RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia has mobilized some of its most militant clerics, including one Osama bin Laden sought to recruit as his spiritual guide, in a campaign to combat the continuing appeal of al-Qaeda’s ideology in the kingdom.
The effort has targeted hundreds of young Saudis who security forces here have tracked down and arrested as sympathizers or potential recruits. They are then subjected to an intense program of religious reeducation by clerics that sometimes lasts for months.
Saudi authorities say that about 500 youth have completed the program and been freed since it began in 2004. They remain under close surveillance. “None has been found to get re-involved in terrorism so far,” said Lt. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, which runs the program together with the Islamic Affairs Ministry. “Their ideology has changed, and they are convinced they were wrong.”
Ministry officials denied a request to interview any of the youth. The Saudi who relayed the decision said officials worried about what they might say to a foreign reporter.
Mohsen al-Awajy, an Islamic lawyer who is known here as a former radical, was skeptical of the effect. “I’m afraid about 85 to 90 percent of those who claim they are changing their minds as a result of this dialogue might not be truthful,” he said.
Turki conceded that Saudi authorities were having great difficulty curbing the appeal of al-Qaida’s ideology among young people, who he said are incited by “the daily killings in Iraq” and a constant barrage of appeals to holy war on Internet sites run by Islamic extremists. Hundreds have crossed into Iraq to join the insurgency there. “As long as the ideology is alive,” Turki said, “we cannot guarantee no new terrorists will come along.”
Abdel Mohsen al-Obeikan, a former militant cleric now playing a prominent part in the reeducation program, compared the challenge to the war on drugs in the United States. “You cannot stop drugs, either,” he said. As soon as one terrorist group is eliminated, he said, another pops up that is even more dangerous: “We need a long time. We should be patient.”
Still, Saudi authorities argue they have made real progress in uprooting al-Qaida inside the kingdom and part of the reason is their efforts with the young people. But a foiled attack on Feb. 24 against the world’s largest oil terminal at Abqaiq sobered U.S. and Saudi officials. “Abqaiq shows the problem is not over,” said U.S. Ambassador James Oberwetter in an interview here.
The Internet has become the main battleground against al-Qaida ideology, according to three members of the counseling committee that the Interior Ministry set up to run the reeducation program. The body has 22 full-time members, who get help from 100 Islamic clerics and 30 psychiatrists.
Islamic counselors selected by the committee have succeeded in infiltrating a number of extremist Web sites and chat rooms. Islamic Affairs Minister Saleh al-Asheikh told reporters in February that the government had established dialogue with 800 al-Qaida sympathizers this way and succeeded in changing the thinking of 250.
The Saudi government established the reeducation program in 2004 after conducting three-hour interviews with 639 prisoners, according to one committee members’ account of the program’s origins. “We asked, ‘Who do you like? Who do you read? Who are the top models for you?”’ said Abdulrahman al-Hahlaq, a U.S.-educated Saudi who is a committee member.
They discovered, he said, that the most influential person was not bin Laden, a Saudi, but the Palestinian-Jordanian cleric Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, who was the initial spiritual guide for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq. Both come from the same Jordanian village, Zarqa.
Maqdisi has written a treatise titled “Clear Evidence on the Infidel Nature of the Saudi State.” He declared the Saudi government to be a kafir, or nonbeliever, thus justifying its overthrow on religious grounds. He is currently in a Jordanian prison.
“Maqdisi is a very important figure. They listen to him,” said Hahlaq.
To attempt to counter his teachings, the committee sends teams, made up of three clerics and one psychiatrist or psychologist, to see individual prisoners. Visiting almost daily for months, the team engages the prisoner in religious discussions that last for hours at a time. Some detainees attend five-week courses in the fine points of Wahabism, the fundamentalist sect of Islam that dominates Saudi society and lends crucial support to the ruling Saud royal family.
The prisoners, most of them under 30 years of age and without high school diplomas, must pass an exam before being released. The committee then helps them find jobs, go back to school or even get married. But they are required to report to the police every two weeks.
By bringing into the program well-known Wahabi radicals who in the past have denounced the Saudi government for its close association with the United States, Saudi officials hope to add its credibility with young people. With its control of the finances of Islam in the kingdom, the government can bring pressure by threatening to close the mosques of individual clerics or withdraw their funding.
Perhaps the two best-known Wahabi radicals are Salman al-Ouda and Safar al-Hawali. They both spent about five years in prison in the 1990s for criticizing the ruling Saud family for inviting U.S. troops into the kingdom during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War against Iraq. They were among 26 Saudi religious figures who delivered a sermon in November 2004 declaring that Iraqis had a “right” and a “duty” to fight U.S. forces in Iraq.
After the sermon, Saudi authorities pressured Ouda and Hawali in particular to moderate their tone and to help the government combat al-Qaida inside the kingdom. Hawali, the more radical of the two, suffered a stroke last year and has become inactive. Ouda has largely complied, officials said.
Another participant is Obeikan, a former radical Islamic jurist who has publicly challenged Maqdisi and bin Laden to debate their ideology with him.
In an interview at his elegant marble-faced home on the northern outskirts of Riyadh, al-Obeikan recounted that he twice met bin Laden here just before he was expelled by Saudi authorities to Sudan in 1991. The al-Qaida leader sought to convince him to become the spiritual leader of a movement to overthrow the Saud royal family, “like Khomeini,” he said, referring to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran’s 1979 lslamic revolution.
The gray-bearded sheik, dressed in a flowing white robe and a red-and-white checked scarf, said he had declined. He did make an eight-day trip to Afghanistan in 1989 to lecture in three of bin Laden’s camps and join in a “token” detonation of some explosives, he said.
Now, he says he is lecturing on “why there is no need for jihad” in Iraq or elsewhere at this time. “There is a misunderstanding of Islamic jihad,” he said. “What is meant by jihad is the spread of the call to Islam through peaceful means.”
Whether Saudi youth are listening is far from clear. Al-Awajy, the onetime radical lawyer, estimated the influence of clerics such as al-Obeikan was “insignificant.”
Toby Jones, who has written several reports on Saudi politics for the Brussels-based research and advocacy group International Crisis Group, said that al-Obeikan has solid religious credentials. “When he speaks, even the radicals listen,” he said. He doubted, however, that the cleric was changing many minds. among those “leaning toward jihad or at least supporting jihadism.” He noted the Islamic jurist has been regularly pilloried by Islamic militants in satirical Internet postings.
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