January 4, 2011 | The Weekly Standard

Saudis Erroneously Blame Gitmo for Jihadism

On Saudi television last week, a former Guantanamo detainee named Jabir al Fayfi claimed that he and his fellow Saudi detainees were radicalized during their time in American custody. According to a write-up on alriyadh.com, al Fayfi claimed “that the weakness of religious knowledge among the Saudi prisoners in Guantanamo Bay made them easy prey for the promotion of militant ideas, which were presented to them through lectures, like harming the Kingdom and excommunicating everyone in it.”

Fayfi attributed extremist views to the “Moroccans and Europeans who were imprisoned in the same cells” and said that they radicalized their Saudi brethren. “Al Fayfi claimed that his beliefs were moderate and not militant until he arrived to Guantanamo,” alriyadh.com reports.

This is a Saudi-sponsored, anti-Gitmo myth.

Al Fayfi, like most of his fellow Saudis held at Guantanamo, was radicalized by Saudi sheikhs. It was in Saudi Arabia, not Cuba, that he first learned the ways of jihad. For instance, the memorandum created for al Fayfi’s combatant status review tribunal (CSRT) at Gitmo contains the following allegation:

Detainee [al Fayfi] was recruited at a mosque in Saudi Arabia to participate in Jihad.

Al Fayfi tried to deny that he was formally recruited for jihad, as well as many of the more substantive allegations against him (e.g. his ties to al Qaeda), during his CSRT. Still, al Fayfi conceded that he was convinced to wage jihad by a Saudi sheikh. Al Fafyi claimed (emphasis added):

I do not know al Qaida, of course. I have no relations with al Qaida. As for the Taliban, I went to see them according to the Fatwa, which says if they applied the conditions in the Fatwa, I will go for Jihad with them. I went to see if they applied these conditions and this is all in my file. The Fatwa is photocopied from Pakistani newspaper in Arabic. It has been declared in a Pakistani Newspaper and the associated Scholar’s name is also there. He is a Saudi. All of the details of the above account are available in my file.

So even in the context of al Fayfi’s self-serving denial he conceded that a Saudi scholar authored a fatwa that convinced him to take up jihad long before he was ever detained at Guantanamo.

The Saudis are, however, happy to have al Fayfi lie about the real influences that led him down the jihadist path on state-controlled television. Why?

The Saudis have been embarrassed by their inability to keep more than two dozen former Guantanamo detainees from returning to terrorism. For years, the Saudis lobbied the U.S. for the release of approximately 138 Saudis who were detained in Cuba. The Bush administration finally acquiesced, deciding to take a chance on the Saudi rehabilitation program, which utilizes bribes (cars, jobs, cash, a new wife), familial shame, monitoring by the Saudi security state, art therapy and religious reeducation to convince jihadists to foreswear al Qaeda. The program does not address the detainees’ anti-Americanism, but about 120 Saudi Gitmo detainees were returned to their native country and most of them were enrolled in it.

The Saudis long promised that the program would work on these men. But by early 2009 it was clear that the Saudis were not having nearly as much success in this regard as they claimed. Many of the top leadership positions in the newly formed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), for instance, were filled with former Gitmo detainees. And the Saudis were forced to concede that 11 of the kingdom’s 85 most wanted terrorists were once held in Cuba. What’s worse (from the Saudis’ perspective): the former Gitmo detainees are hell-bent on attacking the Saudi royals and especially counterterrorism officials inside the kingdom.

So, what have the Saudis decided to do? Blame America and Gitmo.

Al Fayfi’s bogus story is not the first time the Saudis have spread such tall tales. The Saudis have made former Gitmo detainee Mohammed al Awfi available to the western press to explain why the Saudi rehabilitation program didn’t initially work on him. Al Awfi claims that he endured James Bond-style torture in Afghanistan and couldn’t get over his anger. So, he fled to Yemen where he helped found AQAP before turning himself back into authorities under suspicious circumstances. There is no reason to believe al Awfi’s story, as it was clearly inspired by the Bond film Casino Royale.

The truth of the matter is that most of the Saudi detainees once held at Gitmo were initially convinced to wage jihad by Saudi sheikhs. That is an uncomfortable fact for the Saudi royals, especially as they try to undo the sheikhs’ work now that their students want to kill Saudi princes. At least the kingdom is taking measures to combat this threat.

All of this leads to one final point: Western press outlets should treat all Saudi claims about the successes of their jihadist rehabilitation program with great skepticism. Late last year, for instance, the Saudis claimed that al Fayfi gave them the intelligence that was used to disrupt AQAP’s cargo plane bomb plot.

There are good reasons to doubt that this is true. The facts don’t add up. For example, al Fayfi was arrested in Yemen more than one month before the Saudis claim he turned himself in. But the story does make the Saudis, and their rehabilitation program, look better. It makes it seem that the Saudis have achieved a significant counterterrorism success in the midst of a growing list of failures.

Ultimately, those failures are attributable to the Saudi clerical establishment – not Gitmo.

(Note: Thank you to my FDD colleague Steve Miller for his translation of the article on alriyadh.com.)

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The full article is available here.