Tuesday, April 03, 2007

KSA Working to Win "Hearts and Minds"

This story is so boring and unsensational it will never make it to television. But like the content of the History Channel, C-CPAN or Discovery, the story of how Saudi Arabia is handling some of its extremists is as important as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, another poorly reported and little-known contemporary expression of non-violent conflict resolution.

Again John Burgess points to how the Saudis work to educate and work with its subjects identified with extremism, some of whom have been returned by the US, having spent a few years confined at Guantanamo.

Two thousand men had been through the programme, with 700 released and a negligible rate of re-offending, said General Mansour al-Turki, the government security spokesman.

Officials in Riyadh say they have seen an 80-90% success rate in a "counter-radicalisation" campaign designed to wean extremists detained by the security forces off the "takfiri" ideology that permits the killing of fellow Muslims and motivates Saudis involved in jihad in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some 140 members of al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula have died in clashes with security forces since attacks began in May 2003.

Two thousand men had been through the programme, with 700 released and a negligible rate of re-offending, said General Mansour al-Turki, the government security spokesman.

Abu Suleiman, 33, has seen the error of his ways. "I got involved in jihad when I was 20," he explained in the American-accented English picked up during four years spent in Guantánamo Bay after his capture at Tora Bora in late 2001. "Bin Laden is a quiet guy but he can work magic with people when he talks," said the holy warrior-turned financial analyst. "Being in jail gives you a lot of time to think. I had good intentions. I wanted to help Muslims round the world, but I felt I was being used for other purposes. This programme is working for a lot of people."
Prisoners undergo social and psychological profiling, take part in 10-week courses and are helped to find jobs and even wives as part of intensive after-care support that includes cash handouts for their families. Some refuse to participate. "But we don't force them," Gen Turki said.

The softly-softly approach contrasts sharply with reports of the torture of security detainees as documented by Human Rights Watch. The official Saudi account of the programme cannot be independently verified but many details are confirmed by western diplomats, with the US and Britain keen to point to its successes.

Another "graduate", Abu Khaled, 25, works in civil defence after recanting during a two-year jail term served on returning from Afghanistan. "I recognised that I made a mistake," he says. "I feel guilt and remorse for what I did."

Dr Abdul-Rahman al-Hadlaq, a ministerial adviser, argues that although al-Qaida has been beaten in Saudi Arabia, "military action" cannot be the only means. The "war of ideas" is being fought on websites based in Europe that glorify jihad and violence against "unbelievers".

This is not the first time this story has been reported. Because it lacks the excitement that makes for thrills and arguments, few people will know about it. There is nothing visually interesting to make a You Tube clip. And it's not cute, so it will also never make the email forwarded viral messages circuit. If I allow myself to reflect on how embedded ignorance can become it makes me want to think of something else.

Burgess also points to an excellent piece from Korea Times that describes the Saudi program in some detail.
The 9/11 attacks on the U.S. were a great source of embarrassment for the Saudi leaders, but terrorist attacks inside the kingdom in 2003 made it clear that the kingdom had a serious problem as an incubator for terrorists.

The quest to find the roots of Islamist militancy led the Saudis to undergo a healthy process of critical self-evaluation. The end result was a comprehensive and multidimensional campaign that is both a security operation and a publicawareness program. Much more than winning a conventional war, the Saudis realized that they can prevail only by presenting a more hopeful vision for the future of Saudi youth, one in stark contrast to the apocalyptic and foreboding scenario offered by militants. Using religious principles and nationalist ethos, the government has embarked on what it describes as an unprecedented campaign with the inescapable message that Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and mercy.

Shortly following the 2003 attacks, authorities began to address the political, social and economic conditions that had allowed Islamist radicalism and by extension, militancy, to flourish in the kingdom. Although some Saudis refuse to acknowledge the prevalence of extremism among their youth, convinced instead that the problem is not homegrown, rather fueled by groups based outside the kingdom, the extensive initiatives indicate that the government has no illusions about the pervasiveness of the problem.

Given the vital role Islamic clerics and Imams play in Saudi society, the government took measures to curb the extremist rhetoric coming from some religious authorities. Hundreds of radical imams and clerics were dismissed, others were “retrained,” and those who supported terrorism were imprisoned. Three prominent clerics were arrested for their support of terrorism and then recanted their views on Saudi television for millions to see.

Notice this: Here is a story about an important official effort on the part of one of America's most important allies in the Middle East, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the story is being reported in another part of the world, Korea, where Americans have been part of their history for half a century. American blood has been poured out defending both places. A case can be made that the war in Iraq is protecting the interests of Saudi Arabia as well as those of the US.

And yet this story is not being reported in America. I'm not surprised that millions of patriots are unaware whose concept of loyalty is shaped by a myth of redemptive violence. Such a story would challenge a fundamental pillar of their temple. But there are plenty of clear-thinking statesmen and journalists who can understand and not be threatened by this "thinking out of the box" approach. My guess is that those who "catch on" are so intimidated by the expectation of mass rejection they are fearful of speaking out.

No comments: