Saudis' New Tactic

Clerics used in questioning suspects

Newsday/June 13, 2003
By Mohamad Bazzi

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Saudi investigators are using an unusual tactic in their interrogations of al-Qaida suspects arrested after last month's suicide bombings here: They're bringing in clerics to lecture the militants on the nature of Islam.

The clerics are telling the prisoners that they have strayed from their religion and that they must atone by confessing to everything they know about plans for future terrorist attacks, according to a Western diplomat and a Saudi official.

"These respected religious figures are saying to the young men in custody that they have misinterpreted Islam and gone astray. Now, they have a chance to set things right," said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's a creative interrogation technique that taps into the suspects' religious fervor."

FBI agents have observed some of these interrogations, according to the diplomat. While American officials have not been able to question suspects directly, the diplomat said, their presence highlights a higher level of Saudi cooperation than that provided during investigations of past terrorist attacks in the kingdom.

Religious scholars have enormous social standing in Saudi Arabia, which is the birthplace of Islam and home of its two holiest cities: Mecca and Medina. The kingdom abides by an austere brand of Islam called Wahhabism, which has been blamed by some as one of the roots of Islamic militancy. The conservative religious establishment has great authority here, and a religious police force roams the country looking for moral infractions, such as women not wearing veils or being out in public with men who are not their relatives.

A Saudi official confirmed the use of clerics during some interrogations and said the tactic had been employed in previous interrogations of Islamic militants. "It can be effective with some people," said the official, who asked not to be named.

The May 12 suicide attacks on three housing compounds in Riyadh killed 34 people, including nine bombers and eight Americans. Saudi and U.S. officials quickly placed the blame on al-Qaida, the terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi who was stripped of his citizenship in 1994.

Since the attacks, Saudi authorities have arrested more than 20 suspects and detained about 100 others for questioning. The Saudis made arrests all over the country and detained three popular clerics known for their anti-Western views. Among those captured was Ali Abdulrahman al-Ghamdi, 29, a Saudi veteran of al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan. Saudi officials said al-Ghamdi was a key planner of the May 12 bombings and was plotting another attack on a commercial complex in Riyadh.

"The Saudi intelligence and security forces moved quickly, and within three weeks they rounded up all the key players involved in these attacks," said Miassar al-Shammari, a Saudi political editor at the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat. "They realized what was at stake here."

Some analysts question whether the presence of clerics during interrogations would have any impact on militants who are convinced that their radical brand of Islam is the only true form, and that other Muslims who disagree with them are infidels who should be killed.

"I am not sure that religious debate would work with some of these people," said Khalil al-Khalil, a professor of education at the Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh. "They have been brainwashed to a point of no return."

In the past, American officials have privately complained about the lack of cooperation by the Saudi government in the war against terrorism. The relationship between the two countries deteriorated for several months after the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers involved were Saudis. But Saudi officials say they have aggressively fought terrorism, and they point out that they have arrested more than 300 suspected terrorists in the kingdom since the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the investigation of the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, which killed 19 Americans, Saudi officials prevented FBI agents from interrogating several suspects. Instead, the Saudi investigators accepted a list of prepared questions from FBI officials.

After last month's bombings, the FBI sent a team of 60 agents to help the Saudis in their investigation. Unlike previous probes of terrorist attacks, U.S. officials say the Saudis have been much more cooperative this time.

U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan recently told reporters that Saudi cooperation had been "superb." He said the attacks in Riyadh changed the Saudis' outlook.

"I think it's possible that May 12 could be something like Pearl Harbor was for the United States," Jordan said. "It really was a galvanizing event which has hit the Saudis very, very hard. ... They appear to be very committed to tackling this scourge of terrorism."

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