Jan. 1, 2010— -- The leader of the al Qaeda group that claimed responsibility for trying to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day was released from the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorists on the condition that he be sent to a terrorist rehab center in Saudi Arabia.
The rehabilitation of terrorist Said Ali al-Shihri was an obvious failure and it now raises serious questions about the Obama administration's plan to send another 100 Yemeni prisoners from Gitmo to Saudi rehab camps in an effort to empty the Gitmo prison and close it down.
It has also put a spotlight on the rehab camps amid questions whether they really work, especially for hard core jihadists who get released from Gitmo.
In a country renowned for medieval forms of punishment – which include flogging and cutting off the hands of thieves – Saudi Arabia's 12-step program for terrorists looks like summer camp by comparison.
The rehabilitation program is intended to deprogram radicalized militants who have been convicted of terror-related offenses by offering psychological counseling, classes in more moderate forms of Islam, and alternative ways to vent their energy, including art therapy, swimming, and playing sports and video games.
The Saudis boast that since the program was implemented it has been 80 percent successful, with only 20 percent of inmates going on to commit crimes that result in their being "wanted, captured or killed in security incidents."
Some 3,000 prisoners have gone through the program since 2003 and there are about 1,000 inmates still enrolled, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
At Least 11 Terrorists Released From Gitmo Returned to the Fight
But the rate of recidivism is considerably higher among former Guantanamo detainees. Of the 85 names on Saudi Arabia's most wanted list, 11 of them were detained at Guantanamo Bay.
Said Ali al-Shihri, known during his six years at Guantanamo Bay as prisoner #372, was sent back to Saudi Arabia as part of a second wave of repatriated militants in November 2007. He then spent just six to 10 weeks at the kingdom's largest rehabilitation facility, the Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Care and Counseling.
"There are guards and gates and barbed wire but it's not quite prison," said Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has visited the center and interviewed numerous former participants. "It's a communal living environment that's more like 'Hogan's Heroes' than 'Escape From Alcatraz.'
"They can even sometimes have dinner with their family members there. They're often outside, can see the sky and there is grass on the ground," Boucek said.
Prisoners have 24-hour access to telephones and can be furloughed to spend time with their families on holidays or special occasions.
In a culture where individuals typically submit to the wishes of their clans, much of the Saudi rehabilitation program focuses on the participants' families. Inmates are warned that if they escape, a family member will be forced to take his place in prison.
Each participant and his family are given a monthly stipend of between $700 and $1,000 and single terrorists are encouraged to get married and start their own families, with the goal of creating social networks outside terrorist networks.
Inmates take courses in Wahabi Islam, the official religion of the state -- itself considered radical by some -- and are taught by the imams that jihad, or holy war, is justified only when officially pronounced by the state.
"Some American officials say it's all about crayons and art therapy," said Boucek, "but the things that don't translate are the intense emotional and intellectual strides that are made. They make intense bonds with the sheiks and doctors they work with. The majority is a religious discussion giving them religious evidence to the contrary of why they think their beliefs are based on Islam."
Soon after Shihri left the minimum-security center, he and at least one other former Guantanamo detainee surfaced in Yemen as members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the branch of the terror group based in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
In September 2008, Shihri was suspected of coordinating the deadly bombing of the U.S. embassy in Yemen's capital, Sana. By January 2009, he was considered a top member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Since Shihri's al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took credit for alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attack on Northwest flight 253 on Christmas Day, some U.S. officials have warned against repatriating Guantanamo Bay detainees.
"It's time for the president to halt terrorist transfers to other countries, including Yemen," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement Wednesday.
Egypt, Algeria, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iraq and Yemen have all implemented terrorist rehab programs in recent years.