With counterterror program, Saudis have turned the tide

Posted in Terrorism , Broader Middle East | 23-Mar-09 | Author: Robert Worth| Source: International Herald Tribune

Members of a Saudi counterterrorism team during a training exercise. The kingdom says most terrorists have been killed, jailed or exiled.

RIYADH: Near the guard tower outside this country's main counterterrorism training center, some of the concrete barriers are still scarred with shrapnel. They are kept as a reminder: in December 2004, a suicide bomber detonated his car there, in one of a series of deadly attacks by Islamist insurgents that shook the kingdom.

"It was a wake-up call," said the commander of the training center, a tall, wiry officer in fatigues and a black beret who cannot publicly give his name for security reasons. "The situation was bad." A plaque just inside the commander's office bears the names of 57 Saudi officers who died fighting terrorists from 2003 to 2005.

Those deaths forced a decisive shift here. Many Saudis had refused to recognize the country's growing reputation as an incubator of terrorism, even after the international outcry that had followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, much has changed. When Saudi Arabia released its latest list of wanted terrorism suspects in January, all 85 of them were said to be outside the kingdom.

That fact was a measure of the ambitious counterterrorism program created here in the past few years. The government has cracked down ruthlessly on terrorist cells and their financing, rooting out officers with extremist sympathies and building a much larger and more effective network of SWAT teams. Even regular police officers now get a full month of counterterrorism training every year.

"We have killed or captured all the fighters, and the rest have fled to Afghanistan or Yemen," said the commander, in an assessment largely echoed by Western security officials. "All that remains here is some ideological apparatus."

The extent of that ideological apparatus remains uncertain. The list of 85 suspects that was released in January included 11 men who had been freed from the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had passed through Saudi Arabia's widely praised rehabilitation program for jihadists and then had fled the country. Two of them broadcast their aim of overthrowing the Saudi royal family in a video released on the Internet by the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda, in an embarrassing moment for the authorities here.

But the Saudi government, which once seemed unwilling to acknowledge this country's critical role in fostering jihadist violence, has become far more open about the challenges it faces.

"We are still at the beginning; we have a lot to learn," said Turki al-Otayan, the director of the rehabilitation program's psychological committee. Like others involved in the program, he conceded that the return of some of its graduates to terrorism had been a blow, but he said he believed that the success rate (14 failures out of 218 graduates) was still impressive.

Mr. Otayan and his colleagues won a partial vindication last month when one of the two graduates who had fled to Yemen later returned to Saudi Arabia and gave himself up. But Mr. Otayan shrugged that off.

"We can't guarantee that he won't go back to Yemen again," he added. "You're dealing with people, not cars."

Saudi officials are also frank about the fact that Al Qaeda still has some popular sympathy here, though far less than before the bloody attacks from 2003 to 2005.

"Changing mindsets is not easy, and it takes a long time," said Abdul Rahman al-Hadlag, the Interior Ministry's director of ideological security. "We have to monitor mosques and the Internet, because the extremists use these places to recruit people. Sometimes they even use after-school activities. Sleeper cells exist."

Some of the softer approaches to fighting terrorism have been labeled as coddling by Western critics. But the Saudi state must provide many former jihadists with jobs and financial assistance, Mr. Hadlag said, because if it does not, others will.

"Sometimes the extremists leave money in envelopes under the door, with 'From your mujahedeen brothers' written on it," Mr. Hadlag said. "We can't let them be the good guys."

The post-prison rehabilitation program, which is now being expanded, is only one part of a broader effort to address the issue of violent extremism across Saudi Arabia. It includes dialogues with, or even suppression of, the more extremist clerics. There are also a variety of outreach programs in areas known to harbor extremists, with the Interior Ministry sending its preferred clerics or sheiks to speak in schools and community centers for two or three weeks at a time.

At the same time, the kingdom has completely retooled its prison system, which had been criticized as having inhumane conditions. Five new prisons were built last year ? as it happens, by the bin Laden family company ? that hold 1,200 to 1,500 prisoners each.

Unlike the old prisons, the new ones allow a maximum of four inmates to a cell, and Islamists are kept separate from common criminals for the first time, minimizing the spread of jihadist ideas, or so the theory goes.

Some internal critics say that the "soft" counterterrorism strategies remain weak and that the only way to address the roots of jihadist violence is by thoroughly reforming the Saudi educational system, a task that will take decades.

"One major problem is that the sheiks they bring for these programs aren't authoritative," said Mshari al-Zaydi, a Saudi journalist and political analyst who is a former hard-liner, referring to the rehabilitation efforts. "They don't have credibility because they are seen as people who take money from the government."

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia's main terrorist threat appears to come from Yemen, where a number of Saudi extremists have regrouped in that country's mountainous, tribal hinterland. They have struck there repeatedly in the past year and have declared a goal of using Yemen as a base for attacks against Saudi Arabia. The border with Yemen is long and porous, and militants appear to have no trouble crossing it at will.

"We are victims of terrorism," said the commander of the Riyadh training center. "It's not what the world thinks."