Obama Administration Considering Turning Over 100 Yemeni Gitmo Detainees to Saudi Arabia Terrorist Rehab Center

May 6, 2009 4:15pm

ABC News’ Jake Tapper and Luis Martinez report:

This morning in Riyadh, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he spoke to Saudi Assistant Minister of the Interior Muhammed bin Nayaf about sending the roughly 100 Yemeni detainees currently in the detainee center at Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabia to the Saudi government’s rehabilitation program for jihadis.

Gates said he spoke to Nayaf last night about "our positive impression of the repatriation program, the rehabilitation, repatriation program in Saudi Arabia. I think they’ve probably done as good if not better job of that than almost anybody and explored the possibility of some of the Yemeni detainees coming through that system. I think the notion would be if it worked at all it would be those with strong Saudi family connections or strong connections to Saudi Arabia."

Detainees from Guantanamo were sent to the Saudi rehabilitation camp by President Bush, to mixed success.

Asked if, once through the program, the Yemenis would remain in Saudi Arabia and be monitored by Saudi authorities, Gates said, "I think that’s further down the road than we went. It really was about getting them into the program, not getting them out."

How successful is this rehabilitation center, also called the "Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Care and Counseling"?

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently published a study of the Care Rehabilitation Center saying that since the rehabilitation program started in 2003, "roughly 3,000 prisoners have participated in portions of the counseling program, and about 1,400 of them have renounced their former beliefs and been released, according to Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Exact numbers are extremely difficult to come by, but approximately 1,000 prisoners remain incarcerated…"

TIME Magazine recently ran a photo essay of the Care Rehabilitation Center where participants undergo a 12-step program "that includes psychological counseling, art therapy, sports and lessons in Islam."

But not all of those rehabbed have 12-stepped their way out of terrorism.

Earlier this year the Saudi government published a list of 85 wanted terrorism suspects. Eleven of them had been prisoners at Guantanamo put through the Saudi rehabilitation program.

Said Ali al-Shihri, transferred to Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo during the Bush administration in 2007, currently deputy leader of al Qaeda’s Yemen branch.

The Bush administration also released Gitmo detainee Ghulam Rasoul into the Saudi rehabilitation program. Now known as Mullah Abdullah Zakir, he’s a leader against U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan, according to military and intelligence officials.

Gates noted today that "nothing was decided" and "nothing specifically was asked."

"It was more a general conversation about the capability and about the possibility," Gates said. "I didn’t ask them to do anything and they didn’t volunteer."

He added that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih is "reluctant to speak out openly and say that this would be a good idea, in part because he may feel that it reflects an inability in Yemen to handle the problem. So I think he is not likely to speak out."

Former USS Cole commander Kirk Lippold issued a statement today saying that “the impact of turning Yemeni detainees over to either Saudi Arabia or Yemen is an unacceptable compromise to our national security. … Transferring Yemeni detainees to Saudi Arabia will inevitably lead to more terrorists on the battlefield endangering the lives of our military for a second time." 

– Jake Tapper and Luis Martinez

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