In war on terror, Saudis try amnesty

Saudi officials are testing the effectiveness of the adage: You catch more flies (terrorists, in this case) with a drop of honey than a cask of vinegar.

Saudi Arabia is more than halfway through a 30-day amnesty - and three suspects (including one Tuesday) have turned themselves in. Two Islamic clerics mediating between the government and jihadi militants say they need more honey - time and concessions - to bring an end to a series of bombings and shootouts that have rocked the desert kingdom.

The Saudi efforts are being closely watched next door in Iraq, where the new government says it will announce its own amnesty for insurgents this week.

Sheikh Mohsen al-Awaji, one of the Saudi clerics involved, says the amnesty announced June 23 should be extended for another month. "We're working around the clock in our efforts to get the wanted suspects to give themselves up and are currently in contact with several people," says Mr. Awaji, a former associate professor of geology. "We need more time."

Another sheikh involved in the negotiations, Safar al-Hawali, says that the more than 700 terror suspects behind bars should be released (at least those who have not been charged or who've finished their sentences) as a way of gaining trust of militants on the run. Saudi Arabia should also reduce its support for the United States because these young men see the US as the enemy of Islam, he told the Monitor in a phone interview.

But on state television Sunday, Crown Prince Abdullah, the country's de facto ruler, warned militants that time was running out. "If the grace period is over ... there will be no more excuses," he said.

Since May 2003, Saudi Arabia has been deeply shaken by a string of terrorist attacks attributed to Al Qaeda. The militants have killed more than 85 people, hitting Western compounds, the oil industry, and Saudi police. The attackers say they want Westerners out of the Arabian Peninsula and to set up an Islamic Caliphate.

The government has posted rewards of up to $2 million for information about the "most wanted" suspects. Thirteen of those 26 suspects remain at large, and there are dozens of people wanted by the authorities who are not on the list. Tuesday, Khaled al-Harbi, also known as Abu Suleiman al-Makki, gave himself up at the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Mr. Harbi is reported to have fought with Muslim fighters in Afghanistan and Bosnia. A Saudi security source told Reuters that he was the man seen talking with Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a videotape in which the two men praised the Sept. 11 attacks.

Othman al-Amri, who's on the list of 26, as another one of the three men that have taken advantage of the amnesty. Mr. Amri had been hiding out in a remote mountainous region in the southern province of Asir, according to a report on the Saudi site www.Islamtoday.net.

But others may be reluctant to follow suit because the Saudis aren't offering a full amnesty. The government says it won't prosecute, but private citizens can still seek retribution. Under Islamic law, families who have lost a close relative can either forgive murderers, take blood money, or demand capital punishment.

In support of the amnesty, Nasser al-Kandiri - the father of an 11-year-old girl killed in April in an attack on a police building in Riyadh - went on state television to announce that he's forfeited his right of retribution and urged other parents to do the same "for the sake of public interest," the Arab News reported Sunday. Kandiri's daughter, Wijdan, became a national symbol of the innocent lives lost.

Saudi officials stress the amnesty is a sign of strength and not weakness. It followed a string of blows to the organization in Saudi Arabia including the June 19 killing of Al Qaeda leader Abdul-Aziz al-Muqrin, believed responsible for last month's execution of kidnapped American engineer Paul Johnson. Since then about a dozen suspects have been arrested and several have been killed in shootouts with police.

Over the past week, two of the wanted militants, posted letters on the Internet saying they would not give up. "Jihad is an ideology that runs through our veins and beats in our hearts. Oh tyrants, God promised us either victory or martyrdom, and you promised us amnesty then prison. We will not abandon God's promise," wrote Saud al-Otaibi in the latest edition of Voice of Jihad, a web magazine. Faris Shuwayl al-Zahrani, one of three clerics on the list of 26, said that a terror suspect released from prison had broached the subject of the amnesty with him but that he would never surrender.

Many Saudis say the amnesty is a good step; a fresh approach indicating the government is aware that a security crackdown alone will not solve the problem. A poll in the newspaper Al-Riyadh this week showed that 40 percent of respondents chose unemployment as the biggest challenge facing the kingdom, 39 percent said it was corruption, while 14 percent cited terrorism. The rest 7 percent said poverty.

Mediators Hawali and Awaji say that if they're able to convince about a half-dozen men to give themselves up, the attacks will come to a halt. But political analyst Mshari al-Thaidi says that will not take care of the problem. He and others advocate a more fundamental change in what's taught in Saudi mosques. "It's not a question of a number of individuals, it's a question of ideology. New people who believe in this ideology could always join. We need a serious religious confrontation of the ideology behind these acts of violence. I haven't seen that happen yet," he says.

Youssef al-Dayni, a Saudi researcher who follows militant groups closely says the militants should be exposed to various schools of Islamic thought, not just Wahhabism, the only one allowed in Saudi Arabia. "We need to teach them the ability to dialogue, to give and take and to accept different points of view," he says.

Hawali and Awaji, the controversial clerics leading the negotiations, have been accused of being too close to the terror suspects. Awaji was jailed, along with a number of other academics, for four years starting in 1994 after petitioning for more political freedoms and stricter adherence to Islamic law. Hawali rose to prominence during the 1991 Gulf War with his fiery sermons condemning the presence of US troops on Saudi soil. Cassettes of the sermons were widely circulated. He was arrested in 1994 for his continued criticism of the Saudi government for its close ties to the United States and what he considered it's lax implementation of Islamic law.

"Working with Safar al-Hawali is a big mistake. There's very little difference between him and [the suspects]They believe in the same basic principles," says Saudi writer Saud al-Sarhan. "Hawali has a very conservative agenda that is anti- secular and doesn't allow dissenting religious points of view."

But it is precisely because of their conservative views and years behind bars that they are able to reach out to the militants, argues Awaji, who runs a website called al-Wasatiya, or "middle of the road." "We have more credibility. We're independent," he says. Awaji argues that dialogue with the militants is a necessity despite the fact that they've resorted to violence. "The British had to talk to the IRA to resolve their problems. We, too, should open the door for dialogue with these people," he says.

Neither cleric would get into the details of how they get in touch with the militants, but Awaji said they post information and religious arguments on the Internet that gets through to the wanted suspects.

Hawali says he uses a simple Islamic doctrine when reaching out to the militants. "I tell them, 'Islam is about spreading the word and spreading the truth, jihad is only to be used when necessary.' " Hawali considers the terror suspects devout Muslims who've taken the wrong path and can be persuaded to use their religious fervor in charity work and in spreading Islam.

He says US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and support for Israel provokes them. "They see Israelis driving American bulldozers destroying Palestinians' homes. They see US violence on fellow Muslim brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then they see their own government's close support of the United States and it makes them very angry. They're young and passionate, and they react to the violence they see with their own violence," he says.

Hawali says most of these young men are uneducatedand haven't traveled. He's trying to teach them an alternative means of resistance. "What we're suggesting to them is peaceful means of resistance against the US government, like economic boycotts, and engaging in dialogue with the American antiwar movement and American churches and explaining their point of view to the American public. They don't realize the American public is diverse, liberated, and accessible. They react with surprise when we tell them this."

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