Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is today an unremarkable Middle Eastern port city, with unremarkable problems. The largest safety concern is traffic; Saudi men tend to drive recklessly down the wide streets. But Jeddah’s problems have not always been so quotidian. Until recently, the city was an epicenter of the jihadist violence that racked Saudi Arabia for much of the past decade. Terrorists connected to al-Qaeda started attacking foreigners in the kingdom in 1995, but by 2003, the attacks had become more indiscriminate, sometimes targeting the Al Saud regime directly, and often killing Saudis. In Jeddah, militants battled police in the streets, bombed two banks, stormed the United States consulate, and shot Westerners in broad daylight. During 2003 and 2004 throughout Saudi Arabia, 22 terrorist attacks killed 90 civilians and wounded many more.
Yet today, this insurgency has virtually disappeared. The kingdom saw no comparable attacks in 2005 and only one in 2006, a failed car-bomb attempt. The only other attack since 2004 occurred this February, when four Frenchmen were killed while touring outside Medina. It is not known yet whether those killings were connected to al-Qaeda.
Why the change? Revulsion against the killing of civilians, especially Muslims and children, is part of the answer: As the attacks multiplied, popular support for al-Qaeda plummeted, and Saudi citizens became more cooperative in rooting out militants. But the Saudi government deserves a large share of the credit; it took full advantage of that shift in sentiment— and even reinforced it—with an innovative counterterror strategy.
During the peak of the insurgency, the Saudi authorities mixed an aggressive crackdown—involving numerous raids—with an offer, in 2004, of amnesty to members of al-Qaeda who would turn themselves in and renounce the group. The government presented the amnesty as a way for apostates to “return to God,” and one of its leading public proponents was Safar al-Hawali, a prominent Wahhabist cleric. The raids cleared the streets of hundreds of al-Qaeda members and active sympathizers, including several leaders. About 60 more jihadists, including two on the kingdom’s most-wanted list, took the amnesty.
What’s most interesting is what the Saudi government did with many of its new prisoners. It put them through an intensive religious, psychological, and familial counseling regimen, known as the “advisory committee” program, aimed at rehabilitating them. The experience of one prisoner (according to an English-speaking relative) demonstrates the process.
In 2004, this prisoner (whom I’ll call Ali) was a 22-year-old student in Riyadh. Ali had grown up in the Sahwa (or “Awakening”) movement, a political offshoot of Wahhabism. Like many Saudis, he had encountered al-Qaeda online, through its biweekly Web magazine Sawt Al-Jihad. Ali had become enthralled, seeing for the first time the tenets of Sahwa put into action. He read all of the articles, forwarding them in e-mails and posting them on other sites. In essence, he had become a blogger for al-Qaeda. One afternoon while at his computer, Ali heard police approaching. They had come for him.
When Ali arrived at the Al-Hayir prison just south of Riyadh, he was interrogated, and he confessed his actions. He was then offered the opportunity to renounce the movement and go through the advisory-committee program. This would allow him to return to his family and finish his education; the alternative was an indefinite prison term. Ali told his interrogator he was interested.
Ali was housed with a large group of prisoners; some were fellow al-Qaeda sympathizers he had come to know online. Many of these men had never been officially recruited into al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia (which carefully vets prospective members for fear of infiltration), and hadn’t attempted any acts of terrorism. The prisoners would meet in groups with respected clerics like Hawali, debating the tenets of al-Qaeda and whether these beliefs were true to Islam. As prisoners brought up rationales for terrorism, the clerics would use Islam to refute them. The group discussions were interspersed with one-on-one meetings with clerics and psychologists. (The latter provide therapy, but are employed primarily to ferret out prisoners who are insincere in their disavowal of al-Qaeda.)