July 13, 2008

The pampered terrorists

The pampered terrorists

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 13/07/2008

Q.What's the best way to stop terrorism? a) Political intervention b) Torture c) Pampering. The Saudi government believes it's found the answer. Anthony Horowitz reports from Riyadh. Photographs by Ziyah Gafic

Ahmed al-Shyea, aged 24, is a suicide bomber - not that that's what he would call himself, even though he admits that, on Christmas Day 2004, he drove an oil tanker loaded with explosives into the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. Nine people died and 60 more were injured in the blast. And al-Shyea escaped with horrific injuries - his face was described as looking like boiled tar.

Photograph by Ziyah Gafic
Ahmed al-Shyea at the Hayar care centre, Riyadh. Once he is released and gets married, he’ll receive $33,000

I met him recently in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - a small, rather delicate and softly spoken man. He has very few fingers. Those that remain are gnarled and fused together. Part of his nose has melted. He has a crooked smile because one side is narrower than the other. And yet, for all this, he is surprisingly, even amazingly, handsome. He speaks to me with good-natured patience.

As I take notes, there are two thoughts in my head. Why is this man sitting in a pleasant, palm-sheltered courtyard, drinking tea with me when he really ought to be in jail? And should I believe a single word he says?

I came to Riyadh to visit a unique prison for young terrorists which stands a few miles outside the city. But be warned. The words 'prison' and 'terrorist' may not mean what you think. It is part of a rehabilitation programme, costing $30million a year, aimed at using sport, culture, psychology and education to turn angry young men into model citizens… positive brainwashing, as they are happy to admit. The programme has drawn admiration from around the world. Our own Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was there earlier this year and sounds enthusiastic enough on his blog… although somehow I can't see him trying to export their methods to the UK.

Riyadh is not an attractive place. It's a sprawling, concrete mess where the traffic is permanently jammed… although where it's heading is anyone's guess. The only place I'd want to go is away. Its most spectacular building, the Faisaliah (built by that nice bin Laden corporation), towers over the city, a golden sphere trapped in a silver pyramid and the work of an architect who may have been slightly deranged. Down the road, the Kingdom Tower is straight out of Tolkien's Mordor. There's just one reason the beleaguered British motorist might want to live here: petrol is 5p a litre.

The city has seen more than its fair share of terrorism and the signs are everywhere. Whoever has the franchise in razor wire and concrete defences must be a rich man. Metal detectors surround every doorway. The various ministries all look like low-rise prisons, walled off, with few windows presenting themselves as targets to the street. Four hundred soldiers patrol the Riyadh oil refinery, a wasteland of shimmering steel, machine guns and 40-degree heat.

I am invited to the HQ of the Special Forces for Counter Terrorism where, in a huge, dusty compound, I watch men in body armour and black balaclavas leap off towers, storm mock-up houses, hurl grenades and wrestle each other into the sand. 'The strategy of fighting terror is pre-emptive action,' their colonel tells me, adding that his soldiers have prevented 182 al-Qa'eda operations in the past five years. And across the road, just opposite the main gate, is a reminder of the ever-present danger. I am shown a building blown apart two years ago by a group of men waiting with a car bomb. In that incident, only the terrorists were killed.

Saudi Arabia is not just a target. It is also a fertile recruiting ground for international terror. Osama bin Laden was born there. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11 came from there. It has supplied more foreign fighters in Iraq than any other nation. And although just about everyone within the kingdom speaks out against violence, it's all too easy to glimpse the skull beneath the skin.

I spent an evening at an English class at the British Council in Riyadh, talking to a group of Saudis, some of them as young as 16. These were intelligent, well-educated people who made all the right noises about peace and friendship. And yet sympathy for bin Laden was palpable - not one person was prepared to denounce him, or al-Qa'eda, as evil.

Take the case of a young man who told me that 19 of his relatives had been killed by al-Qa'eda at a wedding in Jordan. And yet, chillingly, he was quite happy to dismiss his dead family with these words:

'What is more important? A few relatives or one-and-a-half million people in Gaza?'
He was referring, of course, to the Palestinians trapped there - but that's the most tacit apology for terrorism that I've ever heard. And it got worse. One person in the room was adamant that bin Laden didn't exist, that he had been invented by the Americans as an excuse to attack Afghanistan. Three of them recounted, with straight faces, that old chestnut about 9/11 being an American conspiracy.

Admittedly, this was a small, random sample of Saudi youth. But if you're going to hear these views at this level, how will it be if you talk to the poor and the uneducated? The Saudi authorities repeatedly tell the world that they are waging a battle of hearts and minds against terrorism. They may be having some success with the minds but it seems clear that they're still a long way from the hearts.

This is the background against which the prison and the rehabilitation programme have been built.

The prison is in Hayar, on the edge of Riyadh, just a few minutes from the main highway. From the very start, it doesn't look like a prison. Even the razor wire and the truck, with its mounted 7.9mm machine gun, manage to be discreet. The unarmed security guards are indistinguishable from the young people they're guarding - indeed, the two groups often play football together. The five compounds, strictly segregated, have relatively low walls and were not purpose-built. They are in fact privately owned and house around 30 'beneficiaries', which is what the inmates are called.

They certainly benefit from accommodation which, if not quite luxurious, would certainly raise no complaint from, say, a backpacking student. There's a lawn (patchy, but still impressive in this desert setting), a ping-pong table and table football. One door opens unexpectedly onto a decent-sized indoor swimming pool.

The bedrooms have neither locks nor bars. There is a comfortable television room, although the choice of programmes is limited to sport, news and religion. In the kitchen, one fridge is loaded with Holsten - not beer, of course, but strawberry fizz. The other is well stocked with Twix, Kit-Kats and Mars bars. The beneficiaries can help themselves.

They don't cook for themselves. A full-time chef prepares three meals a day and says that he's had no complaints. 'The beneficiaries are our guests and we have to be hospitable and feed them well.' He's certainly doing a good job. The lunch that I shared with them consisted of roast quail with rice, stuffed peppers, an assortment of salads, delicious chilled fruit and mint tea. Not quite the sort of fare that the inmates of Belmarsh or Feltham might expect.

And what, you might be asking, do you have to do to get admitted to this wonderful place?

Photograph by Ziyah Gafic
Another 'guest' relaxes by the pool

Mohammad and Yousef are both 23, slender and immature with beards that don't quite do the job. They were caught trying to enter Iraq from Syria to fight the Americans, and it is quite possible that they, too, might have ended up behind the wheel of a truck packed with explosives, although they both deny it. 'I wanted to help innocent people, not kill them,' Yousef says, speaking through a translator.

Both of them were radicalised by images of Iraq on television; it is impossible to overstate the impact that the invasion had on young Saudi minds. 'I tell you, this Bush will burn in hell, he has caused so much pain to people,' says Khaled al-Maeena, the influential editor of Arab News. Referring to these would-be jihadists, he continues: 'Most of them are young people who are misguided. They are recruited by Mr Bush's PR programme.'

Mohammad and Yousef were 21 when they were caught and, like everyone at the rehabilitation centre, they spent time in a Saudi prison - three years and eight months - before they were seen by an assessment panel and transferred. More than 100 of the beneficiaries have arrived here after time at Guantanamo Bay. 'Here they treat me like a father treats his son,' Yousef tells me. 'Their motive is to correct me, not to punish me.' They are words I will hear over and over again.

A typical day at Hayar starts at 4am with Fajr, morning prayer. It continues with meals, resting and more prayer until later afternoon when the heat subsides and activities begin. Sport and culture are high on the agenda. There are two classrooms and a range of studies - from art therapy and anger management to the correct interpretation of jihad. It's a shame that Mohammad Sidique Khan and his friends never attended. They would have learnt, for a start, that jihad demands permission from both parent and government… and the 7 July bombings in London were therefore directly against the laws of Islam.

Mohammad al-Fawzan certainly knows where he went wrong. A former security guard in the Ministry of Transport, he is a graduate of the programme and now lectures other young Saudis on his mistakes. He also saw images of Iraq on television and rushed off to join the conflict.'I used to be a normal, healthy young person,' he tells me. 'The pictures shocked me so much, I had to act.'

His anger was fuelled by material on the internet, which has become a major recruiting agent for al-Qa'eda, and he made his way to the border where, fortunately, he was arrested by the American soldiers he had gone to kill. He spent three years in prison before he was sent to Hayar. 'It was like being reborn,' he says. 'Now, when I see pictures from Iraq, I have the knowledge to control myself. I have to be angry… yes. I feel guilty about my Muslim brothers being killed. But I know it's not my job.'

Al-Fawzan is a big bear of a man in his mid-thirties with round, startled eyes that always seem to be saying, 'What's going on here, then?' He watches DVDs and television soaps to relax and when I ask him what is his favourite film, he snaps back, 'Scary Movie 1, 2 and 3.' It seems an appropriate choice.

I had tea with al-Fawzan in his pleasant, spacious one-bedroom flat which he was given - yes, given - when he completed the programme. He showed me his lavishly decorated bedroom with its pink and gold walls and a bed that would most certainly be suitable for 1001 Arabian nights. He hopes his wife will be as beautiful as the room, he jokes. For al-Fawzan is about to get married - his wife has been chosen for him. And when that happy day arrives, the Saudi government will pay him a dowry of $33,000. The car parked outside was also provided by them. 'I deserve it,' he insists. 'It's not to reward me for what I did. It's to reward me for changing my mind.'

Young Yousef, who is still at the centre, says much the same thing when I challenge him. Is he, in effect, being paid off? 'First of all, my ideas changed before I learnt about the money. But even if they didn't help me, I'd still say the same. It's normal for the government to help people in Saudi Arabia. But they are not buying me.'

Even so, it is hard to accept that convicted criminals, would-be terrorists, should receive such largesse. Ahmed al-Shayea will also receive $33,000 when he marries soon. Of course, the Saudis can afford it. Oil revenue is currently bringing in one billion dollars a day. So every time you fill your car, you pamper a terrorist. That's what it feels like.

But it does make a certain sense… at least, at a pragmatic level. Major General Yousef al-Mansour is a large, avuncular man ('Call me Papa Yousef') with a neat moustache and a manner that is reasonableness itself. He is the supervisor of the care centre and explains it to me as if he has already been asked the question a thousand times; which, undoubtedly, he has.

'Let's take it step by step,' he says. 'A boy goes to Afghanistan for jihad and it's a bad mistake. He's arrested and goes to Guantanamo for several years. Now he's got to start his life all over again. I want to put him back on the right track. Our psychiatrists say, if you don't help him, if you just send him out, next time he'll be more dangerous. Beware of him. Bad people will surround him. They are waiting for him.' The Saudis see young, impressionable minds - like the kids I met at the British Council - as al-Qa'eda's primary target. 'These people must be helped. If you leave them, they will be easy prey for al-Qa'eda… We can't leave them without money or someone else will come…What we're trying to do is to make sure they can protect themselves.'

Khaled al-Maeena, who describes himself as religiously conservative but politically liberal, is in no doubt. 'I think [these payments] can be justified in the larger scheme of things in this part of the world where magnanimity, forgiveness and mercy will quell the hatred and desire of any person to seek revenge. If you wear a Western hat, you say, ''My God! What is this? It's too crazy!" But it goes a long way towards preventing people taking certain steps.'

It's a question of context. The money - buying your way out of trouble, perhaps - is simply not British. But then the Saudis also pay their students to go to university. When a man is sent to prison, his family is given special payments. They have a whole tradition of Taubah, which translates as 'a chance to return to the rightful place'. As Major General al-Mansour puts it, talking about his charges: 'The government is the father. They are the sons. That is the Islamic point of view.'

And the truth is, the programme does seem to be working. It's early days, only a year-and-a-half, but so far no one has re-offended. Beneficiaries are occasionally sent home while they are still serving their sentences - the programme places huge emphasis on bringing families back together - and not one has absconded. And when I ask about punishments within the compound, one of the teachers tells me: 'Thank God, we never need them. Sometimes we sit down, man-to-man. And some of the beneficiaries may be on anti-depressants for a time… but they stop soon after they come here.'

It's also true that despite all the security arrangements in Riyadh, there hasn't been an attempted terrorist incident for 17 months. The place actually feels completely safe. Of course, there are many reasons for this. Al-Qa'eda is said to be weaker than ever, its finances strangled, its organisation dismantled. But above all, the Saudis believe they are winning the war of ideas.

Even so, I left the rehabilitation centre with certain misgivings. My problem was that nobody was prepared to take responsibility for their actions - and without responsibility, how can there be true redemption? 'We are not terrorists. We went to help our brothers in Iraq,' Yousef told me, echoing the protestations of al-Fawzan: 'If I hadn't seen the film [of Iraq], it would never have happened. The media were responsible. The guy who made the film was responsible.'

But more unsettling than either of these is the man I began with, Ahmed al-Shayea. The way he tells his story, he wasn't a suicide bomber at all: 'I was tricked,' he says. He admits that he went to Iraq to fight jihad but claims that he had no knowledge that he was carrying a bomb. He says he was instructed to deliver a truck to some unnamed al-Qa'eda supporters, even though he had never driven an HGV, and that he was puzzled when his two colleagues sprang out and ran away. He didn't notice that he was outside an embassy. And for reasons that he can't explain, he continued driving anyway.

Perhaps I'm wrong to doubt him. To be fair, he has been examined by both the American and Saudi authorities and after 20 months in prison, he was rehabilitated and is now learning English and continuing his college education. But when I ask him about the nine people who were killed and the 60 people who were injured, he stops me in a way that is a little too clever by half. 'There were 61 people injured,' he says. 'I was one of them.' And a little later, he elaborates: 'I always confirm that I was one of the victims. I was manipulated.'

Well, yes. But nine families lost husbands, wives, children. As far as I know, none of them were ever given money or cars. And isn't the whole victim mentality the very cornerstone of international terrorism? 'You think we are the aggressors. That is the number one misunderstanding. We are not. We are the victims.' Those are the words of Dr Abdul Aziz Rantisi, one of the founders of Hamas. 'The truth is, the whole Muslim world is the victim of international terrorism, engineered by America.' There speaks Osama bin Laden himself.

I would be more sceptical even now but for one encounter I had on my last day in Saudi Arabia that put everything else into perspective. Juma Mohammad al-Dossari is 34, but could be five years younger, and when I first met him he looked more American than Arabic, in baggy shorts, polo shirt and baseball cap. His English is excellent. He was actually working in Bloomington, Indiana, on the day of 9/11 but tells me that he had to flee the country soon afterwards, fearing for his life. He clearly didn't look American enough.

Juma spent four months at the rehabilitation centre after he returned from Guantanamo Bay. And how long had he been there? 'Not too long,' he smiles. 'Six years.' He was arrested leaving Afghanistan in January 2002 when the Taliban was in retreat from US forces. He claims he had been sent there to photograph mosques and orphanages for an imam. He is not a terrorist. He is another victim.

Why should I believe him any more than I believed Ahmed al-Shayea? First of all, he is very measured. He inspires confidence. He has driven 600 kilometres to meet me ('I think I should tell my story to everyone. I want to tell people… keep your heart clean.'). All of which might mean nothing. But there is one indisputable fact. After six years of imprisonment and torture as well as over 1,500 interrogations, he was never actually charged with anything.

I spoke to Juma's attorney in New York. Joshua Colangelo says that he is 'horrified' by what has happened to him and deeply frustrated that under US law, there can be no legal redress. He corroborates every point of Juma's story, which has also been confirmed by the Pentagon, by the FBI and by former soldiers from Guantanamo.

Juma himself won't talk about the torture. 'You take me back to dark days that I don't want to remember.' His voice fades. 'I don't feel well talking about this.' But when we meet a second time, for coffee at the Faisaliah (this time he is in formal Arab dress), a few more details slip out. He tells me that he spent three-and-a-half years of his time at Guantanamo in solitary confinement. For 61 days, he was kept strapped to a bed. He was in a tiny, dimly lit cell and was kept close to freezing with no mattress or blankets. His father's death was sprung on him as a surprise - 'Hey, 261, your father's dead!' Very slowly, he adds more to this grim picture. He mentions electrocution. He admits to 14 suicide attempts. For the last one, he cut his femoral artery in the shower. He was punished by being given more solitary.

The rehabilitation centre confirms that on his return, Juma was in a very bad way. He was emaciated, unable to cope with stress and stayed in bed for days on end. In terms of his mental and physical health, they have certainly worked wonders on him. But it's his attitude that really astonishes me. He maintains that his only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I ask him how he can possibly explain or excuse what was done to him.

'I think it was an overreaction after 9/11. A great country [America] should not be like this. They should control themselves. But that tragedy changed the whole world. It made the wise man lose his brain.' Does he really feel no anger at all? 'If I try to take revenge, I will just torture myself. I have to focus on my life. The past is the past. We can't live there.'

The Saudis went to great lengths to prepare my visit to their rehabilitation centre. They're proud of it and they're doubtless using it for propaganda purposes. I know that I was only shown a small part of it, and it was only what they wanted me to see. But meeting Juma Mohammad al-Dossari, who clearly feels less angry about Guantanamo than I do, I cannot doubt the effectiveness of what they are doing. Even Ahmed al-Shayea is trying to do his best, by his own standards. 'Let me say this. Allah saved me from dying to send a message, to show the real face of al-Qa'eda. I am that message. I am proof that al-Qa'eda is wrong.'

'Nothing is easier than to denounce the evil-doer. Nothing is more difficult than to understand him,' wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Possessed. When we look at the largely vindictive (and ineffective) prison system in the UK, a generation that seems to be out of control and a series of repressive laws that have only undermined our own democracy, it's clear that we have nothing to crow about. The Saudi rehabilitation programme may not be the answer but it is, undoubtedly, an answer and it would surely be wrong to dismiss it out of hand.

And it raises an interesting moral question. If four months in relative comfort followed by a car and a flat and a cash payment could have stopped Mohammad Sidique Khan and saved 56 lives in London, would we have decided it was too revolting, or would we simply have gone along with it? That, it seems to me, is the unenviable choice that the Saudis have made.

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