Fascinating report in The Christian Science Monitor from Yemen, where the religion of peace isn't just another Orwellian slogan. Here's the first sentence:
When Judge Hamoud al-Hitar announced that he and four other Islamic scholars would challenge Yemen's Al Qaeda prisoners to a theological contest, Western antiterrorism experts warned that this high-stakes gamble would end in disaster.
The reporter isn't exaggerating about the high stakes bit. Hitar promised the holy warriors, "If you can convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in your struggle. . . . But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence."
So far, the judge has had some success. Hundreds of young would-be Jihadis have been released and few, if any, have taken to blowing things up or left the country to fight the Great Satan.
As the Monitor explains it, Hitar's system is "simple." He asks his hot-blooded brethren to "use the Koran to justify attacks on innocent civilians." When they cannot cite chapter and verse to justify such violence, Hitar "shows them numerous passages commanding Muslims not to attack civilians, to respect other religions, and fight only in self-defense."
If the prisoners admit that, well, yes, the Koran does have many passages which would tend to check their aggression against Westerners, relative innocents, and fellow Muslims, the government of Yemen takes a chance on them. They are set free and offered "vocational training courses and help to find jobs."
The success of the dialogue approach can be overstated. The reason the Jihadis are available to talk to the judge is that they are detained by the government, and the urge to fake a come-to-Allah experience and get out of jail should surprise precisely no one. Also, the Monitor reports that the "government has undertaken a range of measures to combat terrorism from closing down extreme madrassahs, the Islamic schools sometimes accused of breeding hate, to deporting foreign militants."
And yet, even the U.S. and British governments are admitting that Hitar is on to something, and Hitar himself is surprised at the results.
Remember, this is Yemen. The Monitor helpfully explains that the country used to be "synonymous with violent Islamic extremism. The ancestral homeland of Mr. bin Laden, it provided two-thirds of recruits for his Afghan camps, and was notorious for kidnappings of foreigners and the bombing of the American warship USS Cole in 2000 that killed 17 sailors."
Some freed militants were so transformed that they led the army to hidden weapons caches and offered the Yemeni security services advice on tackling Islamic militancy. A spectacular success came in 2002 when Abu Ali al Harithi, Al Qaeda's top commander in Yemen, was assassinated by a US air-strike following a tip-off from one of Hitar's reformed militants.