Koranic duels ease terror
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."