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.)
After two months, Ali was allowed to see his family. (For detainees not viewed as threats, family members are encouraged to visit, and they often express disappointment in the prisoner. The role of families in fighting the insurgency is not limited to the reform program; during the initial amnesty period, families of those on Saudi Arabia’s most-wanted list appeared in local media asking their loved ones to surrender.) After two more months of family visits, counseling, and religious discourse, Ali was paroled. (The duration of confinement for prisoners varies.) Weekly visits followed with an officer of the Saudi secret police, who asked where he’d been and whom he’d seen. The secret police monitor the real and the virtual neighborhoods of the kingdom where militant Islamists congregate, and they make use of informers to track the parolees. After several months of parole with a spotless record, Ali “graduated” and was free. Today he has returned to his studies and is trading stocks in his spare time.