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Saudis use religion to elicit al-Qaida tips

Monday, December 1, 2003

Saudi Arabia, known for harsh criminal penalties such as beheadings, is trying a gentler approach to get information from some al-Qaida captives.

Saudi interrogators often bring clerics and a Quran to their prison interviews to establish a religious connection, a technique that has proved successful in eliciting information from terrorist suspects and reorienting them to less violent religious beliefs.

The tactic, similar to the way cult deprogrammers work in the United States, has impressed American counterparts enough that Saudi intelligence was permitted to use some of the principles on their citizens being held at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Saudi officials said.

The technique is being credited in part for the extraordinary public renouncement of violence by two former militant Saudi clerics, Nasser al-Fahd and Ali al-Khudair. They went on state-owned television in the past few weeks to recant their religious edicts promoting violence.

"We see this as an important development, one that is getting the attention it needs to get inside Saudi Arabia," U.S. embassy spokesman Carol Kalin said in a telephone interview from Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The religious reorientation is markedly different from some hard-core interrogation tactics that can use sleep deprivation, alternate rewards and punishment and other methods to elicit information.

Saudi officials, who would describe their interrogation methods only on condition of anonymity, said the tactic is reserved mostly for midlevel and low-level al-Qaida prisoners who were attracted to Osama bin Laden's network through a perversion of Islam.

Shortly after these al-Qaida prisoners are taken into custody, Saudi interrogators send in a cleric who appears to espouse militant Islamic views to help build a personal bond with the young men and open a dialogue based on Islam, the officials said.

Traditions of the prophet

"Once we connect with them, the interrogators slowly hand them over to a more moderate cleric, who sits with them and goes over what the Quran says and discusses what the traditions of the prophet are," one Saudi official explained.

Over time, the clerics position the prisoners to repent and renounce their past allegiance to the network established by the Saudi-born fugitive bin Laden. Then traditional interrogators are brought in to question the prisoners and learn tactical information, officials said.

"We have learned that what drove them into this cult, and what causes them to cooperate, is religion," said one senior Saudi official involved in intelligence work.

A senior U.S. diplomatic official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said American officials have observed firsthand the Saudi interrogation tactic and regard it as "a set of skills that is very important in this cultural and religiously oriented society."

Saudi officials said they were permitted in the last year to visit many of their citizens being held as enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay.

While Saudi questioners did not have enough time to do a full religious reprogramming, they used some of the basic principles to help build a relationship and elicit information, Saudi officials said. U.S. officials confirmed the visit.

Miller said the Saudis were permitted only to use interrogation techniques approved by the Pentagon.

U.S. and Saudi officials note the technique would never work on hard-core terrorist leaders. Also, the type of al-Qaida recruit on whom it does work often has no information about bin Laden's inner circle plans, they added.

Nonetheless, Saudi officials have elicited valuable information. A Saudi official in Washington said one al-Qaida recruit who went through the reprogramming provided information that helped prompt a security warning to airlines over the summer.

Significant information has been learned about how young Saudi men were lured into al-Qaida by bin Laden's recruiters.

Experts say the religious reprogramming tactic works well as a carrot in a society that also threatens a harsh stick -- Islamic trials followed by swift, public beheadings of criminals.

It has developed over decades as the Saudis have looked for ways to rehabilitate their citizens.

Nathaniel Kern, who runs a Washington firm that advises oil companies on Middle East security and intelligence, recalled how a Saudi royal prince aided the families of a group of Saudi Air Force officers convicted of an attempted coup in 1969.

The prince made sure "their wives got their salary checks, that the kids were doing well in school, that the families were taken care of. The wives and kids hadn't done anything wrong," Kern said.

"By 1975, the officers had repented and were released, but their loyalties were really won over by the care their families had been given. It's a part of the world where you don't need to make enemies if you can help it," he said.


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