- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — British security chiefs are studying a novel Saudi approach to combating terror — using clerics to debate “jihad” with imprisoned militants and convert them to more moderate beliefs.

The Saudi authorities said about 400 of 700 extremists had been re-educated and released from prison.

The Islamic “counseling” program is part of what British experts regard as Saudi Arabia’s “model counterterrorism campaign.”

Senior British officials, including Eliza Manningham-Buller, the chief of MI5 intelligence agency, have visited the kingdom to devise a similar “counter-radicalization” strategy for Britain.

Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries where the fight against terrorism has yielded real success with a softer approach.

Al Qaeda’s campaign in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden’s birthplace, started spectacularly with suicide bombings against Western compounds in Riyadh three years ago, but has abated.

Saudi security forces say they have killed or captured 25 of 26 persons on their original 2003 list of “most wanted” terrorists, including local leaders of al Qaeda.

Only four persons on a follow-up list of 36 militants are thought to be still at large in the kingdom. The rest have been killed or captured or have fled, mostly to Iraq.

“Every day, their numbers, capability and resources are less and less,” said Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Interior. “Terrorism in Saudi Arabia has been degraded.”

The government has fired about 1,000 hard-line clerics, prevented Saudis from going to fight in Iraq and invested heavily in technology, such as a new control room for security forces in Riyadh.

Now more than 100 Muslim clerics, psychiatrists and psychologists help counsel inmates across the country.

The counseling is offered only to militants who have not been directly involved in terrorist acts, but are thought to sympathize with or provide support to extremists.

After a psychological assessment, they have one-on-one sessions with clerics to debate radical ideology, including the meaning of jihad, or holy war, and the doctrine of “takfir,” which declares Muslims who disagree with them to be infidels.

Prisoners in the program are given more access to their family, who sometimes have transportation and lodging paid for by the government. If deemed suitable for release, they are then offered more help, for instance, in finding work.

“These people are very isolated in their cells. They are encouraged not to deal with anybody outside the cells. That is how their minds are controlled,” Gen. al-Turki said.

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