SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The re-emergence of two former Guantanamo Bay prisoners as al-Qaida terrorists in the past week won't likely change U.S. policy on transfers to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon said Monday.
More than 100 Saudis have been repatriated from the U.S. military's prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Saudi Arabia, where the government puts them through a rehabilitation program designed to encourage them to abandon Islamic extremism and reintegrate into civilian life.
The online boasts by two of these men that they have joined al-Qaida in Yemen underscore that the Saudi system isn't fail safe, the Pentagon said. A U.S. counterterrorism official in Washington confirmed the men had been Guantanamo detainees. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose that fact on the record.
Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. sees the Saudi program as admirable.
"The best you can do is work with partner nations in the international community to ensure that they take the steps to mitigate the threat ex-detainees pose," he said. "There are never any absolute guarantees. There's an inherent risk in all detainee transfers and releases from Guantanamo."
The deprogramming effort — built on reason, enticements and lengthy talks with psychiatrists, Muslim clerics and sociologists — is part of a concerted Saudi government effort to counter the ideology that nurtured the 9/11 hijackers and that has lured hundreds of Saudis to join the Iraq insurgency. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudis, as is the mastermind of the attacks, Osama bin Laden.
Former Guantanamo detainees have joined hundreds of other Saudis in the reintegration program, and very few have been arrested thereafter for extremist activities, according to the Saudi Ministry of Interior.
A Saudi Interior Ministry official said most of the graduates "resumed their natural lives and some of them voluntarily contributed to the activities of this program to help others return to natural life."
Frank Ciluffo, a researcher on security issues at George Washington University, said a program that doesn't work all the time is better than none because the alternative is an extended prison sentence, which only further radicalizes a person.
"I think that just fuels and gives legitimate grievances to the adversary which stick," Ciluffo said. He said Singapore, Indonesia and Yemen have programs too, but Yemen's was suspended for lack of funds.
The two men who went through the Saudi rehabilitation program and resurfaced in Yemen were seen in video clips posted on the Internet last week.
One man gave his name as Abu al-Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi, whose prisoner number when he was held by the U.S. was 333.
According to documents released last year, the detainee claimed he was twice beaten by Americans, after he was captured in Pakistan in 2001 and was being flown to Afghanistan, and again after he landed at the Bagram detention center in Afghanistan.
The other former detainee said their detention by U.S. forces only hardened them.
"By Allah, imprisonment only increased our persistence in our principles for which we went out, did jihad for, and were imprisoned for," said Said Ali al-Shihri, whose prisoner number was 372.
The interior ministry official said the two former detainees have made things more difficult for Saudis who remain at Guantanamo. Those who join extremist causes after they are released "reduce the chance of the return of the rest of the detainees whose families are waiting for them and (are) looking forward to their return home," the official said, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
About 22 Saudis are among the 145 men still locked up at Guantanamo, according to a study by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. The largest group of remaining prisoners is from Yemen.
More than 500 men have been freed from Guantanamo. Gordon said a total of 62 are "confirmed or suspected" of involvement in "terrorist activities." The Pentagon has not identified these former detainees, and has not said how it defines terrorist activities, other than excluding actions like engaging in propaganda.
"The names and identities of these former detainees will not be released at this time, due to the need to protect our sources and methods of gathering this information," Gordon said.