Saudis Question 'Soft' Strategy Toward Militants

Saudi men at a rehabilitation center for convicted militants i i

In this 2007 photo, Saudi men released from Guantanamo Bay and prisons in Iraq and Saudi Arabia listen to a Muslim cleric during a religious course at an Interior Ministry rehabilitation center north of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A recent assassination attempt against the Saudi counterterrorism chief has raised concerns about the country's approach to terrorism, which has emphasized rehabilitation of militants. Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi men at a rehabilitation center for convicted militants

In this 2007 photo, Saudi men released from Guantanamo Bay and prisons in Iraq and Saudi Arabia listen to a Muslim cleric during a religious course at an Interior Ministry rehabilitation center north of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A recent assassination attempt against the Saudi counterterrorism chief has raised concerns about the country's approach to terrorism, which has emphasized rehabilitation of militants.

Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

In late August, Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, got a call from a known al-Qaida member who had taken refuge in neighboring Yemen. The militant said he was ready to turn himself in. But he had to do it in person.

The prince sent a plane. The militant was brought to the prince's house.

Later, on Saudi state TV, the prince recounted the story to King Abdullah.

"I was in the sitting room, and he blew himself up," Prince Mohammed told the king.

"Thank God nothing happened to you," the king said. "But you should have searched the man first."

"I ordered him not to be searched," the prince said.

"He was in your private home!" the king snapped back.

The king touched on the question that many in Saudi Arabia are asking since the attack: Why would the head of counterintelligence not only invite a known terrorist into his house, but then not have him thoroughly searched first?

Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says it's because Saudi officials have taken a very personal approach to combating terrorism.

"There is [an] attitude that everybody gets a second chance: 'We as the state understand how you would have made mistakes. That said, we want to help you come back to the right way, to return you to the fold.' In order to do this, the government has to be accessible," he explains.

And it's not just about militants turning themselves in. The Saudi government also sponsors a rehabilitation center where convicted militants take classes on everything from the correct understanding of jihad to art therapy.

So far, more than a thousand former militants have graduated from the program. Most lead normal lives with cars, jobs and even wives arranged by the government.

But some have returned to the fight. Two graduates appeared in an al-Qaida video earlier this year.

Still, Saudi authorities say they refuse to change their policies — although Ministry of Interior spokesman Mansour al-Turki says officials might take more precautions the next time a militant wants to turn himself in.

The prince would still meet with a militant, Turki says, but perhaps in his office or in the ministry.

Beyond security logistics, other challenges remain. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently released a report that said while funding for terrorism is waning inside Saudi Arabia, private Saudis still fund militants outside the country.

And, as al-Qaida members regroup in Yemen, the report said the Saudis need to do more to fortify their border.

The Saudi-Yemeni border spans hundreds of miles. Some posts are well-fortified, but that is not the case farther away from cities and towns, where there is less — and in some cases, no — control at the border.

Just this week near the Yemeni border, a group of suspected militants fired at Saudi police at a checkpoint. Officials said the men were wearing women's clothing to conceal explosive vests and were transporting more weapons in their vehicle. Police shot and killed two militants and arrested a third.

Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment acknowledges that sometimes a hard approach is necessary for the most violent militants. But the soft approach is also effective, he says, especially when dealing with impressionable young men who might have thought about committing violence but never had a chance to do it.

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