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Last Updated: Monday, 20 June, 2005, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Saudi Stories: The Extremists

Bill Law
Reporter, Saudi Stories

Saudi Arabia has come a long way since 11 September, 2001.

For months and years after neither the government nor the vast majority of its people were prepared to acknowledge the grip that extremists held in the desert kingdom.

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Then a series of bombings in the capital Riyadh in 2003 forced a reassessment.

The crackdown that followed led to shootouts with hardcore Islamic militants, known as jihadists. More

than 120 have been killed and a handful captured alive.

The Saudis now say that the terrorist threat has receded. The country is safe once again for westerners.

But, dig a little deeper and a chilling story emerges.

High-level extremists

Mansour al-Noqaidin is an ex-jihadist, jailed in the early 1990s for terrorist acts.

Since his release from prison, he has spoken out against terrorism - and had his life threatened.

You'll find extremists in different government departments - they don't back terrorism in public, they do it secretly
Mansour al-Noqaidin
He has spoken against the government and it has tried to silence him.

But in his flat in Riyadh, he wanted nothing more than to talk to me.

"Yes, definitely there are extremists. And you'll find them in different government departments, you'll find them in the mosques, you'll find them in a lot of places in the society.

"A lot of them don't back terrorism in public, they do it secretly but they are there," he says.

Mr Noqaidan confirms what I have learned from other sources.

Extremist teachers use weekend camps to recruit deeply religious and impressionable young men to the cause of holy war.

Hopeful martyrs

The government says very few young Saudis are crossing the border to Iraq. But Mr Noqaidan puts the number in the high hundreds.

"I'll tell you this story of this guy I knew 16 years ago and I met him recently and I asked him about his kid and he showed me his kid's picture and he told me he's now 16 and he's now in Iraq fighting for God.

Saudi police during anti-Jihadist operation
The Saudi authorities claim a string of successes against militants
"And I said to him, 'He's very young and you're going to be responsible for his acts'.

"And he said, 'Don't worry. I'm not worried about my son, I know he will do the right thing and believe me, I won't be upset if I hear that he became a martyr'."

The man charged with rooting out militants is Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif.

He has a reputation as a ruthless tactician who has skilfully played hardliners off against moderates.

Until recently, the interior ministry rarely if ever spoke to western journalists. But that's changing.

Brig Gen Mansour al-Turki is Naif's spokesperson.

He is a small, intense man with an engaging smile. I spent almost two hours with him and found him in an expansive mood.

He was proud of the numerous successes in the war against terror, citing a recent raid that left 14 jihadists dead and only light casualties on the government side.

'Teenage terrorists'

But Brig Gen Turki did not deny that extremist recruiters under cover of weekend camps were a big worry.

He told me about some of the young jihadists his forces have captured alive.

"Most of them are actually under age. We're talking about boys 15, 16.

"And if a boy is religious enough, if he is really convinced of everything but he is not convinced that he can do a terrorist act here, for example, the older jihadists have their means of convincing him to do such a thing," he said.

Ask the ex-jihadist Mansour al-Noqaidin why young men are prepared to die and he says: "It's basically because they are sincere and honestly believe that the only way to heaven is through blood."

In Saudi Arabia extremism under cover of religion continues to flourish.

Young men continue to be recruited to the cause of holy war.

That will only change if the government is prepared to confront powerful forces that continue to shelter and encourage extremists, a course of action it appears unable or unwilling to undertake.

Bill Law's series, Saudi Stories was first broadcast in June and July 2005 on Radio 4 and World Service.

The Saudi Stories programmes are available to listen online or to download in two installments as part of the BBC Podcasting trial.

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