250 talked out of Terrorism

Saleh Al-Asheikh speaks to the media at the Counterterrorism International Conference in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has been successful in changing the idological thinking of more than 250 Al-Qaeda sympathizers, the Kingdom’s Islamic Affairs Minister Saleh Al-Asheikh said yesterday.

“We have reached out to them and have succeeded in convincing more than 250 to change their ways,” he said, speaking of his ministry’s counterterrorism program conducted over the Internet. The program includes direct counseling as well as a hotline for families who are worried that their sons may be drawn toward the Al-Qaeda terror network.

“We conducted a dialogue with 800 of them and more than a quarter were convinced. We are continuing our efforts with the rest,” he told delegates attending an international counterterrorism conference. “The Internet is a fertile field. We have used many Islamic and cultural sites to increase awareness of the dangers of terrorism.”

Since a triple suicide bombing in Riyadh in May 2003, the Kingdom has cracked down on Al-Qaeda militants and the religious scholars who have publicly supported them. It has also waged a media campaign to turn Saudis against violence and to persuade parents to be more aware of signs that their sons are being drawn to militants, either in Saudi Arabia or in Iraq.

Militants have also made extensive use of the Internet and there are at least two Al-Qaeda-affiliated web magazines which have prompted alarm among some security experts who say militants are turning the web into a virtual classroom.

Saudi Arabia is currently hosting an antiterrorism conference including security and intelligence experts from more than 50 countries who have been asked to set out strategies for combating terrorism. Crown Prince Abdullah, who opened the conference on Saturday, has called for the establishment of an antiterrorism center.

The crown prince’s proposal has been warmly welcomed by most delegates at the conference. However, US Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend told reporters that “the center would not end the need for bilateral exchange of information.” But anything done to increase intelligence sharing in the fight against terrorism is a “net gain,” she added.

Al-Asheikh said his ministry operates a hotline for anyone who wants guidance. “If there is a father who does not know how to solve a problem with his son, there is a direct line to the ministry.”

The minister said his ministry had instructed preachers 25 times over the past three years to devote entire sermons to condemning terrorism. Over the past year, religious scholars from the ministry have held several weeks of contacts with “terrorists” in order to show them their errors, he said. “Most have wanted to continue (the contact) because we do not approach this in a condescending way,” he said, describing the contact as “one-to-one.” It was not clear if he was referring to face-to-face meetings or only exchanges over the Internet.

Al-Asheikh, who was one of the main speakers on the second day of the conference, also emphasized the need to solve Middle Eastern problems as a way to reduce the appeal of terrorism.

“People cannot ignore what is going on in Iraq and Palestine as these issues arouse the feelings and emotions of Muslims around the world,” he pointed out.

He said that convincing extremists not to cross the line into terrorism is not an easy task. “There are two ways of dealing with them; one is by opening a dialogue and trying to reason with them and the other is by using force,” he added.

Al-Asheikh said the true Islam, which Saudi Arabia promotes, is a great distance from what the extremists believe in. “Islam is a religion of peace and prosperity; it teaches us ethics and morality,” he said, adding that a Muslim must be loyal to his country and his country must be able to trust him.

The minister noted that when Osama Bin Laden was in Saudi Arabia prior to 1998, he cooperated with the Saudi government as well as with the Americans. “When Osama announced his war against Saudi Arabia and the humanity at large, the government decided to withdraw his Saudi nationality,” Al-Asheikh said, describing Bin Laden as the head of terrorism.

Saudi scholars have issued statements and edicts defining and condemning terrorism. “The Prophet said that those who injure non-Muslims in a Muslim land will not have a chance of coming close to Heaven,” Al-Asheikh said.

He said his ministry planned to continue its dialogue with extremists. “We do not intend to discuss their beliefs with them since we find them completely wrong. On the other hand, we try to dissuade them from involving themselves in terrorist attacks.”

Al-Asheikh denied allegations that the Kingdom’s religious establishment was against reform. “That is not true. The religious establishment agrees with many of the reforms,” he said, adding that reform must be implemented gradually. “We will not accept any pressure from outside,” he said.