A REPORT questioning the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs for former terrorists is threatening to undermine Barack Obama's pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.
The US President has suspended a release of Yemeni prisoners because of the attempted Christmas Day bombing masterminded from Yemen. The administration has conceded it will not meet its January 22 deadline for closing the base in Cuba.
The fate of all 198 prisoners still at Guantanamo now hangs in the balance after US figures showed that up to one in five former detainees have engaged in terrorist activity after their release.
The main hope had been a much vaunted rehabilitation program set up by Saudi Arabia in 2003. This uses crayon therapy, table tennis and video games to reform jihadists.
The Saudis had claimed near-total success for the program, which had 108 former Guantanamo detainees pass through it. But 11 of these graduates have been named on the kingdom's list of 85 "most wanted" terrorists. They include Said Ali al-Shihri, who re-emerged as a leader of al-Qa'ida in Yemen, the group claiming responsibility for the Christmas Day bombing plot.
"The Saudis claim 80-90 per cent success in turning these jihadists," said John Horgan, director of the International Centre for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University, who was among the experts. "But when I asked Saudi officers how they knew these people were safe to release, all they could say was they got a feeling."
Run by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the program initially received international plaudits. Aside from art therapy, games and religious discussion to counter radicalisation, it relies on social support. Jihadists are encouraged to get a flat, find a wife and settle down.
"It's more like a halfway house than a prison," said Christopher Boucek, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who visited the camps. "The centres have guards and fences and you can't leave when you want to, but the first thing that happens to prisoners is their shackles are removed."
He warned: "I think what we have seen is, it is unrealistic to close Gitmo if you don't have a program to monitor people when released."
Mr Horgan agrees. Although he praised the Saudi scheme for being "innovative and ambitious", he said: "The idea that this is a silver bullet is naive. These guys are not being deradicalised. They are being encouraged to disassociate from terrorism, but their fundamental views have not changed."
The unpublished Homeland Security report's main criticism is the lack of any reliable risk assessment to decide whether an individual should be allowed back into society. "Sex offenders have to meet all sorts of criteria before they are released," Mr Horgan said. "Why shouldn't it be the same for terrorists?"
The report points out that there is no way of measuring recidivism.
Many of the Saudi rehab graduates ended up in Yemen. Apart from Shihri, these included Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, al-Qa'ida's spiritual leader in the Arabian peninsula, and Abu Hareth Muhammad al-Awfi, who appeared in an al-Qa'ida video last January, threatening attacks. Shihri is thought to have played a direct role in an al-Qa'ida attack on the US embassy in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, in 2008, in which 19 people died.