Saudis Fearing Syrian Blowback Expand Rehab for Jihadis

After a month in Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation center for would-be jihadis, Bader al-Anazi says he’s still angry at the killing of Sunni Muslims in Syria. He just doesn’t feel driven to join the war himself.

“I had a very radical ideology, I saw what was happening to Muslims,” said the 28-year-old, who also served five months in prison for involvement in websites that Saudi authorities say promote terrorism. Now he runs his own building and consumer-finance companies, set up with government help.

That’s part of the service offered by the rehab program, a frontline in the oil-rich nation’s fight against al-Qaeda and one that’s set to expand. Housed in an inconspicuous complex of brown buildings on the outskirts of Riyadh, it uses art and sport as well as theology and psychology to channel the kind of religious anger that has rebounded on Saudi leaders in the past.

Islamists returned to Saudi Arabia from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with skills they later turned against the Al Saud family and its control of the world’s second-largest crude reserves. As Saudi leaders contemplate the risk of a repeat in Syria, where Islamist groups are playing a growing role in the fight to oust Bashar al-Assad, the Interior Ministry is widening the rehab program. It opened a second center in Jeddah this year, and says it plans three more.

Motivated to Fight

“We are very worried about the situation in Syria,” Hameed al-Shaygi, the chairman of the Social Studies department at King Saud University in Riyadh and an adviser to the rehabilitation program, said in an interview at the center. “Some will be motivated to go and fight.”

Assad’s government has roots in a version of Shiite Islam. Most Saudis are Sunnis, the other major branch of the Islamic faith, and the Syrian rebels have broad popular support in the kingdom. Saudi imams regularly denounce Assad as the “tyrant of the Levant.”

“You don’t have to be an al-Qaeda sympathizer to think that Sunnis in Syria have a right to violent resistance to the Assad regime, and that other Sunnis should help them,” said Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont in Burlington and a Gulf specialist.

Syria’s war has claimed more than 125,000 lives, according to the U.K.-based Observatory for Human Rights. About half of the deaths were civilians, according to the opposition group, which has documented fatalities since the start of the conflict.

At a social gathering in October in Buraidah, the capital of Qassim province in Saudi Arabia’s conservative heartland, the host pointed to one elderly attendee and said he had six family members fighting in Syria.

‘Certain Contradiction’

Saudi authorities are seeking to prevent such volunteers. The country’s Grand Mufti in October urged Saudi youth not to join the war, and several clerics have been removed from their posts for advocating jihad. Yet the Saudis also back the rebels, and have indicated that it’s not only the more secular groups favored by the U.S. who will receive their support.

There’s a “certain contradiction” between that policy and the attention paid to domestic blowback, said Eckart Woertz, a Persian Gulf specialist at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.

Gause said the Saudi rulers have “immediate foreign-policy goals that trump the longer-term possible domestic risks.”

They’re also more aware of those risks than a generation earlier. When Saudi jihadists came back from Afghanistan in the 1990s, they were often jailed then released with no attempt to change their views.

Saudi Arabia’s security operations against al-Qaeda shifted up a gear after the 2004 attack on an oil complex in al-Khobar, which killed 22 foreign workers.

Clear Blowback

“The al-Qaeda campaign from 2003 to 2006 was a very clear case of blowback from the training of Saudis in camps in Afghanistan,” said Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo.

“That experience is on Saudi authorities’ minds” as they become involved in the Syrian war, Hegghammer said in a phone interview. The current conflict may pose less of a threat because there’s no group fighting in Syria that has the goal of later turning its sights on the Saudi regime, as Osama Bin Laden’s organization in Afghanistan did, he said.

The Riyadh rehabilitation center opened in 2007, and about 2,400 people have attended courses there. Officials at the center say only about 1.5 percent of them have resumed militant activities after the program.

“They have been quite successful and re-arrest rates have been low,” Woertz said.

Saudi officials say the highest incidence of re-offending is among those have served time at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Poster Boy

Ahmed Abdullah al-Shaya may be among the program’s highest-profile failures. He attended after carrying out a botched suicide-bomb attack at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad in 2005, which killed 12 workers. Al-Shaya, who lost most of his fingers and much of his face in the blast, was introduced to journalists and visiting delegations six years ago as one of the center’s earliest graduates. He’s now fighting in Syria, al-Hayat newspaper said last month, citing his father.

For Saudi fighters caught heading to or from Syria, a spell in the rehab center follows jail terms. Western officials and analysts estimate the number of Saudis fighting in Syria at between 800 and 900. It’s not clear how many are in prison for taking part in the war or attempting to do so.

Participants attend courses on Islam taught by clerics who discredit radical Islamic teachings, see psychiatrists, train for new jobs, and paint pictures as therapy.

Bleeding World

Abdulaziz al-Suwailih, a psychologist on the program, walks through a display of paintings by inmates. One shows a teapot on burning coals. Another canvas features the Arabic word for “world,” from which blood-red drops are falling. “We can see through their art who is suffering from depression,” he says.

The maximum duration is about three months. After that, participants continue to receive medical care and are eligible for help with finding a university place or a job.

The rehab program is only one of Saudi Arabia’s techniques for combating radicalism. At the Interior Ministry Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, the head of its ideological security department, runs an online operation that fields religious authorities to counter the theological arguments of al-Qaeda and similar groups.

During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, recruiters would distribute cassettes and leaflets at mosques, al-Hadlaq says. Now, “Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are playing the most important role,” he said in an interview at his Riyadh office.

‘Be Nice’

And such media can have a rapid impact, he said. “Some of these young guys aren’t even practicing Muslims, and suddenly they decide to go.”

As al-Qaeda becomes more professional at communications online, it’s getting harder to counter their message, al-Hadlaq said. “You need professionals who have a lot of knowledge about Islam, who know extremist jargon, and who know how to reply and refute and to be nice while dealing with these issues. In my experience, attacking people and insulting them doesn’t help in persuading them.”

He says sheikhs who take part in the online argument against al-Qaeda often receive death threats.

Al-Anazi, who was once receptive to the jihadist message, says he’s grateful to the rehab center for giving him a different perspective. “I think it’s God’s blessing that I didn’t go to fight,” he said.

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