There are golf carts and palm trees and an Olympic-sized pool at the Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center, a sprawling complex on the outskirts of Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh.
Once a holiday resort, the walled compound still looks like one — and not a rehabilitation center for convicted terrorists.
In the past year, the country has expanded counter-terrorism laws that make it illegal for Saudis to fight in Syria and Iraq. The kingdom has also expanded the terrorism rehab centers.
More than 3,000 young Saudi men graduated from the program since it began in 2008, including 120 former prisoners from a U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay.
The centers only work with inmates not convicted for violent crimes. The Saudis claim a success rate of more than 80 percent of the detainees returning to their families as well-adjusted members of Saudi society.
On my visit, the inmates are kept out of sight, except for a handpicked star graduate, 29-year-old Badr al-Anzi. Two years ago, he was set to join the militants of the self-declared Islamic State. Now he’s a model of rehabilitation.
“I wanted to go to jihad,” explains al-Anzi, who has a wife and three daughters. His plan was to travel to Syria with his cousin and brother, but he was arrested when he tried to pick up his passport at a government office.
After a six-month jail sentence, al-Anzi was sent to the rehab center. His treatment was intense, with psychological counseling, religious re-education, vocational training, plus financial incentives. Al-Anzi now attends college on a scholarship. He had help finding a job.
He makes monthly visits to the center to counsel others.
“Now, I want to fight ISIS,” he says, which he does on Twitter, challenging Saudi recruits to quit and come home.
Al-Anzi’s was an easy case. He never made it to the battlefield. But what about the hardened cases, the al-Qaida extremists?
“They’re not so tough,” says Dr. Awad Al-Yami, a counselor here. “These are our kids, and anyway, they are members of our society, and they are hurting us. We feel obligated to help them.”
Al-Yami trained as an art therapist at the University of Pennsylvania. He pioneered an innovative program that’s unusual in Saudi’s ultra-conservative culture, where some clerics say that drawing is forbidden.
“I had a hard time convincing my people with art, let alone art therapy for jihadists,” he says.
But the program has delivered results.
“Actually, art creates balance for your psyche,” he says.
It is also a window on the psyche, he says. Drawing is a way for inmates to express emotions, anger and depression, when they first arrive at the center.
He keeps a gallery of paintings, which he analyzes like a detective. The black and white landscapes, which depict scenes from Afghanistan, mean an inmate is still living in the past.
After a few months of counseling, the paintings show more promise. Inmates use color and depict scenes from family life in Riyadh. Al-Yami says this is a sign that the inmate is coming to terms with coming home.
There is a striking number of inmates who draw pictures of castles with high walls. Those send a distinct message, according to Al-Yami.
“I’m not going to give you any information,” he says. “I’m behind the wall and you can’t get through. If I give you information, I am weak.”
He takes the failures hard. Some 20 percent of the inmates here go back to the fight. One spectacular failure went on to become an al-Qaida leader in Yemen.
Now, Al-Yami is preparing for a new wave of inmates: the ISIS generation. He knows they are more extreme than al-Qaida.
“We’ve got some in prison, waiting for their sentences to be over and they will be here,” he says.
Can he reach them, too? He pauses before he answers.
“What the hell am I going to do with ISIS?” he says, a man who knows his toughest challenge is ahead.