So, like a good liberal, there I was on September 12, 2001, looking up good places to send my terrorist friends for therapy, when I get a phone call from a mullah in Yemen (since, of course, registered Democrats are always in touch with a network of Middle Eastern clerics, just ask David Horowitz). He says to me, “Listen, habibi, I appreciate what you American liberals are doing. For many terrorists, I think some Zoloft and a little anger management is just what is required. But some of them, I’m sure you know the type, are quite hard cases. An esteemed judge here in my country has an idea for a different approach. It may sound a little combative to you – I know how leftists are all such pacifists and avoid all conflict, but perhaps you might give it chance. Just click on Read more and I will tell you about it.”

Koranic duels ease terror

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.

Nervous as he faced five captured, yet defiant, Al Qaeda members in a Sanaa prison, Judge Hitar was inclined to agree. But banishing his doubts, the youthful cleric threw down the gauntlet, in the hope of bringing peace to his troubled homeland.

“If you can convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in your struggle,” Hitar told the militants. “But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence.”

The prisoners eagerly agreed.


“Since December 2002, when the first round of the dialogues ended, there have been no terrorist attacks here, even though many people thought that Yemen would become terror’s capital,” says Hitar, eyes glinting shrewdly from beneath his emerald-green turban. “Three hundred and sixty-four young men have been released after going through the dialogues and none of these have left Yemen to fight anywhere else.”


Hitar’s belief that hardened militants trained by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan could change their stripes was initially dismissed by US diplomats in Sanaa as dangerously naive, but the methods of the scholarly cleric have little in common with the other methods of fighting extremism. Instead of lecturing or threatening the battle-hardened militants, he listens to them.

“An important part of the dialogue is mutual respect,” says Hitar. “Along with acknowledging freedom of expression, intellect and opinion, you must listen and show interest in what the other party is saying.”

Only after winning the militants’ trust does Hitar gradually begin to correct their beliefs. He says that most militants are ordinary people who have been led astray. Just as they were taught Al Qaeda’s doctrines, he says, so too can they be taught more- moderate ideas. “If you study terrorism in the world, you will see that it has an intellectual theory behind it,” says Hitar. “And any kind of intellectual idea can be defeated by intellect.”

The program’s success surprised even Hitar. For years Yemen was 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. Resisting US pressure, Yemen declined to meet violence with violence.

“It’s only logical to tackle these people through their brains and heart,” says Faris Sanabani, a former adviser to President Abdullah Saleh and editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer, a weekly English-language newspaper. “If you beat these people up they become more stubborn. If you hit them, they will enjoy the pain and find something good in it – it is a part of their ideology. Instead, what we must do is erase what they have been taught and explain to them that terrorism will only harm Yemenis’ jobs and prospects. Once they understand this they become fighters for freedom and democracy, and fighters for the true Islam,” he says.

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.

There is, however, more going on here than is obvious. For example, in the above article it also says that: “To be sure, the prisoner-release program is not solely responsible for the absence of attacks in Yemen. 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.” However, it turns out that these schools may actually have been closed as part of a repressive political program against Zaidi Shi’as on the part of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh:

President Saleh recently began closing 4000 “underground” Zaidi schools serving 330,000 children. Yemeni public schools propagate Sunni doctrine. Officials of Saleh’s Sunni government have characterized Zaidi teachings as “blasphemous,” “backwards” and “deviant.” The curriculum of some hard core Wahhabi schools, the greater threat according to analysts, was not addressed in their statements.


Thousands are in prison without charges after mass arrests in Saada, and more are taken daily. A Zaidi judge, Mohammed Luqman, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after ruling against one of Saleh’s political cronies. A Zaidi editor, Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, was jailed after a series of articles on governmental corruption. Both men were convicted of sedition for speaking against the bloodshed in Saada.

A deft master of propaganda, Saleh knows all the buzzwords to feed the West. He called the 4000 Zaidi schools “extremist” and said their closure was educational reform. He announced that imprisoning the respected judge was an anti-corruption campaign. He said the outspoken editor was flaming sectarianism by denouncing the violence.

Zaidi or “Fiver” Shi’ism is one of the three most historically important branches of Shi’i Islam. It is a different branch from that which is commonly practiced in Iran and Iraq (Imami or “Twelver” Shi’ism). Yemen is the only country where Zaidis make up a significant portion of the population – about 40%.

The Wahhabi sect mentioned above is a radical Sunni sect based in Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden bases his ideas on Wahhabi teachings.

The context for the WorldPress article above is that high-level Iraqi clerics in Najaf, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a statement protesting the treatment of Zaidis by the Yemeni government, stating that Saleh was waging “a kind of war” against them. The writer concludes:

The Jamestown Organization forecasts a bleak future for Yemenis: “While Saleh grooms his son as his successor, Yemen threatens to become a replica of the hereditary Baathist presidencies of Iraq and Syria.”

Who better than Iraqis to recognize another Saddam? President Saleh has stolen the liberty of an entire country including the Sunni majority, but his jihad against the Zaidis includes artillery, mass arrests, and forcing children out of school. This is the jihad in Yemen that Iraq’s religious leaders mean to show the world.

While Saleh is technically an elected President, Yemen has more-or-less sham elections of a type common in the Middle East. Saleh typically receives over 95% of the vote. A similar system used to be in place in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, currently exists in Tunisia, and is the likely outcome of current “reform” proposals in Egypt. (In Egypt, another parallel is that Hosni Mubarak seems to be grooming his son Gamal as a successor.)

It is not clear from anything I’ve read just what relation Judge Hamoud al-Hitar has to the Saleh regime. In this report of a debate between al-Hitar and human rights lawyer Mohammed Naji Allaw, it seems that Allaw also accuses al-Hitar of being naive:

Allaw agreed with Al-Hitar on some of the reasons for violence, but said, “Describing the reasons for violence is easy. We need to talk about solving and finding solutions for these reasons.”

“The biggest lie that we all live is that we are in a democratic country and that we apply the institutions in our lives.”

“I don’t think that the dialogue that judge Al-Hitar is doing is a future solution for these people,” said Allaw. “It’s true that this experience is important, but it lacks several things and it’s also contradictory in nature. The schools that judge Al-Hitar talked about that the young people went to… are now considered disbelieving, but once they were considered believers by the governments.”

“One more thing that we have to mention with regard to the nature of the investigations that are done into these people in the political security prisons is that the torture they are being subjected to is shown and proven. The least type of torture is that they are being arrested without evidence. No visits are allowed either by lawyers or their families, and most of the time they know nothing about their whereabouts,” said Allaw.

“Another thing is that all the rights of these prisoners were first violated by officials who have no respect for human beings. I myself don’t believe in violence as a solution for any kind of problem.”

“I also disagree with those who say that poverty is one of the main reasons for violence. Gulf countries are a case in point–they are very rich countries and they have violent acts too. I think the main and real reason behind violence is political autocracy and repression,” he said.

To Allaw, the ultimate problem in Yemeni society in particular and the Arab world in general is the absence of values and morality. “They are there, but they are not applied,” said the lawyer.


“I respect judge Al-Hitar, who is betting his name and is going into a severe war with people who are not aware of human rights–those from political security who know only the language of guns and of torture. That’s why violence will continue until the jurisprudence of guns is over,” he said.

“There are some units in the government that are making the violence and feeding it,” said Allaw. “The jurisdictional system is ruled by soldiers. I feel sorry for my colleague Al-Hitar in being involved in this, and I wish him a reward from God for all his efforts.”

“This dialogue he is doing has to be done in public so as to persuade the public of what we are doing. I also stress and I am determined that the main reason behind violence is political corruption, and political repression and oppression.”

It’s hard to tell exactly what the issue is here. My best guess is that Allaw thinks that al-Hitar’s efforts, while respectable in and of themselves, are being used by the Yemeni government to help whitewash repressive policies and to provide an excuse for not addressing the contribution of those policies to terrorist activity. On the surface, it seems like this might be a fairly typical idealist (Allaw) vs pragmatist (al-Hitar) type of dispute between people whose goals are basically the same. I suspect it’s more complicated than that, but without more context I wouldn’t want to guess how.

More on al-Hitar’s Dialogue Committee.
More on Saleh’s repressive policies.

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