Tue, Apr 03, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Re-educating rebels a success: Saudi officials

REHABILITATION Riyadh claimed that the program had seen an 80 percent to 90 percent success rate in weaning extremists off the `takfiri' ideology

THE GUARDIAN , RIYADH

Saudi Arabia claims to be winning its "war on terror" with the help of a program of re-education and rehabilitation for hundreds of repentant al-Qaeda militants once led by Osama bin Laden.

Officials in Riyadh say they have seen an 80 percent to 90 percent success rate in a "counter-radicalization" campaign designed to wean extremists 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-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula have died in clashes with security forces since attacks began in May 2003.

Two thousand men have been through the program, 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 English which he picked up during four years spent in Guantanamo 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," the holy warrior-turned financial analyst said. "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 program 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," al-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 Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers. The death penalty will probably be imposed in some cases, with public beheadings in central Riyadh.

The soft approach contrasts sharply with reports of the torture of security detainees as documented by Human Rights Watch. The official Saudi account of the program 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" of the scheme, Abu Khaled, 25, works in civil defense after recanting during a two-year jail term served on returning from Afghanistan.

"I recognized that I made a mistake," he says. "I feel guilt and remorse for what I did."

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

Programs are in place in Saudi schools and mosques to combat extremist ideas, but the challenge now is the export of extremists, Hadlaq says.

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."

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