Jailing Jihadis: Saudi Arabia’s Special Terrorist Prisons

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 2

Saudi Arabia is nearing completion of new purpose-built prison facilities for its program of rehabilitation and counseling for Islamist militants. Under this program five new specialized prisons have been built in Riyadh, Qassim, Abha, Dammam, and Jiddah over the span of approximately nine months. These new facilities have been designed to facilitate the dialogue process while at the same time housing individuals assessed to be significant security risks. These five new prisons are each designed to hold up to 1,200 prisoners [1].

The decision to build specially-dedicated facilities in which to focus on the counseling program was based upon a number of considerations. First and foremost was the fact that the existing prison facilities were not designed to promote dialogue and it was determined that successful advancement of the rehabilitation program could best be done through new specially-designed facilities. Furthermore, these new facilities would make the classification and segregation of detainees easier [2]. The classification of detainees into those more predisposed to dialogue, and then separation of them from other more militant prisoners, would encourage and facilitate the work of the Advisory Committee, the Ministry of the Interior body that runs the rehabilitation program.

Typically in Saudi Arabia, there are eight to ten prisoners held in a cell at one time [3]. In other detention facilities up to 30 individuals may be housed together in a single group cell. In the new facilities, prisoners will be housed in individual cells or perhaps sharing with another inmate [4]. Saudi officials are now careful to sort petty criminals from those that may harbor extremist or takfiri beliefs, in an attempt to prevent further radicalization while in prison. Although it was never practice to house suspected militants or violent extremists with common criminals, it is known that some offenders have left detention in Saudi Arabia with a greater knowledge of criminal logistics [5]. There have also been reports that some prisoners have sought to impose their strict religious interpretations and practices on others.

Rehabilitation and the Counseling Program

Approximately four years ago, in the aftermath of a series of domestic terrorist attacks, Saudi officials launched a comprehensive program designed to engage security detainees in psychological counseling and a series of religious dialogues (Terrorism Monitor, August 16, 2007). Through discussion, education, and observation, the counseling program seeks to de-radicalize and demobilize extremists and militants held in Saudi prisons. By demonstrating that detainees’ religious and ideological justifications for their beliefs and actions are based upon corrupted versions of Islam, the Saudi government has sought to delegitimize and invalidate the theological underpinnings in what they have termed the “war of ideas.”

Much of the Interior Ministry’s rehabilitation program takes place within the prison system. The scholars and sheikhs that dialogue with detainees visit prisons and spend considerable amounts of time speaking with program participants. After significant progress is made in the rehabilitation process and after a prisoner’s sentence has been completed, then the process can continue in other settings, such as at the Care Rehabilitation Center outside Riyadh.

Inside the new al-Ha’ir prison

The Riyadh facility was built outside the city at the site of a pre-existing prison at al-Ha’ir, located approximately 25 miles south of Riyadh [6]. The complex is made up of several existing facilities, including one for common criminals and another specially designated to house security offenders. A number of reported al-Qaeda figures are held at the maximum security facility at al-Ha’ir and it has been said that this has made the prison a tempting target for militants. The new facility at al-Ha’ir is set off from the other pre-existing structures at the site and is surrounded with its own sophisticated security, including perimeter walls and fences, buried seismic cables and microwave detection systems [7].

The new al-Ha’ir prison is comprised of two sections with different types of cells: one section of the prison has small group cells designed to house up to six prisoners, while the other section is made up of smaller individual cells. The individual cells can accommodate up to two people. The facility also includes ten handicapped cells and ten larger single occupancy cells with desks and other amenities to facilitate advanced study. In total, there are 320 cells at the new facility at al-Ha’ir [8]. In addition to the detainee and prisoner processing and intake areas, there are 32 individual interrogation rooms, as well as a prison infirmary.

There are cameras throughout the new facility, including one in every cell and interrogation room. The video feeds first to the prison headquarters, then to the mabahith (“General Investigations,” the Saudi internal security service), and ultimately to the Ministry of the Interior in Riyadh [9]. This is intended to provide accountability and to prevent instances of abuse through the knowledge that no act of mistreatment will go unseen.

Each cell is designed in large part to be self-contained, each equipped with toilets, showers, sinks, and windows. This was intended to reduce the need for prisoners to be leaving their cells more than is necessary and lessening the level of interaction between guards and prisoners. The cells were also constructed to prevent inmates from communicating between cells; in older prisons inmates were able to use the pipes to speak with each other [10]. Food is prepared centrally in the prison kitchen and then delivered to the each cell [11]. After meal services, inmates can purchase tea and other sundries from someone who goes cell-to-cell.

Intercoms in each cell allow prisoners to communicate with the guard posts. Each corridor of cells has a dedicated and contained outdoor area for prisoner exercise or in the event of fire evacuation. In September 2003 there was a major fire at al-Ha’ir in which 67 inmates died and at least 20 more were injured. The furnishings and mattresses used in the cells are now fire proof [12].

Rehabilitation within prison

Each cell is equipped with a television set, mounted within the wall above the cell door behind Plexiglas. The televisions are centrally controlled from guard posts at the end of each corridor. In addition to regular television broadcasts, these can also be used to transmit lectures and special programs designed or selected by the advisory committee.

One of the factors that differentiate these new facilities from other prisons in the kingdom is the inclusion of special purpose-built space dedicated to the counseling program. This is centered on a large lecture hall and classroom space designed to accommodate up to 50 persons. This large space can be further divided into smaller rooms for more private discussion, as well as to accommodate female visitors. Lectures from here can be broadcast to individual cells in order to increase the reach of the clerics and scholars that come to work in the prison beyond the physical capacity of the hall, but also to engage with those prisoners who may not yet be ready to interact with others. An important aspect of the Saudi rehabilitation program is that it does not just consist of religious lectures; dialogue and discussion is encouraged. To facilitate this, prisoners are able to ask questions via the intercom system in their cells. Networking the prisons together now allows lectures, sermons, and presentations to be broadcast simultaneously throughout the entire Saudi prison system.

Off of the lecture hall there are a number of smaller counseling rooms, each with windows and separate toilets. Elsewhere in the building there are a series of other spaces for families to accommodate visits and facilitate the inclusion of a detainee’s family and larger social network in the rehabilitation process. This also includes rooms for conjugal visits for married prisoners, who are allowed several hours with their spouses [13]. One of the keys to the Saudi program is that it does not just treat the individual, but involves a detainee’s whole family. Greater family involvement, such as through extended family visitations, shared meals, and other sessions with scholars creates opportunities for a detainee’s family to learn about the plight of their loved one. Furthermore, it also allows the committee to learn more about a prisoner’s unique social situation, data which in turn is used to help support the detainee’s family while he is in custody and to help support his reintegration upon release.

Promoting cooperation

Another essential aspect of the rehabilitation program is to demonstrate that cooperation with the authorities will result in a suspect being treated well. It is understood that this is needed not just to facilitate dialogue, but also to encourage others to take advantage of this and other programs offered by the government. As such it crucial to dispel rumors of abuse and to guarantee a program participant’s welfare—these are vital steps in building the rapport and trust that the counseling process will eventually build upon.

Instances of torture and abuse have previously been documented in the Saudi prison system (U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2006). A recent video recorded on a mobile phone showing a guard beating a prisoner at al-Ha’ir raised further concerns. As a result, the government has a high desire to portray positive conditions for cooperating suspects. Previous examples of this have included government sponsored testimonies of suspected terrorists jailed at al-Ha’ir praising the conditions of their incarceration and statements encouraging others to cooperate with authorities (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 15, 2004; al-Youm, January 5, 2005). These measures sought to combat the perceptions of mistreatment and to promote participation in periodic amnesties. These new prisons are part of the effort to demonstrate the compassion that will result from cooperation.

While Saudi officials readily admit that building new prisons is never a good sign, the construction of facilities such as that at al-Ha’ir demonstrates a commitment to continue pursuing rehabilitation and engagement strategies in dealing with takfiri militants. The continued institutionalization of the counseling program reveals Riyadh’s determination to win the “war of ideas.” To be sure, soft counter-terrorism efforts alone will not be sufficient, and the new prison construction program is a unique hybrid of multiple strategies. Moreover, this construction effort is also very useful as it gives us an insight into the size and scope of the prison rehabilitation program envisioned by Saudi authorities for the foreseeable future.

Christopher Boucek is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Princeton University and a Lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School. He recently returned from further research in Saudi Arabia. This article is part of a larger ongoing research project on Saudi rehabilitation and reintegration programs.


1. Author interview with HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, assistant minister of security for security affairs, Riyadh Saudi Arabia, October 2007.

2. Based in part on author interview with Dr Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, advisor to HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, assistant minister of security for security affairs, Riyadh Saudi Arabia, November 2007.

3. Author interview with HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, assistant minister of security for security affairs, Riyadh Saudi Arabia, October 2007.

4. ibid

5. Based in part on author’s conversations in Saudi Arabia, October and November 2007

6. Data in this section is based upon a site visit to al-Hair prison in November, 2007, and discussions with prison and Ministry of Interior officials, al-Hair prison, Saudi Arabia. Nancy Durham, a journalist with CBC News, recently visited the facility and her story “Where Saudi Arabia will send their most dangerous?” (December18, 2007) includes some photos of the new prison (available at www.cbc.ca/news/reportsfromabroad/durham/20071218.html).

7. Based on interviews with Maj Gen Youssef al-Mansour, Investigative Division, Ministry of Interior, Lt Col Mohammed al-Zahrani, engineering director of al-Ha’ir project, and an unindentified project engineer. 8. Author interviews with Maj Gen Youssef al-Mansour, Investigative Division, Ministry of Interior, and Lt Col Mohammed al-Zahrani, engineering director of al-Ha’ir project, al-Ha’ir Prison, Saudi Arabia, November 2007.

9. Author interview with HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, assistant minister of security for security affairs, Riyadh Saudi Arabia, October 2007.

10. ibid

11. According to prison administrators, camel is said to be a favorite of detainees and is served about once a week.

12. Author interview with Lt Col Mohammed al-Zahrani, engineering director of al-Ha’ir project, Riyadh Saudi Arabia, November 2007

13. Author interview with HRH Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, assistant minister of security for security affairs, Riyadh Saudi Arabia, October 2007.