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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 December, 2003, 13:51 GMT
Saudi militants urged to surrender
By Bill Law
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

The devastation in Riyadh after the bomb
The recent bombing in Riyadh shocked ordinary Saudis

As efforts to end terror attacks in Saudi Arabia intensify, Crossing Continents meets a cleric with close ties to the extremists, who is heading an initiative to get militants to surrender. Interior minister Prince Naif has promised to hunt down and kill those who do not turn themselves in.

Mohsen al-Awajy, lawyer and cleric, held up a finger.

"I can assure you there will be no more terror attacks in the kingdom," he said.

Saudi society is still coping with the devastating effects of the bomb which ripped apart a family compound in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, on 8 November, 2003.

At least 18 people were killed and over 120 injured, many critically. The victims were mostly Arab expatriate workers and their families.

The attack shook Saudi society to its roots.

Previous bombings had involved Western targets, such as the simultaneous attacks in May on three compounds which left 35 dead.

This one was different. Muslims had been killed in the holy month of Ramadan by militants who cite the Koran as their justification.

The rage and fear that gripped Riyadh, a sprawling modern city of some five million people was palpable.

People are fed up with the violence, and they are angry with clerics who encourage it
Mohsen al-Awajy, lawyer and cleric

At Friday prayers in the capital, I was accosted by a man in his 40s outside the grand mosque. With his young son beside him he said:

"These people should be executed. They should be beheaded and if the authorities ask me, I will do it with my own hands."

Mr Awajy, who has long been close to some of the most extreme clerics, insisted the militants had blundered badly.

"The word on Saudi street is that people are fed up with the violence, and they are angry with clerics who encourage it," he said.

'No choice' but surrender

For years, militant Wahhabi imams were allowed to preach a language of violence and intolerance by a government eager for their approval and backing. But they have seen their support evaporate since the Riyadh bombing.

The government's war on terror received a big boost when a leading militant cleric, Sheik Ali al-Khudair recanted his extremist views and withdrew fatwas encouraging the killing of Western civilians in Saudi Arabia. Others are expected to follow suit.

But critics, noting that the recantation came from his jail cell, are wondering just how sincere the cleric was. They wonder, too, how far they can trust a government that is only now distancing itself from extremist Islam.

These young men are our relatives, our tribesmen. We know their mentality very well, we know how to influence them
Mohsen al-Awajy, lawyer and cleric

Mr Awajy, who spent four years in prison in the mid-90s for criticising the ruling house of Saud, insists the country's leaders are doing their best to put a stop to the violence.

His initiative is attempting to get young jihadis to put down their guns and seek forgiveness.

Armed with a government promise of amnesty for those not directly implicated in attacks and lenient sentences for even the most extreme, he claims to be making progress.

"These young men are our relatives, our tribesmen," he said. "We know their mentality very well. We know how to influence them.

"Anyway, they have no choice but to surrender."

He is probably right: the country's Interior Minister Prince Naif has promised to hunt down and kill militants who do not turn themselves in.

But Mr Awajy refused to be drawn on whether the young jihadis would take their war elsewhere to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It is very hard for us to make a clear statement about Iraq. If their target is innocent people we condemn them. But if the intention is to get Americans out of Iraq then we praise and thank them."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 4 December, 2003 at 1100 GMT.



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SEE ALSO:
US warns of fresh Riyadh attacks
02 Dec 03  |  Middle East
Country profile: Saudi Arabia
16 Nov 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Saudi Arabia
18 Nov 03  |  Country profiles
Saudi's war on 'the enemy within'
09 Nov 03  |  Middle East
Saudi Arabia: Uncertain front in war
10 Nov 03  |  Middle East
Bill Law: Biography
04 Dec 03  |  Crossing Continents


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