*** The problem with this program was that the "graduates" were all persuaded not to commit acts of terrorism inside Yemen. That left the door open for these guys to go elsewhere instead of Yemen being accused of becoming a terrorist haven: oops, too late!
Don't dismiss deradicalization; it saved me from going down the wrong path and it is a very important tool - one among of a number of tools we should have in the toolbox. MS ***
SAN'A, Yemen -- As Yemeni security forces mobilize against al Qaeda, Hamoud Al Hitar, minister of Islamic Endowment, is advocating what he says is a better way of curing the country of its Islamist militants: rehab.
Mr. Hitar ran a government-sponsored militant-rehabilitation program from 2002 to 2005, with mixed results. He says he successfully pacified hundreds of militant Islamist detainees by using the Quran to teach the fallacies of extremist ideology.
U.S. officials, however, criticized the program's effectiveness after American forces in Iraq started detaining some Yemeni graduates.
Nasser al Bahri, a management consultant who was once a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and spent more than a decade in the ranks of al Qaeda, was a graduate of Mr. Hitar's program. He says a beefed-up program could do good, but the version Mr. Hitar ran was ineffective -- in part because many fellow prisoners pretended to have changed their ways simply to be let out of jail.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has recently asked for more international assistance in its military fight against terrorism, as well as financing to build a secure facility for terrorist suspects and a rehab program for those willing to join.
Washington this month said it will double aid to Yemen to combat terrorism, in the wake of the alleged attempt to down a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day. The alleged attempt has been linked to the Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda.
For now, President Saleh is relying heavily on his military options. Yemeni forces launched two major military attacks against multiple, suspected al Qaeda strongholds across the country on Dec. 17 and Dec. 24. Government officials say those operations were based on intelligence showing that al Qaeda had prepared eight suicide attacks against foreign and Yemeni targets in San'a, the capital.
Yemeni officials have said at least 30 al Qaeda members died and scores more were arrested in the two December attacks.
This week, Yemeni forces launched what U.S. officials called a successful antiterrorism operation that allowed Washington to reopen its embassy, which had closed for two days because of an al Qaeda threat.
Mr. Hitar says the military operations, no matter how successful, won't accomplish much unless they are backed by a program to change the ideology al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers in the country.
"Force alone is not enough to defeat al Qaeda," says Mr. Hitar. He says his program rehabilitated approximately 340 former militant Islamists. "We must have a program of religious dialog. This must be a top priority, as it is the best way to cure the wrong ideas."
U.S. and Yemeni officials agree that some sort of rehabilitation program could be attractive. A credible program here could make it easier to eventually transfer the 100 or so Yemeni detainees still at Guantanamo Bay.
One solution being discussed by U.S., Saudi and Yemeni officials is the construction of a high-security facility in Yemen to receive repatriated Guantanamo detainees, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.
Both Washington and Saudi Arabia, Yemen's largest donor, have balked at paying for such a facility in Yemen. That is mainly because of fear of political fallout if such a facility were to become seen as a new Guantanamo Bay in the Middle East, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.
Such a facility, if realized, could incorporate a rehab program modeled off a similar program Saudi Arabia has run for years.
The Saudi program also uses the Quran to argue against extremism. But it has a trump card: Riyadh gives participants substantial financial assistance to help them readjust into society.
The economic issue is key to Yemen's challenge in shutting down al Qaeda -- not just in re-educating militants, but in preventing militancy. Yemen's weak central government, with its limited financial resources, has embittered many residents of the country's impoverished, rugged tribal regions, and al Qaeda has leveraged this resentment to expand its thriving network of militants.
Mr. Bahri, the former bin Laden bodyguard, says he joined Mr. Hitar's program in 2002 to escape a jail swollen with militants.
He says the theological discussions that the program used to dissuade participants from extremism were "weak."
Mr. Bahri says he had a genuine change of heart about condoning violence -- a philosophical evolution that he says happened independently from Mr. Hitar's program.
He says he waited four years before he received a government stipend promised to him upon leaving jail, after he agreed not take up arms again. He says that he never received promised government assistance in dealing with the psychological problems of adjusting to normal Yemeni life.