RIYADH (Reuters) -Saudi Arabia has released over 700 suspected militants after clerics “corrected” their thinking in a special program aimed at stemming a three-year-old campaign of violence by al Qaeda, officials said.
“They are sympathizers. There are many of this kind of people, who are subject to the process of an advisory committee. Hundreds of them have gone through this and been released,” Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki said.
The men have been released at different stages over the past three years, he explained.
“They were arrested in the first place because they were suspicious, but there was no hard evidence against them linking them to any terrorist act or planning,” he told Reuters.
Turki said the men had believed in ‘takfiri’ ideology, which permits branding Muslim governments or ordinary Muslims as infidels because of policies, behavior or beliefs.
Militants around the world swearing allegiance to the al Qaeda network headed by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden use this idea to justify attacks on governments, foreigners and civilians.
In Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda supporters began a campaign to bring down the U.S.-allied royal family with suicide bombings in May 2003 against Western housing compounds in Riyadh.
Officials say more than 136 militants and 150 foreigners and Saudis, including security forces, have died since then, but the violence has ebbed in the face of toughened security measures against what official rhetoric calls “the deviant group.”
Sheikh Mohammed al-Fifi, a member of the committee leading the dialogue with suspects, said this week that those released, accounted for over 90 percent of all detainees whose thinking clerics had tried to “correct.” He put the number of those freed at around 700.
“First we would deal with them in groups, then individually as they related their thoughts,” he told the al-Madina newspaper in an interview published this week.
“They became like this through provocative religious edicts on the Internet or in books, or via preachers who stir up young people’s passions in sermons and lectures,” he added.
Fifi said he did not blame Saudi Arabia’s controversial educational curriculum which foreign rights groups and Western governments have said promote extremism.
Most of the 19 suicide plane hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks in the United States were Saudi. Saudi authorities say they want to reform school textbooks that demonize moderate Muslims, Christians and Jews.
“The curriculum is not to blame since we’ve had it for over 30 years. The problem is some of the teachers,” Fifi said.
Observers say Arab governments’ close ties with Washington and apparent inability to influence its pro-Israel foreign policy in the Arab world is another key factor behind militancy.
Interior Ministry spokesman Turki said detainees believed to have clear links to militant attacks were being prepared for trial. He declined to say how many they were.
But the process has been delayed because Saudi Arabia’s underdeveloped justice system — where religious scholars sit as judges ruling on the basis of Islamic Sharia law — does not yet provide for courts competent to view such cases.