Saudis say militant’s return vindicates strategy


Counselling by Muslim clerics to “correct deviant thinking” in militants, extensive contact with their families, and practical help to reintegrate them into society play key roles in the programme which is not infallible, foreign analysts and diplomats say.

But they credit it with helping erode support for al Qaeda after Saudi security forces largely quelled an insurgency launched in 2002 to destabilise the world’s top oil exporter.

“Its main strength is convincing the wider population that if they have suspicions about their sons adopting extremism they can express them to the authorities, knowing they will not just put them in a dark hole and lose the key,” one diplomat said.

Mohammed al-Awfi and another Saudi freed from Guantanamo, Mohammed al-Shehri, announced on an Internet video last month they had joined al Qaeda’s wing in Yemen, newly renamed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as commanders.

Both men had entered a Saudi rehabilitation programme after their release from the U.S. detention centre in late 2007.

Their well-publicised return to al Qaeda embarrassed the Saudi authorities and, with debate already raging over U.S. President Barack Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo, put its “soft” counter-terrorism strategy under a spotlight.

But Awfi is now back in Saudi custody. Yemeni authorities handed him over on Tuesday after he had turned himself in.

The Saudi Interior Ministry says he made his move after contacting his family and asking them to get in touch with officials on the rehabilitation programme.

“Probably Awfi’s family had a role in convincing him to surrender,” the ministry’s security spokesman, General Mansour al-Turki, told Reuters. He said the episode had reinforced the validity of the campaign to change the outlook of militants.

“That is the beauty of the programme,” Turki said. “It does not depend only on what the government or police do, but on the families. We are looking to other families to do the same.”

“Weak personality”
Awfi is not a significant figure, according to Fares bin Houzam, an independent Saudi researcher on al Qaeda.

“He has a weak personality with no leadership qualities. He was just being used to recruit more Saudis,” he said. Former inmates recall the only thing that marked Awfi out was his Guantanamo prisoner number 333, an echo of the Saudi craze for peronalised car registration and telephone numbers.

Christopher Boucek, a Carnegie Endowment researcher who has studied the Saudi rehabilitation effort, wrote last month that the defection of the two Saudis was a stark warning.

“The cases … underscore the dire need for a comprehensive programme to handle all former Guantanamo detainees,” he said, highlighting what he said was the lack of preparations in Yemen to receive nearly 100 Yemenis still held at the U.S. base.

Thirteen Saudis remain in Guantanamo, set up after the United States began a “war on terror” following the Sept. 11 attacks by mostly Saudi suicide hijackers sent by al Qaeda.

Turki said 117 Saudis had been repatriated from Guantanamo and three had died there. The rehabilitation campaign, less than two years old, had delivered promising results and would be expanded, he added.

“In general we are very satisfied with the programme. Awfi’s surrender is one result of it.”

Around 280 militants have passed through a care programme that kicks in after they have completed their jail terms, he said. Of these 12 had relapsed into militancy and were on a new wanted list, and nine of them had been re-arrested.

The ministry issued a wanted list of 85 militants abroad, all Saudis except for two Yemenis, on Feb. 2 and urged them to surrender and “return to a normal life”.

The authorities plan to replace a temporary rehabilitation centre in Riyadh with a purpose-built one and add four more in other provinces to make family visits easier, Turki added.

The expansion plans are partly to cope with the eventual release of 991 suspected al Qaeda militants whom the authorities said in October were awaiting trial for 30 attacks since 2003.

The after-prison care is an adjunct to what Turki said was optional counselling for militants still in jail—part of a “war of ideas” to show them they have strayed from true Islam.

Saudi Arabia’s campaign of persuasion and rehabilitation, already being copied elsewhere, is only one component of an anti-terror strategy waged in a tougher form by security forces.

“The hard core of terrorist organisation that existed in the early part of this decade is broken,” a Western diplomat said.

“The capability and training of the security forces has improved. The atmosphere has changed in the government’s favour. People are less inclined to see al Qaeda as a good thing.”

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