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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — To American officers at Guantanamo Bay, Ahmed Zaid Salem Zuhair was inmate No. 669 — a hardcore, veteran Muslim terrorist suspected of having killed an American in Bosnia. But here in Saudi Arabia, he is a "beneficiary," a former religious deviant who, having learned the true meaning of Islam, has been rehabilitated.
Repatriated from Guantanamo in mid-2009, Zuhair, 45, continued to proclaim his innocence in an interview, asserting that he had only been doing peaceful relief work in Bosnia and Pakistan prior to his arrest in 2002, when Pakistani officials robbed, tortured and "sold" him to the Americans, he said in halting English.
But Saudi Arabia's rehabilitation program had taught him that good Muslims "should not put ourselves in suspicious places or situations," he said. When he is released, he said, he would ensure that none of his 10 children by three wives would do what he had done.
Saudi officials said last week that if all goes according to plan, Zuhair may soon join the ranks of 302 of some 4,200 Saudis imprisoned on terrorism charges who have been released in the past two years under a controversial Saudi program that aims to transform would-be and even hardened "jihadists" into peaceful, law-abiding, God-fearing Saudis.
The program was widely praised by American and foreign counterterrorism officials until 11 of its graduates, nearly half of them former prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, showed up in Yemen, the latest battleground in the militant Islamists' holy war against regional and foreign "infidels." Two of the former Guantanamo prisoners, Said al-Shihri and Mohammed al-Awfi, emerged last year as founders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which has targeted Saudi Arabia and claimed credit for the alleged attempt by the Nigerian "underwear bomber" to blow up an American airliner over Detroit last Christmas. Four others came from the same group of Guantanamo detainees who were turned over to the kingdom in November 2007.