January 18, 2006 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 260

Reeducation of Extremists in Saudi Arabia

January 18, 2006 | By Y. Yehoshua*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 260

In its efforts against domestic terrorism, the Saudi regime is attempting to fight Islamist ideas such as tafkir (accusing other Muslims of apostasy) against the regime and its clerics. One method being used is "reeducation" of extremists.

Two large-scale projects using this approach are underway. The first is a counseling program, supported by the Saudi Interior Ministry, for outreach to Saudi security prisoners. The second is the Al-Sakinah Campaign for online dialogue with extremists, which is supported by the Saudi Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs.

This report will review these two projects.

1. The Counseling Program for Saudi Security Prisoners

For the past two years, the Saudi Interior Ministry has been implementing a counseling program for security prisoners in the Saudi jails, intended to encourage prisoners to renounce their extremist beliefs. Up until six months ago, the existence of the counseling project was kept a secret so that "it would bear fruit far from the [eye] of the media." [1]

According to the head of the counseling committee, Dr. Saud Al-Musaybih, the committee "includes more than 100 ulema and fuqaha and some 30 psychiatrists and psychologists, who are divided among the various districts in the kingdom." He also said that, in addition to counseling sessions with the prisoners, the committee also holds religion classes, with "20-25 participants in each class who study concepts such as al-walaa wal barraa, [2] takfir, and [other] issues that concern them."

Al-Musaybih added that, at first, "a large percentage [of the prisoners] refused to meet with the fuqaha, [but in time] they began to ask for meetings on their own initiative..." Today, "the committees are achieving a high rate of compliance amongst the prisoners." [3]

In the past six months, the Saudi Interior Ministry released more than 400 security prisoners based on the assessment of the program counselors, after becoming convinced that they had renounced their extremist views. None of the freed prisoners were planners of terror operations who were under interrogation or standing trial.

According to Interior Minister Prince Na'if bin Abd Al-Aziz, "the heads of the program assess that it has had a positive impact on the prisoners' tendencies, and that there is evidence that they admit their error and want to repent." [4]

*Counseling Committee Members Talk About Their Dialogue With the Prisoners

Members of the counseling committees spoke to the media about their work and about the views they found among the prisoners. Committee member Sheikh 'Abd Al-Muhsin Al-'Obikan, a Saudi Shura Council member and legal advisor to the Saudi Justice Ministry, who is well-known for criticizing the Islamists in the Saudi media, told the Saudi daily Al-Madina of his experience on the counseling committees, and about the counseling process:

"[We] talked with the prisoners, and especially with those who showed preliminary signs of readiness to receive counseling and to conduct a calm discussion and dialogue about their beliefs. When [the prisoners] thought that [a given belief] was the truth and was part of the [Muslim] religion, [we countered that with] an answer based on shari'a texts from the Koran, from the Sunna, and from religious scholars, to convince them [of their error]. If they were convinced, the committee would write its recommendations in a detailed report. After studying the reports and recommendations, senior Interior Ministry officials would make the appropriate decision in the matter."

Al-'Obikan noted that the views of the prisoners who attended the counseling sessions stemmed from "an incorrect understanding of [the meaning of] jihad, and of the hadith [prophetic tradition] that says: 'Expel the polytheists from the Arabian Peninsula.' In addition, the [prisoners] had an incorrect understanding of the meaning of [several other concepts], such as assisting non-Muslims, takfir, judging according to man-made laws [as opposed to divine law], etc.... They picked up [their mistaken beliefs] from books, audio tapes, publications, and pamphlets; from prominent [Islamists] who believe in the idea of takfir, and from people with twisted and deviant views... They understood jihad incorrectly, since they believed it meant the unconstrained and unconditional killing of any infidel, and of anyone who collaborates with the infidels..."

According to Al-'Obikan, the Saudi schools and the jihad in Afghanistan played a role in encouraging extremism amongst these young people: "Without a doubt, there were school and university teachers who nurtured this deviant kind of thinking by straying from the state-established school curricula. They took advantage of the opportunity and spread their poison among the youth due to the lack of supervision... Without a doubt, those who went to Afghanistan were influenced by people with a deviant way of thinking. These [people] were able to convince them of these beliefs since these youths did not have any [knowledge of] religion and of the shari'a to immunize them [against these ideas]."

When asked whether they had succeeded in correcting the prisoners' views, Al-'Obikan replied: "Yes, Allah be thanked. I corrected the beliefs of many of these youths and they have been released... [There were] some [who] did not recognize [our religious authority] but they were few, Allah be thanked..." [5]

­­­Dr. Muhammad Al-Nujaimi, another counseling committee member, told the LondonArabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "There were [prisoners who agreed to] talk to us about their views [only] after three months of persuasion. [When they agreed to talk], we told them that their views were known as the views of the Khawarij [6]... [Similarly], there was another group [of prisoners], who do not engage in takfir but want to wage jihad in the combat regions out of belief that jihad is a commandment incumbent upon the individual just like prayer, giving charity, and fasting. We explained to them the essence and the laws of jihad, and told them that, [contrary to their belief,] jihad is a collective commandment [incumbent upon the Muslim community as a whole, and sanctioned only by the legitimate Muslim ruler], and that there are conditions and limitations on its implementation. Actually, there was no difficulty with these people, since they were searching for the truth - unlike those who adopted the view of takfir with regard to the state and society, and who planned to carry out terror operations within [Saudi Arabia]." [7]

*Prisoner who Renounced Extremism and was Released: The Committee Made Me Understand That My Views Were all a Lie

As a result of the committee's work, hundreds of security prisoners who had renounced their extremist views were released. The Saudi daily 'Ukaz talked with one prisoner who was released after his "deviant perception was corrected, thanks to the activity of the counseling committee." He told the paper that he had joined a cell whose members had "exploited his enthusiasm and his minimal [religious] knowledge... brainwashed [him],... described everything happening in the world as a conspiracy [that must be] avenged, and made [him] hate the world..."

About the counseling sessions in prison, he related: "The discussions were honest, and I told them everything that was in my mind. After lengthy discussions, I became convinced that my ideology was nothing but mere lies. I understood that what is taking place in Iraq is not a war, that the vast majority of the victims [of the jihadi activities] were innocent, and that there are other elements that benefit from this violence... " [8]

*Former Newspaper Editor: In Order to Overcome Extremism, the Committees Must Also Act Intensively Via the Media

Qeinan Al-Ghamdi, former editor of the Saudi daily Al-Watan, published an article praising the Saudi Interior Ministry for this program and calling to expand the scope of its activity. According to him, the committee's activity is "a special effort for which we must thank the Interior Ministry... However, there are still some who believe in the terrorist ideology, support it, and identify with it... and the ministry has not reached them. Their number is great, as apparent from the events. They are widespread and proliferating, since the sources that nourish them [still] exist - and it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the Interior Ministry to reach them all.

"Therefore, until [Prince Naif's] comprehensive strategic studies regarding the fight against terror... are completed, I suggest that the Saudi counseling committees appear openly and intensively on various media [channels], to discuss at length the "deviant thought" espoused by these people, and its essence, sources, [and] means, and also [to discuss] the 'righteous path' to which [the prisoners] have been returned..." [9]

2. The Al-Sakinah Campaign - Online Dialogue With Islamists to Counter Their Extremist Ideas

The Saudi authorities are also supporting an independent initiative for online dialogue with Islamists in order to prevent the spread of extremist views via the Internet. The initiative, called the Al-Sakinah ("Tranquility") Campaign, [10] was initiated some two years ago by volunteers, and was adopted by the Saudi Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs after it proved to be successful in persuading extremists to renounce their views.

Some 40 ulema and propagators of Islam who have Internet skills enter extremist websites and forums, and converse with the participants in order to bring them to renounce their extremist ideas. As of recently, such conversations have been conducted with 972 individuals with extremist views, most of them Saudis aged 16-30, over a total of 53,760 hours. According to the campaign's information director Khaled Al-Mushawwah, this initiative has caused "decline of the takfir ideology on the websites that disseminate it." [11]

*Al-Sakinah Campaign Director Talks About Online Conversations With Extremists

In a July 2005 interview, Abd Al-Mun'im Al-Mushawwah, who initiated the campaign and is also its director, told the Saudi daily Al-Madina about his experiences: "The whole thing began about 13 months ago, when [terror] events erupted, and we saw people - whom we considered good people - turning into self-detonating dynamite. We saw... dangerous violence and views that are opposed to... the Sunna and the [views of the Muslim] community. [We saw] mistaken concepts used in order to tempt well-intentioned youths lacking in religious and jurisprudent knowledge...

"[In light of this,] we wanted to launch a direct dialogue over the Internet with [members] of the [young] generation, since [members of] the [old] generation, such as [senior Al-Qaeda leaders] Yousef Al-'Ayyiri, Abd Al-Aziz Al-Muqrin, and Fares bin Shawil Al-Zahrani [12] did not agree to [participate in] dialogue, and [had chosen] violence and terrorism as their path. Our aim was to conduct dialogue [only] with those who had expressed solidarity with the operations of violence and terror, but had not participated in them, in order to prevent them from doing so - because those who express solidarity [with the terrorists] are likely in the future to turn into assistants and perpetrators, and this is the most dangerous thing...

"We counted the Al-Qaeda websites [and the sites that spread the] takfir ideology, and found 130 active sites. Then, we began to study each site - its focal ideas and the principles that guide it in [online] recruitment and mobilization of people. We began cataloging these sites so that we would have a broad database to use during our dialogue...

"Although we are ulema, sheikhs and propagators [of Islam] who adhere to the principles of our faith, we found that focusing on faith is not sufficient in dialogue with those who have closed their ears [to the words] of the ulema, and even see them as infidels. Therefore, our starting point was psychological and sociological. We agreed that we wanted to save the people from deviant thought, and that we therefore [had to receive] psychological training for the dialogue. The social conditions [of these extremists] also had to be taken into account. [To this end,] we obtained help from psychological and sociological experts, to whom we presented the cases and the psychological behavior [of those participating] in the dialogue.

"We saw positive signs during the conversations... We did not demand that the people with whom we spoke renounce [their views] by 100% - this would have been a false hope... We presented these results to his honor the Minister of Islamic Affairs [Saleh Aal-Sheikh] who always recommends dialogue to us, and stresses that we must adopt the path of wasatiyya [middle path] and common sense with those to whom we are speaking. [When] he saw the results we had achieved, [he] supported us materially and morally, and began monitoring [our activity] and defining the policy and activity of the campaign.

"[It should be noted that our] relations with the minister are on an advisory basis [only]. He is our sheikh and our teacher... [but] our campaign is independent, and our efforts are individual, [even though] some of us, such as the propagators [of Islam], are officials of the Ministry [of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs], and some work in other [government] ministries or branches...

"Thirty people work [for the campaign], all of them ulema and propagators [of Islam]. They conduct dialogue well with the other, [and excel] in shari'a knowledge and in Internet skills. Every day we meet and agree on a timetable and on topics. Each of us reports on the sites he [plans to] enter and on the [people] with whom he [plans to] converse...

"Six women work with us; some of them conduct dialogues with women who hold this [extremist] ideology, or with wives and sisters of [men] who hold this ideology; [and some] provide logistical support by preparing files, information, and documents [that we need]...

"Usually, we go into general Internet forums, [but] also into special forums of adherents to the takfir ideology, and into Al-Qaeda forums. Then, we raise a particular issue in order to start a round of discussion. But our [real] work begins when we draw some people whom we sense hold particularly [extremist] views into side dialogues, on chat or messenger programs. [We do this] because, in side dialogues, there is a greater range of possibilities to persuade [them], and we are able to exchange views with them far from the hubbub of the public dialogues and without external influence...

"We have no connection, either direct or indirect, to any [government] branch. We want to operate freely. No one demands information or anything else from us, though we sometimes get requests from MA or doctoral students who ask for information connected to their research." [13]

*Al-Qaeda Members Talk About the Effect of the Campaign

The Saudi papers have reported that among those who have renounced their extremism due to the Al-Sakinah campaign were a number of high-ranking Al-Qaeda members. The Saudi daily Al-Watan interviewed "a former high-ranking female member of one of the Al-Qaeda women's organizations" who went by the name of "Umm Osama." She related how she had come to renounce her views following conversations with a representative of the Al-Sakinah campaign:

"In the beginning, I didn't know that it was an organized campaign. In the forums, there were various speakers. There were those who spoke rudely to us or to [the organization's] commanders, and who made curse-filled accusations. Their tone was harsh and angry. We were not afraid of these people, no matter what they said or how numerous they were in the forums - on the contrary, they made people identify with the Al-Qaeda organization and its members [even more].

"We began to fear those who spoke pleasantly and with well-based religious knowledge. We felt that people were identifying with them, and that we were beginning to lose supporters. Our commanders - whom we do not know personally but with whom we maintain contact via the Internet - wrote a warning and recruitment letter [calling] to intensify our efforts on the Internet.

"We began to talk with [the Al-Sakinah representatives], and it was their ideas that were of the highest priority for us. These [people] raised in me, and in many other women I know, serious doubts and questions regarding the beliefs that we held so deeply. There are many examples of this, such as the issue of takfir against the Saudi regime, which was indisputable and which we had agreed not to discuss [with the Al-Sakinah representatives]... After many discussions we found - or at least I found - that the religious rules that had been dictated to us [by our commanders] were mistaken, and that the Saudi regime was not infidel [at all]..."

On the method of conducting conversations with extremists, Umm Osama said: "Military conflict can never eliminate extremism and terrorism. Those who choose the path [of jihad] are usually not afraid of being shot or jailed. Alongside the focus on this military conflict, there must also be a focus on the ideological conflict, [through] dialogue and the spreading correct shari'a knowledge and views. For three years, I never read or heard about ideas like those of the Al-Sakinah Campaign." [14]

Another Al-Qaeda member who renounced extremism due to the online conversations with campaign representatives was Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Anzi, who was arrested by Saudi security forces in May 2005. According to the Saudi daily Al-Watan, Al-Anzi - who was a prominent member of the Al-Qaeda Shari'a Committee in Saudi Arabia and declared Saudi Arabia and the Saudi ulema to be infidels - renounced his takfir ideology and even stopped appearing on the Internet following conversations with Al-Sakinah representatives. [15]

*Transcript of an Online Conversation Between an Al-Sakinah Representative and an Extremist

In July 2004, the Saudi daily Al-Watan published a transcript of an online conversation between an Al-Sakinah representative and an extremist who believed in the takfir ideology. The man, who called himself "Zaman Al-Dajajila" ["The Time of the False Prophets"] renounced his extremist views as a result of the conversation. It should be noted that, in this conversation, the representative focuses only on the issue of terrorism against Saudi Arabia, and refuses to discuss issues of terrorism outside the country.

The following is an excerpt from the conversation:

Al-Sakinah [representative]: "Please don't keep returning to the events in Manhattan and Afghanistan. Let's talk about the central topic of our discussion - the bombings that have taken place in the kingdom."

Zaman Al-Dajajila: "They are all connected to each other and similar to each other. The issue is clear: There is a camp of belief versus a camp of unbelief."

Al-Sakinah: "They are all connected and similar?! Was the bombing in Manhattan like the bombing in Riyadh?"

Zaman Al-Dajajila: "[It was also] like the bombings in Casablanca and Bali. It involves infidels... They are arresting and persecuting the sheikhs and jihad fighters because 'Mother America' has demanded it."

Al-Sakinah: "[These] people have weapons, bombs, and [various] types of explosives. Do you expect the government to applaud them?"

Zaman Al-Dajajila: "[The weapons] are intended for self-defense. Death is more honorable than the [imprisonment in the] cells of Guantanamo."

Al-Sakinah: "Why do they need to protect themselves?"

Zaman Al-Dajajila: "They are being persecuted."

Al-Sakinah: "Why?"

Zaman Al-Dajajila: "Because they are the group that was promised victory and success, and because they are the ones who remained [loyal to] the truth [Koran]. [Also] because they refused to sell out their religion for a Mercedes and a Lexus."

Al-Sakinah: "A group that is promised victory [but] kills Muslims? According to what school of thought do they kill Muslims, or a [foreign] technician or engineer with protected status? Who permitted them to violate the promise of protection? Don't you find it strange that the group that was [recently] captured in Mecca and Al-Madina possessed more weapons [than was required] for self-defense?"

Zaman Al-Dajajila: "All right. [The weapons] were not for self-defense, but for expelling the polytheists and vanquishing the enemies of Allah... Isn't it true that someone who aids the infidel against a Muslim is an infidel himself? Saudi Arabia helped America and Britain against Iraq."

Al-Sakinah: "Saudi Arabia has opposed the war since the beginning of the crisis [in Iraq]. It announced this officially, and proposed many programs to prevent the war. Saudi Arabia condemned the war when it broke out, and announced this officially. Do you have any solid [proof] to contradict this? Or are you talking about statements from [Internet] forums and from communiqués by [Saudi oppositionist Sa'd] Al-Faqih?"

Zaman Al-Dajajila: "The commander of the American forces said this."

Al-Sakinah: "You believe the commander of the American forces, and regard Muslims as liars? What kind of principle is this, and what kind of parallel is this?"

Zaman Al-Dajajila: "And what about the 'Ar'ar airfield?"

Al-Sakinah: "...How can you claim that an entire country is infidel [just] because [some] people said that there were [U.S.] forces at the 'Ar'ar airfield?... The Prophet did not declare [even] Hateb [bin Abi Balta'a] to be an infidel, and did not order him killed, even though he conveyed information to the infidels." [16]

Zaman Al-Dajajila [conceding the point]: "There is no God but Allah..."

Al-Sakinah: "Then don't remain silent. Speak out, now that the truth is clear to you."

Zaman Al-Dajajila: "And what about Osama bin Laden?"

Al-Sakinah: "Forget Osama bin Laden. That's not the topic of our conversation. Allah isn't asking you about Osama bin Laden or anyone else. The important thing is takfir..."

Al-Sakinah: "If you see how the [Saudi] kingdom supports Islam and Muslims all over the world, and how it has influenced the Islamic movement and the Da'wa movement, you would realize that this country is in the crosshairs [of its enemies]... "

Zaman Al-Dajajila: "By Allah, I feel like I'm in a volcano and an earthquake!"

Al-Sakinah: "It is hard for people to move from one position to another, but for people like you it is easy to follow the path of truth, alongside the ulema and the propagators [of Islam]..."

Zaman Al-Dajajila: "Since our first meeting, I have been thinking about the subject. That is, this isn't a decision made overnight. But some of the matters [still] require clarification."

Al-Sakinah: "It is obvious from your tone that you are really convinced about many things in this meeting..."

Zaman Al- Al-Dajajila: "I didn't mean any harm. I thought that this was what the religion demanded. You are a blessing [that came to me] from the Lord. Allah knows what is in my heart. Allah will reward you well for your patience and forbearance." [17]

* Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI.

[1] Al-Hayat (London), June 20, 2005.

[2] In the fundamentalist sources, al-walaa wal barraa is the principle of universal loyalty amongst the Muslims and absolute renunciation by Muslims of all non-Muslims and of anyone who deviates from the principles of the religion.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 21, 2005.

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 30, 2005; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 21, 2005.

[5] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), November 3, 2005.

[6] The Khawarij was a group that split off from the camp of the Fourth Caliph Ali ibn Abi Taleb in the battle of Siffin in 657, and is considered the first opposition group in Islam.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 21, 2005.

[8] 'Ukaz (Saudi Arabia), November 14, 2005.

[9] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 2, 2005.

[10] The name "Al-Sakinah" - "tranquility" - is apparently taken from Koran 48:4: "It is He [Allah] Who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the Believers, that they may add faith to their faith."

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 25, 2005.

[12] Al-Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia Yousef Al-Ayyiri was killed in June 2003; Al-Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Muqrin was killed in June 2004; Fares Al-Zahrani, who was on the list of 26 men wanted in Saudi Arabia, was arrested by Saudi security forces in August 2004.

[13] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), July 1, 2005.

[14] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), February 19, 2005.

[15] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 12, 2005.

[16] According to Muslim tradition, Hateb bin Abi Balta'a betrayed Muhammad by sending a letter to the Quraysh tribe reporting that Muhammad was planning to invade Mecca.

[17] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 22, 2004.

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