By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Ex-Florida Sen. Bob Graham is questioning the wisdom of the Obama Administration’s decision to release nine Guantanamo detainees to Saudi Arabia for “rehabilitation.”
“Here’s a country that is under deep suspicion of being a co-collaborator in 9/11 and now we are sending it people who were considered to be among the most violent terrorists in the world,” Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said in an interview with FloridaBulldog.org.
“In fact, this is another reason why the blanket of secrecy that’s been thrown over this material should be lifted so people can make their own judgment as to whether this is the kind of country we should be sending these people to for rehabilitation.”
Saturday’s transfer of the nine Yemenis to Saudi Arabia, in the name of reeducating them to become law-abiding citizens, continued President Obama’s plan to “securely and responsibly” move detainees out of the notorious military detention facility so it can be closed.
The release preceded the President’s mid-week visit with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh.
The U.S. said 80 detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi bin al Shibh, identified in Department of Defense documents as the “coordinator” of the 9/11 attacks. The Miami Herald reported this week that 26 of the 80 have been cleared for release.
About 780 men have been detained at Guantanamo, many without charges or access to federal courts, since January 2002.
U.S. law currently restricts the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States, as well as the use of funds to build or modify prisons for such transfers. In February, Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s office said the administration “looks forward to working with Congress to lift those restrictions.”
During his 2008 campaign, President Obama promised repeatedly to close Guantanamo following allegations that detainees had been tortured. On Jan. 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration, he signed an executive order creating the interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force, whose job included reviewing the cases of individual detainees to determine who can be released for transfer.
Approved for transfer
The task force unanimously approved transfer for eight of the Yemenis. Another entity, the Periodic Review Board, recommended transfer by “consensus” of the ninth Yemeni, Mashur Abdullah Muqbil Ahmed al-Sabri.
The U.S. does not explain itself when a determination is made that individual Guantanamo detainees, once described by top U.S. officials as “the worst of the worst,” are no longer considered to pose a significant threat to the security of the United States.
For example, in 2008 the task force reported to the commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami that al-Sabri was a member of “a Yemeni al-Qaeda cell directly involved with the USS Cole attack.” A bomb ripped open a large hole in the Navy guided missile destroyer while it was anchored in the port of Aden in October 2000, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39 others.
The task force’s 12-page, declassified report says al-Sabri, now 38, received “advanced training at al-Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan” and engaged in combat there in support of the Taliban after 9/11.
Without rehabilitation and supervision, the report says, “it is assessed detainee would immediately seek out prior associates and reengage in hostilities and extremist support activities.”
The U.S. assessment of al-Sabri was softened, however, in an unclassified, three-paragraph profile submitted to the Periodic Review Board in December 2014. The profile downplayed al-Sabri’s alleged role to that of an al-Qaeda “associate” who “possibly received militant training” and who “probably did not play a significant role in terrorist operations.”
“There is no indication” that al-Sabri had “foreknowledge of the attack” on the Cole, the profile said, even though the 2008 Defense Department report said his al-Qaeda cell had “conducted surveillance on the USS Cole and prepared explosives for the bombing.”
Al-Sabri “has expressed non-extremist goals for his life after detention, and none of his family members in Saudi Arabia or Yemen are involved in terrorist activity,” the profile concluded. “He may, however, attempt to contact a family friend who is an AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) operative and facilitator with a long history of association with extremists, providing (al-Sabri) a possible path to reengage.”
Four months after the profile was filed, al-Sabri was cleared for release and transfer. Saudi Arabia recently agreed to accept him and the other Yemenis.
Ex-Sen. Graham said he is “really sympathetic to the idea of trying to close Guantanamo” because “it’s giving us a bad name.”
Still, he believes that trusting a “perfidious ally” like Saudi Arabia with the job of rehabilitating hardened terrorist suspects imprisoned for years at Guantanamo is fanciful.
“I went to Riyadh in 2011 or 2012 when I was on the CIA’s external advisory board. We had a session on this rehabilitation program and it seemed a little frivolous to me. Part of it was they were learning to paint to help them rehabilitate their terrorist leanings,” said Graham, appeared on 60 Minutes last week to urge the government to release hidden 9/11 records.
The high-security Mohammad bin Naif Counseling and Care Center is one such rehabilitation center. Its main objectives include “pointing out the role of [the] Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in fighting terrorism, overcoming immoderate thoughts and caring for its youth,” according to its website.
The Christian Science Monitor reported in May 2015 that art therapy, water aerobics classes, Ping-Pong, Jacuzzis, gourmet chefs, psychologists and imams are available to 250 Jihadist patients at the correctional facility in Saudi Arabia’s capital city.
The three-month rehabilitation program was created by namesake Crown Prince Naif, the powerful First Deputy Prime Minister who is first in line to the throne.
The Monitor and the Associated Press reported the center claims a nearly 90 percent success rate for the approximately 3,000 men who have gone through the program, including many convicted of terrorism-related charges in Saudi Arabia.
John Horgan is a professor at the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University and the author of “The Psychology of Terrorism.”
He could not be reached for comment, but in an interview with the AP last year he was skeptical of Saudi Arabia’s rehab program.
“Some critics would say that this isn’t true de-radicalization, this is just a diversion. It’s smoke and mirrors,” Horgan said. “What I’ve seen so far is that it’s just a token gesture. It’s very good for the optics and very good for public relations.”