They Tried to Make Mohammed al-Awfi Go to Rehab

He said "no, no, no."


On Nov. 9, 2007, after years of incarceration at the detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Mohammed al-Awfi and more than a dozen other suspected militants boarded a plane bound for their home country, Saudi Arabia. Awfi had been caught shortly after the 9/11 attacks by Pakistani authorities with more than $10,000 in cash on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, according to the U.S. Defense Department. He was suspected of supporting terrorist activity.

When the men finally arrived home in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, they were likely greeted by members of the Saudi royal family, as is customary for ex-Gitmo detainees. "Welcome back to the fold" is the implicit message. But after reuniting with their own families, they were transferred to local prisons.

Because there was no evidence Awfi had engaged in violence, the Saudis did not consider him a security risk at home. They transferred him to the Care Center, a rehabilitation program for Islamist extremists in a desert resort town just outside Riyadh.

"Awfi had so much hate for the Americans," says psychologist Turki al-Otayan, who was one of the first to evaluate the former Guantánamo detainee. "’They destroyed me,’ he would say. ‘They tortured me. They killed my friends.’"

The Care Center was established by the Saudi Ministry of Interior in early 2007 as a way to re-educate extremists in nonviolent Islamic principles and reconnect them with their social networks; the aim was to deter them and their relatives from joining militant groups in the future. The center is run by an advisory committee of academics who earned advanced degrees in the West and Islamic scholars who studied in Saudi Arabia.

The center has been touted in the West as a model program that could inspire other nations grappling with a rise in militant extremism. A recent Foreign Affairs article, for instance, touted the program as "a pioneer in rehabilitation efforts," explaining that it has inspired "governments elsewhere in the Middle East and throughout Europe and Southeast Asia [to launch] similar programs for neo-Nazis, far-right militants, narcoterrorists, and Islamist terrorists." But some analysts wonder if it’s the kind of program that could only work in Saudi Arabia.

One thing is clear: The Care Center’s advisory committee is charged with deprogramming not only Saudi detainees released from Guantánamo, but also Saudi extremists suspected by Riyadh of planning attacks in places like Iraq. (Those arrested for planning and executing attacks inside the kingdom are detained separately and indefinitely, without trial, according to Human Rights Watch.) 

So far, Saudi officials say, nearly 300 men have completed the Care Center program — more than 100 of them from Guantánamo. Nearly 80 percent of these have gone on to lead normal lives. But among the remaining 20 percent are men who, upon their release from the program, later formed a group called al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is inspiring and launching attacks in the United States; the group recently claimed responsibility for training the Christmas Day "underpants bomber."

It’s that 20 percent that worries U.S. officials.

Back in late 2007, Awfi and his fellow Guantánamo detainees spent several months in the Care Center, taking courses in Islamic law, history, anger management, and art therapy. No longer detainees, they were renamed, in the official parlance of the program, "beneficiaries." They played ping-pong, ate lavish meals of lamb and rice, shared a locker room, and prayed together five times a day. Psychologist Otayan helped Awfi reintegrate with his family.

"He would come to me and say, ‘My son, Sami, doesn’t like me when I come to visit. What can I do?,’" Otayan says. "On another occasion, he told me one of his brothers had been killed in Afghanistan. He said he wanted to marry his brother’s wife, to protect his brother’s children. I told him it would hurt his own wife’s feelings if he took a second wife. I told him to relax and be calm. He followed my advice."

By early 2008, Awfi had done his time at the center and was released. Then, during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, he had a revelation of sorts, according to a jihadi publication and his own subsequent confession: He decided he wanted to "glorify Islam" with violence and "join" his brother, whom he said was martyred in Afghanistan.

So, along with a handful of other Saudis, he fled to Yemen. Awfi eventually surfaced in a video in January 2009, dressed in a Che Guevara-style beret and fatigues. He appeared with three other men — one Saudi and two Yemenis — to announce the formation of AQAP, the group that since has claimed responsibility for killing tourists in Yemen, for attempting to assassinate a Saudi official — and for that Christmas Day attack.

"We warn our fellow prisoners (from Guantánamo) about this Care program," Awfi says to the camera. "We were used. … They tried to lead us away from Islam. But thank God, we were able to escape their power."

It’s often said that hard-core al Qaeda members are more difficult to rehabilitate than younger, less entrenched militants. That’s generally true, says Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

"If you look at how somebody got into this, it’ll tell you a lot about how he will get out of it," says Boucek, who has researched and written widely about the Saudi rehabilitation program. "The guys motivated by religion benefit from religious discussions. The guys who got here through criminality, you’d better address their social needs. The guys who got here through bad social networks — separate them from these social networks."

A typical day at the center, then, touches on all of these aspects. There are robust debates about the meaning of jihad, intense sessions on how to negotiate, and therapeutic exercises like role-playing. But special attention is given to each beneficiary’s particular needs, Otayan says. Guys like Awfi were "tough," he says. "They want to be famous. They think they know everything about Islam. But they don’t know anything." So in addition to the classroom, members of the advisory committee take great pains to ingratiate themselves with the beneficiary’s family.

"All the Saudis [on the committee] will tell you that if you want to make any progress, you need the family on your side," Boucek says. "A lot of these guys who get recruited and then radicalized, one of the first things that happens is they get separated from their families." So officials work hard to reposition a militant inside his tribe, probably the single most important element of Saudi life. When a beneficiary is released, authorities will go so far as offering him a dowry of up to $20,000 to encourage him to marry. In return, his relatives must sign a pledge that they are responsible for his actions.

After Awfi appeared in the now-infamous AQAP video, Otayan and other members of the advisory committee decided to pay his family a visit."The family thought the security forces would come to the house, search the house, and arrest them — like they would in any other Arab country," Otayan says. "But then we told them, ‘Mohammed is our son. He has made a mistake. We don’t hate him personally; we hate his behavior.’ The family was shocked. We said, ‘For his protection, and for your own protection … try to help us.’ This is how the contact — the telephone calls — started. When Mohammed called his wife, she would pass information to the security forces."

What happened next is unclear. Either Awfi’s relatives convinced him to turn himself in to Saudi authorities, or he was sold to Yemeni authorities by the Yemeni tribes who’d been hiding him. (A third, less likely, theory has Awfi pretending to surrender but continuing to work as a secret agent of AQAP, to test how far a repentant militant could get. Months later, another AQAP operative surrendered. This man then attempted to assassinate Saudi counterterrorism chief Mohammad bin Naif with explosives reportedly hidden in his rectum. The bomb was faulty, though. The prince survived, but the attacker did not.)

Whichever scenario is true, Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen and a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, says the conversation with Awfi’s family probably wasn’t as benevolent as Otayan makes it sound. "It seems that they put a lot of pressure on the women," Johnsen says. Pressure that he says might have sounded something like this: "It’s a real shame that there are no men to protect the women in your family. Bad things can happen to women if they don’t have male guardians around to protect them."

Either way, after Awfi was brought into custody, Said Ali al-Shihri, the other Saudi in the AQAP video, moved his entire family from comfortable Saudi Arabia to rugged Yemen. Johnsen says this not only shows how much freedom of movement AQAP has in Yemen, but also that Shihri didn’t want his family to be "subjected to the same kind of pressure" that Awfi’s was.

Boucek agrees that the pressure on families can be great, but he says it’s more about friendly co-optation than draconian control. "In a society where you get everything from the government, it can be very powerful when the government comes and asks you to do something," he says. "I think [families] understand the message being sent: You have a duty and responsibility, and we’ll take care of you. We’re doing our part; you need to do your part." In the end, this is what worked for Mohammed al-Awfi.

These days he’s back in Saudi Arabia, living with his family under a kind of house arrest in a tony Riyadh apartment. He reportedly provides intelligence on his colleagues in AQAP. In a recent interview with the BBC, he claims he was coerced into joining the group and making the video. He also has publicly denounced terrorism on Saudi state TV. At the end of the statement, he thanks his mentors at the Care Center — a place many agree that for all its flaws is a Saudi solution to a Saudi problem, though perhaps not necessarily a model that would work anywhere else.

Kelly McEvers covers Saudi Arabia and Yemen for National Public Radio.