government effort to woo them away from al-Qaeda's radical theology in one-on-one discussions with religious scholars, Saudi officials said.

"Our government gave people a chance to correct their mistakes and start a new life, to understand Islam and make people understand government," Dossari said. "This is the only solution for terrorism."

After completing the course, former detainees begin the second phase at a halfway house, replete with a pool, volleyball courts, video games and table tennis. "It's like outpatient treatment. It's like a camp or resort," said a senior Saudi official familiar with the program, who agreed to be interviewed only if he was not identified.

They receive vocational training, religious classes and counseling to deal with depression or to help them adjust psychologically after lengthy captivities. They can spend an occasional night with their families; during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, they spend a week with relatives.

They are under substantial pressure to return to the halfway house. "Everyone has come back. One was late, and he called to say he had an accident and would be late. Another got an extra day or so because he was married," the Saudi official said. "The social responsibility puts pressure on them. If they don't show up, then we will tell the Americans, who won't release any more Saudis."

When Dossari arrived in Riyadh with 15 other detainees, they stepped onto a green carpet and were welcomed by senior government officials. Dossari said he kissed the ground in elation.

The former detainees are required to report regularly on their whereabouts, information that is passed on to Washington. "The U.S. is more comfortable sending them back as they've seen the effectiveness of our program," a Saudi official said.

U.S. and Saudi officials doubt, however, that the program could be adapted to Yemen, Somalia and other countries that lack appropriate resources or strong central governments. Hodgkinson said the program uniquely fits in Saudi culture.

"It's hard to replicate that environment," Hodgkinson said. "There are things we can learn from what they've done. It is a good model, but it is not as ideally suited for us to try to implement at Guantanamo Bay."

U.S. officials never formally cleared Dossari for release but agreed to transfer him home under the repatriation arrangement. They had alleged that he was a terrorist who at one point traveled to the United States to give fiery sermons about jihad, but Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, Dossari's U.S. attorney, said his client's freedom at home proves he never should have been at Guantanamo.

Now living in the Saudi port city of Dammam, Dossari describes his detention in Guantanamo as his "black days" and says he was mistreated, without offering details. He said he considers the Saudi program a "gift from Allah."

Another former Guantanamo detainee, Khalid al-Hubayshi, 32, now works in the customer service department of a local Saudi Internet provider. He was married in February with the help of $20,000 from the Saudi government, which bought him a white Toyota Corolla upon his release and continues to provide him a monthly stipend of $800.

Hubayshi was a self-proclaimed jihadist enraged by images of Muslims massacred during the wars in Bosnia and went to the Philippines to fight. He was training in Afghanistan when U.S. forces began bombing there, and said he was sold to Pakistani authorities and was later turned over to U.S. officials.

"I was not there to fight Americans, but if the Americans had come into ground battle in Afghanistan, either I would have killed him or he would have killed me," Hubayshi said. "I was young. I was idealistic. I was full of zeal."

Hubayshi said he is unsure why he was sent home ahead of others with less involvement in Islamic insurgency. He said he told U.S. interrogators during more than 100 sessions that he was not a member of al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

Unlike Dossari, Hubayshi -- among a small group of Saudis to leave Guantanamo in 2005 -- was imprisoned for nearly a year after his return to Saudi Arabia. But ultimately senior Saudi officials told him that he had learned his lesson.

Whether that turns out to be true is the central question for everyone, experts said.

"The proof will ultimately be in the pudding," said Bradford A. Berenson, a Washington lawyer who was associate counsel to Bush from 2001 to 2003. "If a lot of them end up in terror cells and on battlefields, we'll know that it doesn't work well enough to trust."

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