RIYADH, Saudi Arabia
Young men spray hoses in a car-washing contest and play pool. Children make paper crowns in an art class, while their parents have a picnic. Alongside the fun and games, Muslim clerics answer questions about jihad or give lectures about the proper dress for women.
This is Islamic summer camp, and it’s part of Saudi Arabia’s campaign to eliminate al Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia says it’s waging a “war of minds” against extremist ideology, alongside the fierce security crackdown that has killed or led to the arrest of many al Qaeda leaders over the past six years. To do so, the kingdom plans to expand a broad public campaign aimed at preventing young people from being drawn to radicalism.
“We are working on the men of the future,” Abdulrahman Alhadlaq, general director of the Interior Ministry’s Ideological Security Directorate, told the Associated Press.
Islamic summer camps are a key part of the program, attended by thousands of families who consult with government-backed clerics instilling what Saudi authorities call a moderate message.
The teachings at the camps are still ultraconservative, in line with the kingdom’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam - but the clerics drill the message that youths should turn to approved religious authorities for guidance, not radical preachers. For example, on the issue of jihad, or holy war, they teach that it can only be waged on the orders of the head of state.
“It is … essentially about obedience, loyalty and recognition of authority,” said Christopher Boucek, an associate at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has studied the camp programs. “That is what is stressed over and over again in these programs: Loyalty to the state and recognition that there are certain correct and qualified sources to follow.”
Mr. Boucek said it would take a long time to evaluate the programs’ effectiveness. “In many ways, these are generational projects,” he said.
The kingdom’s emphasis on ideological campaigns is a stark change from the defensive stance it took immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, prompting a storm of criticism in the United States that Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi thought fueled radicalism. Saudi Arabia staunchly denied the existence of any radical trend on its soil, dismissing warnings of al Qaeda’s influence.
It was not until 2003, when al Qaeda launched a campaign of attacks in Saudi Arabia targeting foreigners and oil infrastructure in a bid to bring down the ruling family, that the kingdom seriously unleashed its security crackdown.
The government followed with a “rehabilitation” program seeking to reform detained militants, in which clerics teach that al Qaeda’s calls for violence are un-Islamic.
Saudi Arabia has come under heavy criticism over its crackdown. Amnesty International condemned the use of torture against suspected militants. In August, New York-based Human Rights Watch said the kingdom was still holding 3,000 suspects without trial and is forcing them to undergo rehabilitation.
Saudi officials say their approach has succeeded in breaking al Qaeda’s leadership and wrecking its ability to reorganize. Al Qaeda has regrouped in neighboring Yemen, but Saudi officials say it is having difficulty gaining new Saudi recruits.