Al-Qaeda's growing arc of terror
Published 31/01/2010 | 05:00
BORED, depressed, and stuck in a dead-end job, Khaled al-Bawardi convinced himself that he wanted to die for militant Islam after spending just a few hours watching jihadi videos.
It took another six years in Guantanamo Bay, plus a year in religious rehab in Saudi Arabia, to realise there might be better career options.
"When I was young, I thought these people were angels and we had to follow them," said Mr Bawardi, formerly Inmate 68 at Guantanamo and one of hundreds of Saudi al-Qaeda suspects arrested after the US invasion of Afghanistan. "Now I can see between right and wrong."
Quietly spoken and dressed in traditional Arab robe and keffiya, Mr Bawardi is an alumnus of the Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Counselling and Care outside Riyadh, where for the past two years, batches of former Guantanamo inmates have undergone religious "deprogramming" in exchange for their liberty.
With its swimming pool, games rooms and therapy courses such as '10 Steps Toward Positive Thinking', it resembles a jihadist's version of a posh rehab clinic. Yet like any rehab programme, it also has its recidivists -- and Batch 10, to which Mr Bawardi belonged, is a case in point.
In the 10th group of Saudis to be flown back from Guantanamo Bay, no less than five of the original 14 who passed through the programme absconded to Yemen to re-embrace terrorism. To the embarrassment of their mentors, and the dismay of Washington, one Batch 10 member, Said al-Shihri, has since resurfaced as deputy leader of al-Qaeda in the movement's Yemen-based branch. The group last month claimed to have groomed the so-called Detroit 'Underpants Bomber".
Such relapses show how, more than eight years since September 11, al-Qaeda has confounded its doomsayers.
When Batch 10 first arrived at Riyadh airport two years ago, Western diplomats and intelligence officials were confident that the movement was on its back foot. Last week, though, as diplomats gathered in London for crisis meetings on the future of Afghanistan and Yemen, the mood was rather less upbeat. Like a global franchise, outlets of al-Qaeda have mushroomed across a giant arc through Africa and the Middle East.
In the Sahara and north Africa, militants blooded in Iraq have kidnapped diplomats, aid workers and tourists. In pirate-infested Somalia, little government exists. And in Pakistan and Iraq, al-Qaeda continues to strike.
And on the outer rims of the Muslim world, from war-ravaged Chechnya to mountainous Tajikistan and beyond, its operatives come and go. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden remains as free as ever, and Mr Obama has decided to halt the release of Guantanamo Bay inmates to Yemen.
Of greatest immediate concern is Yemen. The ancestral home of the Bin Laden family before they moved north to Saudi Arabia, the rugged, poverty-stricken nation is a prime contender to become another Afghanistan.
Its government is notoriously weak and corrupt, and its security forces exercise little control over a gun-loving population of 20 million that own some 60 million weapons.
One of the reasons men like Mr Bawardi are persuaded to stay on the straight is the programme's generous perks: since leaving, he has been given a free car, a €600-a-month stipend, and a job with the Chamber of Commerce, giving him enough money to marry and settle down.
Such generosity would be totally unaffordable in Yemen or Somalia -- and, most likely, politically unacceptable in Western countries.
All the same, nobody is more aware than the programme's sponsors of the threat that al-Qaeda's latest Yemen venture poses, and the difficulty of identifying the genuinely contrite.
Last August, the programme's chief patron was nearly killed when he granted a personal audience to a would-be repenter who then detonated a suicide bomb in his underwear. Four months later, passengers on a flight to Detroit had a similarly narrow escape. It may be only a matter of time before someone gets it right.
And across the arc of terror there are still many more disaffected young men and women willing to give it a try.