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Saudi De-Radicalization Center Uses Art Therapy to Tackle Extremists

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia is reforming extremists and wannabe jihadis by showering them with attention, providing therapy and offering art classes.

Painting sessions at the Mohammad Bin Nayef Center for Advice, Counseling and Care are revelatory. A piece by one patient — referred to as a "beneficiary" — shows green trees and a bright blue lake at the foot of a jagged mountain.

The bucolic-seeming scene is of the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and his fighters eluded capture by American special forces months after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

“This guy has been to Tora Bora,” art therapist Awad al-Yami told NBC News. His patient’s time in the network of mountain caves on the border with Pakistan were full of danger, deprivation and fear, according to al-Yami.

“It is their suffering that they are bringing out, and the art is giving them a chance to express their suffering and feelings,” the therapist said.

Al-Yami’s patients are part of a de-radicalization program aimed at integrating Saudi citizens who have tried to join the ranks of ISIS and al Qaeda.

Clerics, psychologists, sociologists, art therapists, sports instructors and teachers work to incorporate the so-called beneficiaries’ families and former employers into the process of reintegrating the men into mainstream society.

While the center only works with those who haven’t been convicted of a violent crime, the experts who work there take their charges and their ideology very seriously.

“This is a dangerous place, said sociologist Ahmed al-Shehri, noting that all 50 clients have an "extremist" background. "But we invest in them,” he added.

A watercolor by a recent Guantanamo Bay inmate shows orange telephone poles perched on a cliff. Set against a gray background, it exudes depression and desperation.

“[The painter] was projecting his dark days in Guantanamo Bay,” al-Yami said. “They are still projecting their past, and that’s our job to take them out of their past little by little.”

"We believe in them. And they will change, God willing.”

Painting and drawing is considered un-Islamic by some Islamic extremists, so many have never before handled a brush, according to al-Yami.

“They play with the paint, I show them some ways to express their anger, how to express their feelings, their love of their country, of their children,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has been fighting al Qaeda for years and now is facing the growing threat posed by ISIS sympathizers and adherents. Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told NBC News last week that three of the four terrorist attacks in the country were linked to ISIS.

Nearly 2,800 extremists have been treated since 2005 at Mohammad Bin Nayef Centers in Riyadh and Jeddah — including 120 former Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

Officials claim the holistic approach has resulted in an 87 percent of participants returning to mainstream life. Their families are a key part of the process and are called upon to OK their release

Former “beneficiary” Badr al-Anisi says the program saved him.

“[The center] helped us reintegrate into society and succeed,” the 29-year-old said. “Any problem we face in life they try and simplify for you and give you the right answers.”

Al-Anisi was a married father of three girls when he tried to get a passport to travel to Iraq and Syria to join a militant group. After being detained, he feared the worst.

“In the beginning, we thought we would find a blocked road. The prison is going to be jailing and torture only,” he said. But reality was very different.

“It changed our vision and instead of dark and black, it became positive and optimistic. Any problem we encountered was solved psychologically or socially,” al-Anisi added.

When he entered the center two years ago he had a high school education and a few thoughts other than becoming a jihadi. Now al-Anisi is an imam at a local mosque, and is getting a university education.

“They have promised me a Ph.D.,” he said.

Education, and a sense of being a valued by the community and society, instead of reviled as a terrorist, is the foundation of the center’s work, according to those who work there.

At its heart, the center reintegrates people into society by raising their self-esteem, according to sociologist al-Shehri.

“I just have a saying, ‘They are the hero of their own story.’ They just want to do something that everyone will know them afterward,” he said. “We believe in them. And they will change, God willing.”

F. Brinley Bruton reported from London.

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