Accessibility links

Breaking News

Saudi Arabia: Few Militants Surrender As Saudi Amnesty Expires

Scene of the recent Khobar hostage tragedy Over the last year, amid a rising wave of terrorist attacks, the government of Saudi Arabia seems to have realized that it is as much a target of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network as the United States. In June, as attacks against locals and foreigners increased, Saudi officials seeking to thwart further violence offered an amnesty to militants who surrendered. But the amnesty has drawn in only one top suspect. Four fugitives surrendered in total, while 27 others were repatriated from abroad. Still, Saudi officials insist the amnesty has achieved progress as part of a wider government crackdown that this week included a raid on the home of Al-Qaeda's chief in Saudi Arabia that yielded a gruesome discovery.

Prague, 23 July 2004 -- Saudi police made a grisly find during their raid on the villa of alleged Al-Qaeda leader Saleh al-Awfi on 21 July.

Inside al-Awfi's freezer was the head of Paul Johnson, an American hostage decapitated by his captors in June.

The raid -- in which two militants were killed -- came just prior to the expiration on 22 July of a month-long amnesty offer for militants to surrender and face more lenient treatment from officials.

The government had predicted that the amnesty would greatly aid a campaign to rein in militants. Shortly after the amnesty was announced, Adel al-Jubeir, an adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, vowed that Riyadh would win its war on terrorism.

"We are not fighting this war for public-relations purposes," al-Jubeir said. "We are fighting this war to ensure the safety and security of our citizens and our residents. People in Saudi Arabia are being murdered. We have every intention of stopping those murders. We do it for our sake."

Al-Qaeda has appeared determined to bring down the Saudi ruling family through a wave of suicide bombings and kidnappings, mainly aimed at terrorizing the 9 million foreigners who play a vital role in the world's dominant oil industry. Some 90 people have been killed in the attacks since May 2003.
"People in Saudi Arabia are being murdered. We have every intention of stopping those murders. We do it for our sake." -- Adel al-Jubeir, an adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah

Saudi Arabia is not the only country to try a lenient approach to militants. Similar experiments have occurred recently in Pakistan and Yemen, with mixed results. In Iraq, the government is also considering a pardon for some insurgents.

And as the Saudi amnesty comes to an end, some are questioning its effectiveness, too. Four militants turned themselves in, only one of whom was on Saudi Arabia's list of 26 most wanted. Twelve other top militants have either been arrested or killed in Saudi security operations.

"Only one of the list of 26 actually turned himself in," said Marc Sageman, a University of Pennsylvania forensic psychiatrist and author of the recent book "Understanding Terror Networks." "So, overall, I think the program was not a success. It did not lead the other 13 of the list of 26 most wanted men still at large to take advantage of it."

Saudi police say they killed the local leader of Al-Qaeda recently and then killed his successor, Abdulaziz al-Muqri, the man believed to be behind Johnson's beheading. And officials say that al-Awfi, the new leader of the terrorist network, was wounded in the 21 July raid, although he managed to escape.

Analysts and publications close to the Saudi government say that -- coupled with these arrests and killings -- the amnesty has been a success. Some have suggested that the four men who surrendered provided intelligence that is compromising militant operations in Saudi Arabia and abroad.

But Sageman remains skeptical. He said he sees Islamic terrorism as a social movement that is constantly drawing new recruits, rather than a fixed hierarchical organization that can be defeated by arresting or killing its leaders.

"Even if you arrest some of the people, it's like putting your fingers in a dam -- there's always more people coming in," Sageman said. "The key here is to prevent a new generation from joining the movement. And the evidence is not very clear that the Saudi government has been able to do that yet."

But there are signs it is trying. Since the amnesty offer was made, Saudi newspapers have carried appeals from religious figures and family members of some of the wanted men, calling on militants to give themselves up.

Abdullah al-Oraifig, an editor at "Okaza," a newspaper close to the Saudi Interior Ministry, was quoted by AP as saying that the 27 men extradited to Saudi Arabia came forward after hearing about the pardon. He said they were lower-level militants and that their example has dissuaded potential recruits from joining Al-Qaeda.

The only militants left, he argued, are senior ones who have committed crimes and have nothing to gain from the amnesty.

Sageman, however, said he believes that view is too optimistic. While he acknowledged progress on the part of Saudi officials, he said it is far too early to assess the impact on recruiting of their crackdown.

"In a way, I think that they now are directing the various imams at conservative mosques to condemn terrorism, to condemn violence, and they're putting a lot of pressure on the ideological warfare," Sageman said. "Whether that has any effect on the recruitment of new novices into the terrorist movement -- that remains to be seen. We'll be able to tell in about a year or so."