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Saudis Give Insurgents a Month to Surrender

June 24, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — The royal family of this embattled kingdom Wednesday announced amnesty for Islamic insurgents who surrender within a month, framing its offer in the language of religious redemption and hinting at harsh punishment for those who refuse.

In a speech that reflected the delicate politics of confronting an Islamic uprising in a land that has tried to co-opt or reform militants, Crown Prince Abdullah promised fair treatment under Islamic law for those who turned themselves in. Surrendering insurgents would be spared the death penalty, said Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto ruler, who spoke on behalf of the ailing King Fahd.

"If they are wise and they accept it, then they are saved," Abdullah said on state TV. "And if they snub it, God isn't going to stop us from hitting them with our force -- which we get from our dependence on God."

The amnesty appears to be a peace offering for young fringe members of the outlawed militant groups that have bombed buildings, shot foreigners and beheaded an American hostage.

But it is also a threat from a government trying to maintain momentum after gunning down extremist leader Abdulaziz Muqrin, who claimed responsibility for killing engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr. last week.

Abdullah did not specify what the government would do after the one-month period passed, but he suggested the militants would be treated harshly. Fighters with blood on their hands will not be pardoned, he said.

Abdullah's speech was also a stark reminder of the struggle in Saudi Arabia between a ruling family that bills this nation as the world's purest Islamic state, and extremists who disagree.

Saudi forces strike back after attacks by militants. Dozens of troops and extremists have been killed over the last year. But Saudi authorities often handle extremism more carefully than secular regimes such as Egypt, Syria and Algeria. Saudi radicals who espouse violence are treated -- and widely seen -- not as criminals, but as lost boys who can be brought back into the fold with a dose of proper religion.

Fiery clerics are removed from the pulpit and browbeaten in extensive religious debates with government-friendly scholars -- and then returned to their jobs. Extremists are imprisoned and subjected to religious education. Once they repent, they appear on state television, discussing the error of their ways and the ideological changes they've undergone.

"God is merciful," Abdullah said. "For the last time, we are opening the door to repentance for everyone who has gone out of the righteous way and who has committed a crime for religion."

Muqrin, who headed a group calling itself Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, had passed through Saudi prisons. Arrested for plotting to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Muqrin memorized the Koran and was set free after a few years.

"The Saudi government always tried to tolerate these people," said Interior Ministry spokesman Saud S. Musibeeh. "People make mistakes, but at the end of the day, they come back to the right way. The best way to kill these ideas and this movement is to put them on the air, to drag them out into the sun."

Critics have long warned that the ruling family is in a bind. The kingdom will have a hard time stamping out the radicals, they say, because to attack the austere Wahhabi branch of Islam at the root of the insurgents' ideology would undercut the regime's own authority. The kingdom is a theocracy; without the backing of Wahhabi clerics, the House of Saud could lose its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

"The government fights in a religious way because they don't want to lose their legitimacy," said Adel Toraifi, a Saudi researcher and writer who specializes in militant movements. "The difference is so slight between the government and the terrorists, so they can return to society without major problems."

Although they acknowledge turning a blind eye to extremism in their schools and mosques before the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi officials insist there is a very clear difference. This kingdom where liquor is banned, women are veiled and capital punishment is meted out according to Islamic law is intensely conservative, they say, but not violent.

The bloodshed plaguing the kingdom traces not to Wahhabism, but to the "university of Afghanistan," Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said. Young Saudis were broken down and brainwashed when they traveled abroad to fight with the Afghan mujahedin against the Soviet invasion, he said.

"In Afghanistan they were put in harsh conditions," Prince Saud said. "They were being mentally reformed and turned into killing machines. When juveniles are used and taught violence, they can be a very menacing threat to society."

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