Yemen’s Committee for Dialogue: Can Jihadists Return to Society?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 14

Well before 9/11, Yemen was faced with a terrorist threat on a scale matched by few other countries. It was not a case of unraveling the occasional sleeper cell but rather a question of how to handle thousands of militants, many of whom returned to Yemen from Afghanistan and other battlefields with impressive combat experience and deep ideological motivation.

This complex and dangerous situation required delicate handling and perhaps the most interesting aspect of Yemen’s war on terrorism is the Committee for Dialogue. The Committee was established in August 2002, when Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih summoned five senior clerics who subsequently formed the nucleus of this pioneering enterprise. Since its inception, the Committee has expanded its membership to 24 which also includes four ministers.

The work of the Committee has confused, aggravated and astounded a number of international observers who follow Yemen’s unique approach to counter-terrorism. What at first glance might appear as a haphazard strategy is in fact much more complicated and made to fit the local circumstances. Some have accused Yemen of being soft on terrorism, conveniently ignoring the substantial number of terrorists being convicted and executed. It appears that Yemen, while keeping a keen eye on international opinion and developments, has created a counter-terrorism strategy which deals harshly with immediate threats, yet focuses on long-term and lasting solutions.

Justice for All

The following is a brief summary and distillation of an interview conducted in Sana’a on 21 June 2005, with the president of the Committee, Judge Hamoud Abdulhameed al-Hittar, who is also the president of the court of appeal for Sana’a and al-Jawf governorates.

Since the war on terrorism began in earnest, several hundred young radical Islamists were arrested and imprisoned without trial. Knowing fully well that these suspects were innocent according to the Yemeni penal code, they were nevertheless considered potentially dangerous to society because of their militant views and known associates. Realizing that the suspects eventually had to be either put on trial or released, a decision was made to approach them to see if they could be convinced of the futility of the Jihadist lifestyle. The Committee was to be the instrument for conducting what amounted to a dialogue with known al-Qaeda sympathizers.

Expecting little and hoping for the best, the members of the Committee outlined an approach to dialogue with the detainees that would turn out to be as effective as it was simple. The process of dialogue between the clerics and the radical Islamists is founded on a single-page manual. This interesting document differs from any Western interrogation manual both in size, scope and working principle. The foundation of the dialogue is equality and respect; literally a conversation between individuals of equal standing. The basic fact that one party in the dialogue was behind bars appears not to have had much influence on the process. The manual is simple in the extreme in that it stresses the need for mutual respect and recognition, courteous behavior and a duty to speak the truth, common definition of goals and methods, recognition of differences and agreement to revert to common ground when the dialogue stalls. As such the manual more resembles a form of social contract than an interrogation checklist, which it is certainly not.

In this context, it would be misleading to speak of an interrogation. The dialogue is decoupled from whatever questioning and interaction that takes place between the detainees and the intelligence and security services. The basic pre-requisite is voluntary participation; coercion does not serve any purpose in this setting. For this reason the content of the manual is presented to the detainees and the topics and format is discussed until mutual agreement has been reached.

At the first meeting between the detainees and the clerics there is the unavoidable suspicion that must be dealt with immediately. Not surprisingly, the detainees have been quite skeptical about the motives of the clerics and have often bluntly enquired into their “true” motives. The clerics would then proceed to explain that the purpose of the visit was to initiate a dialogue to exchange views on important matters of mutual interest, although seen from different angles. Knowing fully well the detainees’ obsession with religion, it was explicitly stated that the foundation of the dialogue would be the Qur’an and the Sunnah and nothing else.

The way to attract their interest was through the proposal of an all or nothing deal. The clerics who approached the detainees insisted that the dialogue would center on the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. If the detainees could persuade the clerics of the legitimacy of their Jihad they would join them. If not, the detainees would have to give up the idea of armed struggle. Somewhat surprisingly to the clerics, the detainees were eager to accept the deal. However, their arrogance and zeal was seldom matched by their knowledge of the scriptures, and in the end they were not able to present a convincing concept of Jihad based on the authoritative sources. Over time it was proven that the legitimacy of Jihad as outlined by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda does not stand up to close scrutiny.

This approach has proven useful because it deliberately ignores the unavoidable positioning that occurs when current events are brought up. U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the Palestinian problem and the situation in Iraq are not central topics, and as such tend to be deliberately avoided. Instead the focus is exclusively on Islam and what it means to be Muslim. For instance, the detainees are challenged to find the passages in the Holy Scriptures that allow indiscriminate killings of non-Muslims. Lengthy discussion of these passages, their context and interpretation, more often than not lead to the conclusion that the foundation of the Jihadist ideology is very fragile indeed. By focusing on the religious angle exclusively, the dialogue maintains momentum and avoids intractable entrenchment.

The detainees are a heterogeneous group with members from the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, the al-Houthi rebellion, Takfir Wal-Hijra, al-Qaeda and a number of Afghan veterans. These members are self-taught and not very responsive to sincere religious dialogue. This rogue’s gallery represents a variety of challenges. When asked about the significance of Afghan veterans among the detainees, al-Hittar was quick to emphasize that an Afghan experience did not necessarily turn Muslims into mindless killers. While it is certainly true that the hardcore of al-Qaeda in Yemen are more often than not recruited through a lengthy stay in Afghanistan, quite a few gave up the Jihad or got involved in legitimate domestic political activity. Those detainees who had been exposed to al-Qaeda’s ideology for some time were among the hardest cases. Their belief in the mission, their sense of superiority and the endless reference to the Holy Scriptures made them uniquely difficult partners in an open dialogue.

In terms of their social background, there is no clear profile of the al-Qaeda sympathizer. They come from all segments of society, including the very top and the very bottom, and are united only in their adherence to al-Qaeda’s ideology and their dedication to the cause.

Future Prospects

Being turned around is not enough if the suspect to be released relapses into his old habits and circle of friends. An unspecified period of surveillance follows immediate release, though this is probably less complicated than a similar arrangement in a Western European country. Great care is being taken to carefully reinsert the former militant Islamists into society in a viable manner. If possible they are returned to their jobs or alternatively a new job is secured for them. Those who dropped out of school or university are encouraged to continue their studies and are provided with loans if needed. Unconfirmed stories circulate in Yemen about former detainees who are now working for the security services. While this may be true in a few cases, it was never a planned affair.

The work of the Committee is nearing its third year and the results are worth noticing. The Yemenis are generally quite happy about the work of the Committee and share the impression that its efforts have contributed to improve the security situation and internal stability. The criticism that has occurred over the years has less to do with the idea behind the initiative than local political agendas. Critics have found the work of the Committee an expedient and indirect way of criticizing the government, though rarely addressing the actual content. Members of the Committee have been labeled as government stooges, an accusation al-Hittar does not accept. In his view, the members represent themselves, but are willing to work with the government to try to solve a national security problem.

As of June 2005, 364 suspects have been released, an astonishing number by any standard. The answer to the sensitive question of how many of those released have returned to their previous militant lifestyle was evasive. Yemen understands that international critics are keen to point out the futility of the project. Assuming that a handful, an unverifiable number obtained by asking others familiar with the work of the Committee, is true, this raises another important question in itself: What percentage should be considered an acceptable threshold for success?

Perhaps there are other measures of success within this relatively new field of counter- terrorism. Judge al-Hittar has received a number of death threats, a point he did not bother to mention himself, perhaps considering it too trivial. He currently lives under armed protection, an indication that someone is following his work and has drawn the conclusion that the soft-spoken cleric is a danger that should be eliminated. Another way of assessing the work of the Committee is through the words of al-Hittar himself. Before the Committee started there were two options for the Jihadists – to kill or be killed themselves. Now there is a third choice, a return to society.