Saudis claim 80% success in re-educating al-Qaida militants

– Programme finds jobs and wives for former jihadistsmasmak_fortress_saudi_arabia_photo
– Anti-extremist schemes in schools and mosques

Saudi Arabia claims to be winning its domestic “war on terror” with the help of a programme of re-education and rehabilitation for hundreds of repentant al-Qaida militants once led by Osama bin Laden. Officials in Riyadh say they have seen an 80-90% success rate in a “counter-radicalisation” campaign designed to wean extremists detained by the security forces off the “takfiri” ideology that permits the killing of fellow Muslims and motivates Saudis involved in jihad in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some 140 members of al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula have died in clashes with security forces since attacks began in May 2003.

Two thousand men had been through the programme, with 700 released and a negligible rate of re-offending, said General Mansour al-Turki, the government security spokesman.

Abu Suleiman, 33, has seen the error of his ways. “I got involved in jihad when I was 20,” he explained in the American-accented English picked up during four years spent in Guant´┐Żnamo Bay after his capture at Tora Bora in late 2001. “Bin Laden is a quiet guy but he can work magic with people when he talks,” said the holy warrior-turned financial analyst. “Being in jail gives you a lot of time to think. I had good intentions. I wanted to help Muslims round the world, but I felt I was being used for other purposes. This programme is working for a lot of people.”

Prisoners undergo social and psychological profiling, take part in 10-week courses and are helped to find jobs and even wives as part of intensive after-care support that includes cash handouts for their families. Some refuse to participate. “But we don’t force them,” Gen Turki said.

The more inveterate detainees will face trials, but no major cases have yet been launched and there seems to be no hurry to start, diplomats say, underlining the sensitivity of the issue in this deeply conservative country, home to 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers. The death penalty will probably be imposed in some cases, with public beheadings in central Riyadh.

The softly-softly approach contrasts sharply with reports of the torture of security detainees as documented by Human Rights Watch. The official Saudi account of the programme cannot be independently verified but many details are confirmed by western diplomats, with the US and Britain keen to point to its successes.

Another “graduate”, Abu Khaled, 25, works in civil defence after recanting during a two-year jail term served on returning from Afghanistan. “I recognised that I made a mistake,” he says. “I feel guilt and remorse for what I did.”

Dr Abdul-Rahman al-Hadlaq, a ministerial adviser, argues that although al-Qaida has been beaten in Saudi Arabia, “military action” cannot be the only means. The “war of ideas” is being fought on websites based in Europe that glorify jihad and violence against “unbelievers”.

Saudi religious scholars deploy Qur’anic arguments online to rebut claims about jihad, but dislike suggestions that Wahhabism, the puritanical Saudi brand of Salafi Islam, has any link to terrorism.

Programmes are in place in Saudi schools and mosques to combat extremist ideas, but the challenge now is the export of extremists, says Dr Hadlaq. Young people, he says, “lie to their families and say they are going to Mecca or Beirut or Dubai and later they turn up in Iraq”.

For all the vaunted success of the programme, “we sometimes get questions we can’t answer”, admitted Sheikh Muhammad al-Nujaimi, who works with prisoners. “Like, ‘Why did you let us go to Afghanistan to fight the Russians then but won’t let us go there now to fight the Americans?'”

But the response is clear, insists Gen Turki, faithful to the official line: “At the time the Saudi government permitted it and the ulama issued fatwas encouraging it. And then the government in Afghanistan were communists, not Muslims as they are today.”

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