August 28, 2006

Saudi “corrects” ideas of 700 Qaeda sympathizers

By Andrew Hammond

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has released over 700
suspected militants after clerics "corrected" their thinking in
a special program aimed at stemming a three-year-old campaign
of violence by al Qaeda, officials said.

"They are sympathizers. There are many of this kind of
people, who are subject to the process of an advisory
committee. Hundreds of them have gone through this and been
released," Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki said.

The men have been released at different stages over the
past three years, he explained.

"They were arrested in the first place because they were
suspicious, but there was no hard evidence against them linking
them to any terrorist act or planning," he told Reuters.

Turki said the men had believed in 'takfiri' ideology,
which permits branding Muslim governments or ordinary Muslims
as infidels because of policies, behavior or beliefs.

Militants around the world swearing allegiance to the al
Qaeda network headed by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden use this
idea to justify attacks on governments, foreigners and

In Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda supporters began a campaign to
bring down the U.S.-allied royal family with suicide bombings
in May 2003 against Western housing compounds in Riyadh.

Officials say more than 136 militants and 150 foreigners
and Saudis, including security forces, have died since then,
but the violence has ebbed in the face of toughened security
measures against what official rhetoric calls "the deviant


Sheikh Mohammed al-Fifi, a member of the committee leading
the dialogue with suspects, said this week that those released,
accounted for over 90 percent of all detainees whose thinking
clerics had tried to "correct." He put the number of those
freed at around 700.

"First we would deal with them in groups, then individually
as they related their thoughts," he told the al-Madina
newspaper in an interview published this week.

"They became like this through provocative religious edicts
on the Internet or in books, or via preachers who stir up young
people's passions in sermons and lectures," he added.

Fifi said he did not blame Saudi Arabia's controversial
educational curriculum which foreign rights groups and Western
governments have said promote extremism.

Most of the 19 suicide plane hijackers who carried out the
September 11 attacks in the United States were Saudi. Saudi
authorities say they want to reform school textbooks that
demonize moderate Muslims, Christians and Jews.

"The curriculum is not to blame since we've had it for over
30 years. The problem is some of the teachers," Fifi said.

Observers say Arab governments' close ties with Washington
and apparent inability to influence its pro-Israel foreign
policy in the Arab world is another key factor behind

Interior Ministry spokesman Turki said detainees believed
to have clear links to militant attacks were being prepared for
trial. He declined to say how many they were.

But the process has been delayed because Saudi Arabia's
underdeveloped justice system -- where religious scholars sit
as judges ruling on the basis of Islamic Sharia law -- does not
yet provide for courts competent to view such cases.