Indystar - 8/5/2006
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 appeal of al-Qaida.
The effort has targeted hundreds of young Saudis whom security forces here have arrested as sympathizers or potential recruits. They are then subjected to an intense program of religious re-education by clerics that sometimes lasts for months.
Saudi authorities say that about 500 youths have completed the program and been freed since it began in 2004. They remain under close surveillance.
"None has been found to get reinvolved in terrorism so far," said Lt. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry. "Their ideology has changed, and they are convinced they were wrong."
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.
Al-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.
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," U.S. Ambassador James Oberwetter said 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 re-education 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.