In Saudi Arabia, a softer approach to fighting terror

This is the fourth part of a GlobalPost series of reports by Caryle Murphy that goes inside the House of Saud and its internal struggle to reclaim Islam from Al Qaeda.

Part one: Saudi Arabia's struggle to reclaim Islam

Part two: A kingdom divided

Part three: Women join fight againt terror

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — During last year’s holy month of Ramadan, Saudi Arabia’s top counterterrorism official, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, was receiving guests at his Jeddah palace. The man he was most eager to see had arrived on a jet sent by the prince. He was thin, 23, and full of bad intentions.

Abdullah Al Asiri had earlier told the prince by phone that he wanted to desert Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and come home. But as he now approached the royal, he set off explosives stashed in his underwear. Asiri was gone in a moment, his body splattered around the ornate room, one arm dangling from the ceiling. The shaken prince suffered scratches to two fingers on his left hand.

Within hours of his close call, the prince called Asiri’s father to express his condolences. “We both,” he said, “have lost a son.”

The unusual call illustrated a key feature of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism strategy, of which deputy interior minister Prince Muhammad is principal architect and enforcer: A willingness to personally engage extremists and their families in order to turn them away from militancy.

It is an approach rooted in Prince Muhammad’s conviction that many militants have been brainwashed by a “deviant” ideology and can be won back with enough attention and incentives, including financial ones. As he told Robert Lacey, author of Inside the Kingdom, “these young people have been sick. We view their problem as a virus in the brain.”

Prince Muhammad’s mission is similar to one that also gripped his grandfather, Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Saud: Vanquishing extremists from the puritanical strain of Islam known as Wahhabism who view the House of Saud as insufficiently Muslim.

Religious extremism has been a perennial threat to Saudi Arabia’s ruling family ever since it joined forces with the Wahhabi sect almost three centuries ago. The fateful pact has given the House of Saud its legitimacy as rulers of the world’s largest oil-producing nation as well as Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

But in the post-9/11 world, the Saudi ruling family is being forced again to confront Wahhabi extremists who view the royals and their allies, principally the United States, as enemies of Islam. For the House of Saud, it is a momentous struggle to defeat those who used Islam to justify Al Qaeda’s 2001 terror attacks on the United States and suicide bombings in the kingdom that left 164 dead.

Unlike his grandfather, who led camel-mounted Bedouins with machine guns to defeat his Wahhabi foes in the 1929 Battle of Sibila, U.S.-educated Prince Muhammad is employing a multi-faceted approach.

Besides personal outreach to jihadis and their families, the antiterror campaign includes an innovative rehabilitation program for detained extremists, traditional hard-nosed police work, tough punishment and a relentless media campaign against what the government terms “deviant” Islamic ideas.

In addition, Saudi security forces caught flat-footed by the outbreak of Al Qaeda’s violent campaign in 2003, today are far better equipped, trained and organized, diplomats said.

Although the campaign has come under fire from human rights groups and democratic activists, it appears to have dismantled Al Qaeda’s domestic network, restoring internal peace — at least for now, according to foreign diplomats and experts on the kingdom.

Prince Muhammad, 50, has “just dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s like no one has done before in Saudi Arabia and he’s reaped the benefits of that hard work,” said Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

The prince has also vastly improved Saudi Arabia’s bilateral ties with foreign —particularly U.S. — counterterrorism officials, which is crucial to checkmating a transnational organization like Al Qaeda.

“It’s probably one of the best relationships the U.S. has in terms of countering terrorism,” said Christopher Boucek, a Saudi analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Though rarely in the media spotlight, Prince Muhammad’s counterterrorism job has given him a certain prominence among the second generation of royal princes, from whose ranks a future king will come.

His stature is also enhanced as a son of the third most powerful man in the kingdom, Interior Minister and Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz. Though Nayef is one of the most conservative grandees of the House of Saud, he apparently backs his son’s counterterrorism strategy.

The strategy dates back to the late 1990s, according to Thomas Hegghammer, a scholar of Islamist politics at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and author of Jihad in Saudi Arabia. Writing at the blog, Hegghammer noted that the prince “is the main contact point between the state and the radical Islamist community” and “has received hundreds of jihadis in his office.

“He has made a point of always being personally accessible to militants wanting to talk [or surrender],” Hegghammer wrote. “And he has a reputation in the Islamist community (outside of Al Qaeda) for discretion, kindness and financial generosity.”

A special unit within Prince Muhammad’s office is assigned to help families of militants, including fugitives and ones killed by security forces, a ministry official said. For instance, if children of a slain militant have problems at school, someone from the ministry will step in to assist, or if the family does not have a home, the ministry may buy them one, he added.

And salaries of fugitive militants who once worked for the government continue to be paid to their families, said Mostafa Alani, director of security studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

The idea is that well-treated families are more likely to help police and pressure their sons to surrender, Alani said, noting: “Now a good part of intelligence ... is coming from families and the community — more than 50 percent.”

Besides, as the prince told author Lacey, “we know that if we don’t take care of [the families], there are others who will try to step in.”

The Interior Ministry also runs awareness-raising campaigns in which clerics and ministry officials speak to Saudi audiences about the dangers of “deviant” ideas. High schools are high on the list for such sessions because officials say students that age are particularly susceptible to militant recruitment, either through the Internet or someone they know.

Since 2003, ministry officials said, 2,000 teachers who expressed extremist sympathies have been moved out of classrooms to administrative positions to keep them away from students. Another 400 teachers are in prison for extremist activities, they added.

Prince Muhammad declined to be interviewed for this article. But his office supplied an official biography, which states that he got a degree in political science in the United States in 1981 and is married to the daughter of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, with whom he has two daughters.

He was a businessman before being appointed in 1999 to his current post. People who have met the prince describe him as serious, rational and a good listener who gets right to the point of a conversation, does not stand on ceremony and is well-prepared on the subject at hand. Known for his attention to detail, he often works through the night at his ministry office.

“So many people thought he would be another prince, not doing a lot of work, just relaxing and watching everything,” said Saud Al Sarhan, an expert in Islamist politics in the kingdom. “But I noticed that he’s [directly] involved in fighting Al Qaeda.”

The prince strictly enforces the monarchy’s ban on political parties, but reportedly has rejected some requests from royal family members to shut down Internet forums where Saudis complain about their rulers.

“It seems he’s intelligent enough to let people talk ... if no harm is done,” said Saudi university professor Mohammed Al Khazim.

The prince’s counterterrorism strategy, however, is not without critics. Saudi and foreign human rights activists denounce the liberal use of long-term detentions and solitary confinement for suspected militants, and secret trials for accused extremists.

“Now the government is detaining thousands of young people, for five and six years” as part of a “preventive policy,” said Mohammad A. Al Hodaif, a quality control official at a religious television network. “Many people have advised the government that these detained people will be in the future like a time-bomb.”

In 2007, the interior ministry said 3,106 of 9,000 security suspects arrested since 2003 were still being held. The current number is not disclosed, but rights activists said most are being held without charges or access to courts, including 73-year-old judge, Suliman Al Reshoudi, a government critic who has been detained for three years.

“So many families and wives call and say, ‘My husband is in jail for months, even years, for no reason,’” said Riyadh-based Mohammad Al Qahtani, co-founder of Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. “Usually they are accused of being extremists.”

Al Qahtani also charges that the antiterror program is used to repress democratic reformers. “I was approached by envoys from Prince Muhammad to meet with our group ... more than a year ago,” said Al Qahtani. “I thought he was more open-minded than his father but that meeting never materialized.”

Al Qahtani said he believed that “most arrests which take place are at his order,” adding: “He should approach ... someone like me, a peaceful activist, with more tolerance.”

And although Prince Muhammad is said to have imposed curbs on physical abuse of security detainees so as not to further radicalize them, torture has not completely disappeared from Saudi prisons, human rights observers say.

While torture has not stopped for security detainees, it “is not being practiced with the methodical intensity that seems to have been done in the 1990s,” said Christoph Wilcke, who follows Saudi Arabia for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The physical torture we have seen in the past, such as using electricity on body parts, the traditional beating on the soles of feet, suspending in air ... Allegations of such treatment are exceedingly rare these days.”

Instead, Wilcke said, “we have seen prolonged solitary confinement as the preferred method to weaken a detainee.”

Wilcke added that he still gets “quite a number of complaints of torture from Saudi regular prisons,” as well as “indirect accounts” about the “widespread” use of torture in interrogations and police stations.

Finally, in 2008, the government announced that it planned to bring almost 1,000 security detainees to trial. Several months later, it disclosed that 330 of them had been secretly tried and most sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths; one got the death penalty.

Saudi rights activists and lawyers in touch with families of detainees describe the trials as summary judgments in which the defendants did not have appropriate opportunities to challenge evidence presented by prosecutors — who are from the Interior Ministry.

Abdelaziz M. al Gasim, a former judge who now works as an attorney called the trials “shameful” because “there are no lawyers, no family, no audience, no journalists.”

Despite these criticisms and at least two attempts on Prince Muhammad’s life prior to last year’s attack, he is staying on course because he believes his policies are succeeding.

As he told the author Lacey, the militants “know that it is us, not them, who can count on the support of the community — and that is the battle that really matters. We are building a national consensus that extremism is wrong … Whoever wins society will win this war.”