February 16, 2016 | Foreign Policy

The Problem With Saudi Arabia’s ‘Terrorist’ Re-education

Co-written by Eric Eikenberry and James Suzano

On Jan. 2, Saudi Arabia conducted a mass execution of 47 individuals convicted on terrorism charges. Among those executed was a prominent dissident Shiite cleric, as well as a Sunni ideologue for al Qaeda. The Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was a harsh critic of the Saudi government and a lead supporter of demonstrations that gripped the Shiite-majority district of Qatif in 2011. His execution escalated already heightened regional tensions, sparking a row between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has seen the downgrading of diplomatic relations and further volatile protests.

Lost amid this controversy was the question of how Saudi Arabia draws the line between dissent and incitement of terrorism — in short, it often doesn’t. Activists, nonviolent dissidents, and human rights defenders all run the risk of being labeled “terrorists” by Riyadh. Recently, the government even appears to have sent one internationally recognized human rights defender to a terrorist rehabilitation center designed for al Qaeda sympathizers.

On Dec. 9, 2015, progressive Saudis celebrated the release of Mohammed al-Bajadi, a highly regarded human rights activist who had been imprisoned since 2011. Bajadi co-founded the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), which documented human rights abuses while advocating for significant governing reforms, including the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, before its dissolution by court order in March 2013. Authorities imprisoned him on a number of charges, among them founding an unlicensed organization and defaming Saudi Arabia’s reputation. Amnesty International has labeled him a “prisoner of conscience.”

But other well-sourced Saudis claimed that his path to release wasn’t quite so direct. Multiple members of the Saudi reformist community, and Al-Bahrain Al-Youm, a Gulf-focused news agency, wrote that he underwent a pre-release stay in al-munasiha, or “counseling.” Saudi human rights defenders told us that Bajadi received this counseling at the Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care, the kingdom’s showcase terrorist rehabilitation center.

Established in 2006, the center is a feather in the cap for its namesake, the current crown prince and interior minister, who parlayed a campaign to root out domestic al Qaeda cells in the mid-2000s into favored access to the Obama administration. Under the guidance of the Interior Ministry, religious militants and their sympathizers at the center receive ideological counseling in the form of direct re-education from — and structured debate with — approved Islamic scholars. Additionally, the center provides prisoners with psychological care and vocational training, with the aim of eventually reintegrating the onetime extremists into Saudi society.

Saudi officials use the center as a PR tool to burnish the kingdom’s counterterrorism credentials, though the program has occasionally met with skepticism. A 2009 piece in Time described it as the “Betty Ford Center for terrorists,” and in 2015 the New York Post portrayed its appointments as “cushy.”

A more substantive critique, articulated in a 2010 Rand report, noted that the program is heavy on the “ideology” and light on the “re-education.” The program’s counselors reportedly seek less to disabuse imprisoned militants of their hard-line views than to reinforce the primacy of the Saudi state in determining the appropriate use of violence.


These programs may also fail to keep determined extremists from re-engaging in terrorism following their release. When IS claimed credit for a suicide bombing last October at an Ismaili mosque in the southern Saudi city of Najran that killed two and injured 25, the bomber was described in mainstream accounts as a graduate of the Mohammed bin Nayef Center. In September 2014, Saudi police arrested 88 suspected al Qaeda operatives; 59 of them, according to a CBS News report, had gone through the reform regimen before their release. Several months later, 47 of the 77 individuals detained for their alleged connection to an Islamic State attack on a Saudi Shiite mosque were found to be former inmates of the center, according to a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council. The figures can be read as an embarrassing admission by the government and a worrying indictment of the center’s methods and effectiveness.

Bajadi would be a curious candidate for terrorist rehabilitation, however. Before the 2013 court order shut down ACPRA, its members had advocated for principles that al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s partisans eschew, including greater elected representation and granting women the right to drive.

Saudi rights defenders we spoke to claimed that at least two other activists had also spent time at the center, which would mark a troubling trend. True, physical conditions there are reportedly more pleasant than those of typical prisons in the kingdom: They include access to a swimming pool, art therapy, and a sparsely guarded prison yard. But the alleged housing of human rights defenders at the facility seems emblematic of a broad failing in Saudi Arabia’s strategy for combating terrorism.

At the core of that failure is the kingdom’s conflation of peaceful dissent with violent extremism, a trend that has risen along with bin Nayef’s star. In 2011, as the prince assumed more power within the Interior Ministry, the Saudi government began to try human rights activists in its anti-terrorism tribunal, known as the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). In March 2014, the Interior Ministry, under bin Nayef’s leadership, announced major new counterterrorism regulations in partnership with other ministries. These regulations equated several basic elements of free expression or rights advocacy with terrorism. They also criminalized other peaceful activities, such as participating in demonstrations, signing petitions, advocating atheism, or damaging the state’s reputation.

This catch-all approach has engendered a sustained campaign of arrests by bin Nayef’s ministry, one that is systematically decimating the nonviolent human rights community and stacking the deck against any future moderation within society. As one anonymous source informed Human Rights Watch in 2014, “Just talking to you now is considered terrorism — I could be prosecuted as a terrorist for this conversation.”

To add to the irony of all this, many of the activists dragged before the terrorism tribunal were working to end radicalization within their communities.

In July 2014, an SCC judge invoked anti-terrorism regulations to sentence human rights attorney Waleed Abu al-Khair, a vocal proponent of peaceful political change, to 15 years in prison on a range of vague charges, such as “inflaming public opinion” and “harming public order.” Abdullah al-Hamid, an imprisoned ACPRA member and associate of Bajadi, stated at the conclusion of a 2012 hearing that “the growing existence of violence and extremism cannot be dealt with and controlled without allowing the people to express their opinion in a peaceful manner.” He is currently serving an 11-year sentence. These men, at least, have not been housed in the Mohammed bin Nayef Center.

Given the terrorist rehabilitation program’s questionable record on ideological re-education, one would think the anti-radicalization messages these men espouse would be welcome. Their imprisonment, on the other hand, should push us to examine what sorts of ideological messages Saudi Arabia promotes at home and abroad. There is still no indication, for instance, that Saudi Arabia has finally finished removing materials that the State Department calls “disparaging to religions other than Islam” from government-published school textbooks. In addition, Saudi Arabia continues to provide official state perks to clerics notorious for spouting religious intolerance.

These two dynamics collided in the case of Mikhlif al-Shammari, a human rights defender who received five years in prison from the SCC on charges of “sowing discord.” A Sunni, Shammari had campaigned to end discrimination against Shiites and was even convicted by a separate court in 2014 of “stirring up public opinion” after he prayed alongside prominent Shiites in a gesture of solidarity against sectarian hatred.

Shammari spent 45 days in a hospital in 2012 after his son Adel shot him four times. The New York Times reported that Adel had spent two years at the kingdom’s center for rehabilitating extremists but, according to his father, “was even more radical than before” when he got out. The Times noted that Adel had previously been detained and questioned by the police for five days “and soon began telling the rest of the family that their father had become an infidel.”

While Saudi rights activists are frequently banned from traveling overseas, including at the end of long prison sentences, before his re-education  the Times reported that Adel “had no trouble traveling to the Philippines and then to Iraq” when he sought to join the insurgency there. As his father told the Times: “If you’re in Al Qaeda, they reason with you, give you money, a car, a wife.”

What can Washington do about this? The local campaign that advocates for granting Saudi women the right to drive declared on Twitter in 2014 that history “will never forgive” the United States if it supports bin Nayef’s bid to become a future Saudi king; he was promoted twice last year, putting him next in line to the throne. Yet, as “America’s favorite Saudi official,” bin Nayef receives extraordinary access to the White House and other branches of the U.S. government, even as Saudi society winces under his ministry’s repressive practices and an opportunistic counterterrorism architecture that bears his name.

Local rights defenders like Bajadi certainly do not belong in a terrorist rehab center. Indeed, it is difficult to envision Saudi Arabia moving in a pluralistic, moderate direction without them. Ultimately, American counterterrorism efforts in the region run the risk of being reduced to a Sisyphean exercise of whack-a-mole until Saudi Arabia can be persuaded to empower its threatened community of moderate, nonviolent rights advocates rather than crushing them.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg