I have always been drawn to stories of survival in war and revolution. I covered Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989 and spent the ‘90s reporting on the Balkan wars from all corners of the former Yugoslavia. In 2004, I was embedded with the U.S. Marines in Fallujah for 11 days. We came under random rocket and mortar fire day and night. The Marines told me this was the frontline of the so-called “war on terror.” And it had become that. But for me it seemed clear that the source of the problem lay outside Iraq. Three years later, I had the opportunity to meet some of Saudi Arabia’s ex-jihadists.
As I entered Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation center on the outskirts of Riyadh, to meet men we’ve heard so much about since 9/11, my minder from the Ministry of the Interior stopped me at the last minute to point out that I was showing a sliver of skin at the nape of my neck. I wound my head scarf round my neck one more time to cover up and tugged on my stretchy black cap to hide any stray hair. My black flowing abaya covered the rest of my body. Rather than feeling hidden, my costume left me feeling oddly exposed.
For all the emphasis on covering up in Saudi Arabia, rehab turned out to be a rather laid back place not far off, say, an American seventies retreat where you might have gone to get in touch with your inner self by sharing experiences in group therapy. But these were men who had previously been slinking off to Iraq to “kill Americans,” as one told me by way of explaining he hadn’t meant to hurt any Iraqi civilians. I interviewed a failed suicide bomber, spent an afternoon with men just back from Guantanamo Bay, and chatted with others who had merely considered making jihad and got caught along the way.
Negotiating access had been challenging. My producer, Seamus Mirodan, and I had asked for a week at the center and were told it would be just one day. In the end, we were given the better part of three days. Although we had a minder with us the entire time, it was clear the Saudi government wanted to show off their program.
It’s been a year since the center opened, and Saudi authorities claim their program has been 95 percent effective. While a handful of graduates have tried to reconnect with their extremists roots after their release, their efforts were thwarted and they were brought back to the center for more counselling. Saudi authorities say they are planning to build three more rehab facilities across the country to meet the growing challenge of deprogramming extremists.