Under the watchful eye of FBI agents, the Saudi security authorities are using an unorthodox - but apparently successful - interrogation technique against suspected Al Qaeda militants to extract information on the deadly suicide bombings in Riyadh earlier this month.
Muslim clerics are being employed to "verbally beat" the prisoners, telling them that they have misinterpreted Islam and should confess all they know to win favor once more with God, according to a Western diplomat in Riyadh. It is a technique that diplomats say the Saudis have used before to question suspected Islamic militants.
"It's working very well," the diplomat says.
A massive manhunt, launched after the devastating May 12 suicide bombings of three housing compounds in Riyadh in which 34 people were killed, appears to be achieving results. A suspected Al Qaeda ringleader of the attacks was reportedly arrested Tuesday along with two other men in an Internet cafe in Medina. Two other arrests were also reported Tuesday. At least seven suspects were arrested last week and hundreds have been rounded up for questioning.
In the wake of the May 12 bombings, the Saudis were accused of failing to heed prior warnings of an imminent terrorist attack against a Western target. Stung by the criticism, the Saudi authorities tightened security nationwide. Checkpoints on the highways that criss-cross this sprawling city generate huge backups. Concrete barriers have been erected in front of Riyadh's major hotels and all arriving cars are stopped and searched. Additional guards have been placed around housing compounds - walled residential areas where expats can lead relatively Western-style lives beyond the restrictions of Saudi society.
The security measures and vigorous investigation efforts appear to have won US approval. US Ambassador Robert Jordan Wednesday hailed the "superb" cooperation between the Saudi authorities and a 60-strong FBI team which was dispatched to the kingdom in the wake of the bombings to assist with the investigation.
"The FBI team is likely to conclude the evidence-gathering portion of their work by the end of this week. Then they will return home," Mr. Jordan told reporters at a press briefing at the embassy. He added that a small FBI team would travel to Saudi Arabia to follow up on the initial inquiries.
Last week, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayyef bin Abdel Aziz said that the FBI team would observe the investigation rather than play an active part. Jordan would not comment on the specific extent of the FBI's role in the investigation, but the Western diplomatic source confirmed that FBI agents are attending the interrogation sessions and feeding questions to the interrogators.
"The FBI is taking part and they are very happy with their level of involvement," the diplomat says.
The Saudi authorities have made clear their determination to track down the perpetrators of "these terrorist criminal acts," indicating an apparently genuine desire to eradicate any Islamic militants whose actions could serve to destabilize the kingdom. The Saudis were accused of ignoring the ramifications of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. But the recent bombings, which occurred in the heart of the Saudi capital, are being described as a slap in the face to the Saudi government.
"I think it's possible that May 12 could be something like Pearl Harbor was for the United States," Jordan said. "It really was a galvanizing event which has hit the Saudis very, very hard, and they appear to me to be very committed to ... be proactive and aggressive in tackling this scourge of terrorism that seems to be active here in Saudi Arabia."
But the Saudis face no easy task. Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative country, largely closed to the outside world, with much of the population content that it remain so.
Saudis practice the austere Wahhabi school of Islam and there is a deep - albeit largely unspoken - sympathy for Osama bin Laden's violently anti- American stand, which the preachings of extremist Saudi clerics have done little to abate.
"The motive [for the bombings] is not because they are anxious for bloodshed, but because they are so angry at American policy in the Middle East, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine," says Mohsen Al-Awajy, a lawyer and Islamist whose views are moderate by Saudi standards. "These policies have accumulated hostility. It has nothing to do with ill-feeling toward the American people."
Saudi officials claim there were three Al Qaeda cells active in the country. One fled overseas, another was destroyed in the suicide bombings and the third remains at large in the kingdom. But Jordan suggested that the Al Qaeda presence in Saudi Arabia is much deeper.
"I am not sure we are convinced that there are only three cells," he said. "On the other hand, it does not appear to us that there are dozens and dozens of cells."
Reformists say that the bombings have generated revulsion among Saudis and a backlash against Al Qaeda. They say that the government is sincere in cracking down on Islamic militants and the extremist clerics whose fiery sermons fan hatred for the West.
"The Saudi government is very determined to firmly control the extremist clerics," says Khalil al-Khalil, a professor of education at the Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University. "This is not for negotiation. It's a red line. When the security of the nation is threatened, the nation is behind them."
Meanwhile, the prospect of further anti-Western attacks in the kingdom remains high.
"There is no indication that this was a one-time effort, a one-time attack," Jordan said. "We believe that there is reason to be very concerned about future attacks in the kingdom on Western and American interests, and I think obviously now, on Saudi interests and Saudi civilians."