SANAA, YEMEN — When Judge Hamoud al-Hitar announced that he and four other Islamic scholars would challenge Yemen's Al Qaeda prisoners to a theological contest, Western antiterrorism experts warned that this high-stakes gamble would end in disaster.
Nervous as he faced five captured, yet defiant, Al Qaeda members in a Sanaa prison, Judge Hitar was inclined to agree. But banishing his doubts, the youthful cleric threw down the gauntlet, in the hope of bringing peace to his troubled homeland.
"If you can convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in your struggle," Hitar told the militants. "But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence."
The prisoners eagerly agreed.
Now, two years later, not only have those prisoners been released, but a relative peace reigns in Yemen. And the same Western experts who doubted this experiment are courting Hitar, eager to hear how his "theological dialogues" with captured Islamic militants have helped pacify this wild and mountainous country, previously seen by the US as a failed state, like Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Since December 2002, when the first round of the dialogues ended, there have been no terrorist attacks here, even though many people thought that Yemen would become terror's capital," says Hitar, eyes glinting shrewdly from beneath his emerald-green turban. "Three hundred and sixty-four young men have been released after going through the dialogues and none of these have left Yemen to fight anywhere else."
"Yemen's strategy has been unconventional certainly, but it has achieved results that we could never have hoped for," says one European diplomat, who did not want to be named. "Yemen has gone from being a potential enemy to becoming an indispensable ally in the war on terror."
To be sure, the prisoner-release program is not solely responsible for the absence of attacks in Yemen. The government has undertaken a range of measures to combat terrorism from closing down extreme madrassahs, the Islamic schools sometimes accused of breeding hate, to deporting foreign militants.
Eager to spread the news of his success, Hitar welcomes foreigners into his home, fussing over them and pouring endless cups of tea. But beyond the otherwise nondescript house, a sense of menace lurks. Two military jeeps are parked outside, and soldiers peer through the gathering dark at passing cars. The evening wind sweeps through the unpaved streets, lifting clouds of dust and whipping up men's jackets to expose belts hung with daggers, pistols, and mobile telephones.
Seated amid stacks of Korans and religious texts, Hitar explains that his system is simple. He invites militants to use the Koran to justify attacks on innocent civilians and when they cannot, he shows them numerous passages commanding Muslims not to attack civilians, to respect other religions, and fight only in self-defense.
For example, he quotes: "Whoever kills a soul, unless for a soul, or for corruption done in the land - it is as if he had slain all mankind entirely. And, whoever saves one, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely." He uses the passage to bolster his argument against bombing Western targets in Yemen - attacks he says defy the Koran. And, he says, the Koran says under no circumstances should women and children be killed.
If, after weeks of debate, the prisoners renounce violence they are released and offered vocational training courses and help to find jobs.
Hitar's belief that hardened militants trained by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan could change their stripes was initially dismissed by US diplomats in Sanaa as dangerously naive, but the methods of the scholarly cleric have little in common with the other methods of fighting extremism. Instead of lecturing or threatening the battle-hardened militants, he listens to them.
"An important part of the dialogue is mutual respect," says Hitar. "Along with acknowledging freedom of expression, intellect and opinion, you must listen and show interest in what the other party is saying."
Only after winning the militants' trust does Hitar gradually begin to correct their beliefs. He says that most militants are ordinary people who have been led astray. Just as they were taught Al Qaeda's doctrines, he says, so too can they be taught more- moderate ideas. "If you study terrorism in the world, you will see that it has an intellectual theory behind it," says Hitar. "And any kind of intellectual idea can be defeated by intellect."
The program's success surprised even Hitar. For years Yemen was synonymous with violent Islamic extremism. The ancestral homeland of Mr. bin Laden, it provided two-thirds of recruits for his Afghan camps, and was notorious for kidnappings of foreigners and the bombing of the American warship USS Cole in 2000 that killed 17 sailors. Resisting US pressure, Yemen declined to meet violence with violence.
"It's only logical to tackle these people through their brains and heart," says Faris Sanabani, a former adviser to President Abdullah Saleh and editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer, a weekly English-language newspaper. "If you beat these people up they become more stubborn. If you hit them, they will enjoy the pain and find something good in it - it is a part of their ideology. Instead, what we must do is erase what they have been taught and explain to them that terrorism will only harm Yemenis' jobs and prospects. Once they understand this they become fighters for freedom and democracy, and fighters for the true Islam," he says.
Some freed militants were so transformed that they led the army to hidden weapons caches and offered the Yemeni security services advice on tackling Islamic militancy. A spectacular success came in 2002 when Abu Ali al Harithi, Al Qaeda's top commander in Yemen, was assassinated by a US air-strike following a tip-off from one of Hitar's reformed militants.
Yet despite the apparent success in Yemen, some US diplomats have criticized it for apparently letting Islamic militants off the hook with little guarantee that they won't revert to their old ways once released from prison.
Yemen, however, argues that holding and punishing all militants would create only further discontent, pointing out that the actual perpetrators of attacks have all been prosecuted, with the bombers of the USS Cole and the French oil tanker, the SS Limburg. All received death sentences.
"Yemeni goals are long-term political aims whereas the American agenda focuses on short-term prosecution of military or law enforcement objectives," wrote Charles Schmitz, a specialist in Yemeni affairs, in 2004 report for the Jamestown Foundation, an influential US think tank.
"These goals are not necessarily contradictory, with each government recognizing that compromises and accommodations must be made, but their ambiguities create tense moments."
Some members of the Yemeni government also hanker for a more iron-fisted approach, and Yemen remains on high alert for further attacks. Fighter planes regularly swoop low over the ancient mud-brick city of Sanaa to send a clear message to any would-be militants.
An additional cause of friction with the US is that while Yemen successfully discourages attacks within its borders on the grounds that tourism and trade will suffer, it has done little to tackle anti-Western sentiment or the corruption, poverty, and lack of opportunity that fuels Islamic militancy.
"Yemen still faces serious challenges, but despite the odd hiccup, we sometimes have to admit that Yemenis know Yemen best," says the European diplomat. "And if their system works, who are we to complain?"
As the relative success of Yemen's unusual approach becomes apparent, Hitar has been invited to speak to antiterrorism specialists at London's New Scotland Yard, as well as to French and German police, hoping to defuse growing militancy among Muslim immigrants.
US diplomats have also approached the cleric to see if his methods can be applied in Iraq, says Hitar.
"Before the dialogues began, there was only one way to fight terrorism, and that was through force," he says. "Now there is another way: dialogue."