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Saudis use cash and counseling to fight terrorism

About 3,200 former militants have completed the ambitious program aimed at persuading them to disavow violent Islamist ideologies.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent / August 21, 2008

Khalid al-Hubayshi went through the Saudi reeducation program for militant Islamists and now lives in Jeddah.

Caryle Murphy

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Khalid al-Hubayshi's career as an Islamic warrior came to an end with the siege of Tora Bora in Afghanistan. Ordered to retreat, he walked through snow for six days. He was captured by Pakistani forces, delivered to the Americans, and relocated to a cage in Cuba.

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The young Saudi's break with militant jihadi ideology was not as swift. It started in Guantánamo, but ripened only after he returned home in 2005 to an unexpected reception. Mr. Hubayshi was treated to a mix of forgiveness, theological reeducation, psychological counseling, prison time, and cash.

With this carrot-and-stick approach, the Saudis aimed to bring Hubayshi back into the fold of society and ensure, as much as possible, that he left behind old ways of thinking.

His treatment is part of an ambitious rehabilitation program for all Guantánamo returnees and other militant inmates that is designed to counter the ideology motivating many young Muslims who have turned to violence at home and abroad.

Started in 2004, the program seeks to convince prisoners to abandon what officials call "deviant" or "misguided" beliefs. It is run by a committee that includes a religious subcommittee of about 100 clerics, a psychological-social subcommittee of about 30 psychologists and social scientists, and a security subcommittee, which determines suitability for release and monitors ex-prisoners.

It seems to have worked for Hubayshi, Guantánamo prisoner No. 155, who now lives with his new wife in Jeddah, where he works as a power plant technician. In a recent interview, he came across as affable and surprisingly free of rancor toward his former captors, and even appreciative of his own government's approach.

"We hope you learn from the past and we are going to take care of you," is how Hubayshi summed up this approach, which was extended to all 120 Saudis released so far from Guantánamo.

Even though the program has its critics in Saudi Arabia, many complain that financial incentives for the former militants are unjust, the Saudis have not gone soft – they are building five new prisons. But they say they cannot defeat terrorism by force alone.

When dealing with ideology, "locking him up is not enough," says Turki M. al-Otayan, assistant professor of psychology at the Interior Ministry's King Fahd Security College and coordinator of the psychological-social subcommittee. "We have to fix his mind, and change his emotions [in order] to directly change his behavior."

Other countries, including Egypt, Singapore, Yemen, and Algeria – and the US military in Iraq – have launched similar programs, with varying degrees of success.

The Saudi program is among the most comprehensive. And while it's too soon to claim long-term success, officials say results are promising. About half of the approximately 3,200 prisoners who have gone through the program have left prison. Those who have backslid into militancy are "very few, I am sure less than 5 [percent], if it's not 1 percent," says Abdurrahman al-Hadlaq, director general of ideological security at the Ministry of Interior.