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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 October 2005, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Yemeni anti-terror scheme in doubt
By Tim Whewell
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents and BBC TWO's Newsnight

Doubts have been growing over the effectiveness of a pioneering Yemeni scheme to fight Islamist violence by using dialogue to convert extremist prisoners to more moderate views.

Judge Hamoud al-Hitar
The judge's non-violent approach has attracted worldwide attention

Launched three years ago, the project has been followed with interest by British and other Western governments.

The Islamic scholar behind it, Judge Hamoud al-Hitar, has been invited to London twice to lecture senior anti-terrorism officers.

Muslim prisoners in London will now be given mentors before their release to help them understand mainstream Islamic values and prevent them being attracted to extremism.

But in Yemen, some say Judge Hitar's scheme - which the state claims has helped stop terror attacks there - is a sham and does not motivate any real conversions.  

There are even some reports that former al-Qaeda militants released by Judge Hitar have been caught fighting coalition forces in Iraq.

Osama Bin Laden's former bodyguard - previously paraded as one of the scheme's star pupils - has admitted his basic views have not changed at all, although he did say he has renounced all violence and would refuse to fight for al-Qaeda.

An 'understanding'?

Nasser al-Bahri
There was no long or complex dialogue
Nasser al-Bahri, former member of al-Qaeda

Nasser al-Bahri served the al-Qaeda leader for three years.

He made it clear that many imprisoned Yemeni militants simply told Judge Hitar what he wanted to hear as a means of getting themselves out of prison.

Sitting in the floor of his bare flat on a dusty backstreet in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, Bahri denied there had been any debate with the judge about the meaning of the Koran.

Speaking without the permission of the Yemeni authorities, he said: "We understood what the judge wanted and he understood what we wanted from him.

"The Yemeni Mujahideen in prison know Hitar is the way for them to get released, so they ingratiate themselves with him.

"There was no long or complex dialogue."

Terror attacks

Old town, Sanaa, Yemen
Yemen soon gained a reputation as a haven for Islamic militants

The re-education scheme was launched to deal with hundreds of Yemeni young men like Bahri who had returned to their homeland after fighting in Afghanistan.

There were fears al-Qaeda would use them to turn Yemen into a major base for terrorist attacks.

Bin Laden followers established training camps in the country's mountainous interior where the central government's writ barely runs.

In October 2000 two suicide bombers attacked the American destroyer, USS Cole, in Yemen's main port, Aden, killing 17 US sailors, and injuring 39 others.

Two years later, there was an attack on a French oil tanker off the Yemeni coast.

And a gunman accused of links to al-Qaeda, murdered three Americans working in a mission hospital in the south of the country.  

The lack of attacks since then is cited by Judge Hitar as evidence of the success of his scheme.

Peaceful approach

Judge Hamoud al-Hitar
The pen and the tongue might be stronger than the most advanced weapons
Judge Hitar
The judge and other religious scholars visit terrorist suspects in prison and supposedly engage them in theological debate, a form of Koranic duelling.

Prisoners not charged with any specific crime are freed after several rounds of dialogue if the scholars say they have successfully persuaded them to abandon their extremist views.

The scheme does not cover those convicted of attacks.

So far, 364 young men have been freed on parole under the scheme. They are supposed to receive help from the state to start a new life.

"Until 2002 there was only one way to fight terrorism, and that was force," Judge Hitar said.

"Yemen has added another and more effective way, dialogue.

"We have proved to the whole world that the pen and the tongue might be stronger than the most advanced weapons."

Those claims led to the judge's first invitation to Britain by the Foreign Office in February 2004, soon after a visit by the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith to Yemen.

Muslim inmates

Britain's interest followed concern that some Muslim prisoners, such as the shoe bomber Richard Reid, were being radicalised in British prisons.

Judge Hitar spoke to Metropolitan Police officers and Home Office officials. He was brought back three months later to outline his methods to Special Branch. 

They are put under a lot of pressure and when they are released from prison, nothing has changed
Yemeni Professor Adel Sharjazee
There are about 7,500 Muslim inmates in UK prisons, more than 10% of the total prison population.

Officials say they want to ensure that imams who serve as chaplains are scholars able to engage with - and hopefully curb extremist views.

In the wake of the 7 July bombings in London, British Home Secretary Charles Clarke set up a number of Muslim task-forces, and one of the proposals they made was to establish a council that would advise on the training of imams in Britain. 

But in Yemen, human rights activists working with prisoners have poured scorn on the notion that theological dialogue can change militant views.

One campaigner, Professor Adel Sharjazee, said: "The results of dialogue are very limited.

"As these people are being talked to they are put under a lot of pressure and when they are released from prison, nothing has changed."

Foreign fighters

Yemen's Foreign Minister Dr Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi refused to deny that prisoners released under the scheme had turned up in Iraq, where Yemenis are thought to account for more than 10% of the foreign anti-coalition fighters.

We cannot prevent these groups leaving for Iraq and other places
Yemeni Foreign Minister Dr Abu Bakr al-Qirbi
He said: "These people who are released are kept under surveillance because some have a commitment to a cause, Palestine or Iraq.

"And that's why we have very strict control to make sure they don't leave the country.

But he added: "We have a problem with our borders because they are so long we cannot prevent these groups leaving for Iraq and other places."

Bin Laden's former bodyguard, Nasser al-Bahri, said the authorities have helped him set himself up as a small businessman, and he will not be returning to his old life as an anti-Western militant.

But he said his admiration for Bin Laden had not diminished, and he claimed Judge Hitar did not really aim to convert prisoners, merely to seek a guarantee that they would not launch attacks on the West from Yemeni soil.

"The dialogue with us in prison did not take long," he said, "particularly since most of the guys had never operated in Yemen.

"Yes, some of them hate America and see the West as an enemy and want to engage in struggle and killing.

"They can fight in Western lands, but it's not allowed in our country."  

Tim Whewell reported from Yemen for BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents on Thursday, 13 October, 2005, at 1100 BST, and another report will be broadcast at 2230 BST on Wednesday, 19 October, 2005, on BBC Two's Newsnight.

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