By KATHY GANNON
The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 4, 2007; 1:35 PM
SANA'A, Yemen -- Yemen is pioneering a novel approach for dealing with convicted al-Qaida operatives: Let them roam free as long as they promise to be law-abiding.
For example, Ali Mohammed al-Kurdi says he sent two suicide bombers to Iraq and trained others. He was sentenced to death for his part in a hotel bombing in Yemen's port city of Aden, escaped and was re-arrested.
Fawzi al-Wajeh, a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden's, was convicted in the 2002 bombing of a French oil tanker and was one of 23 al-Qaida men to escape from a Yemeni high security prison last year. He later surrendered.
Naseer Ahmed al-Bahri, another bin Laden bodyguard, fought in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Somalia. He was jailed for nearly two years without charge after returning from Afghanistan.
All three continue to idolize bin Laden and they back jihad, or holy war, against U.S. forces, whether it's in the Middle East or Afghanistan. Yet they are now back on the streets because they signed an agreement with the Yemeni government promising to obey the law.
Yemen's policy of negotiating agreements with al-Qaida operatives appears to be unique among the nations working with the United States in its anti-terror campaign. Breaking the agreement means returning to prison or causing a relative, who often acts as a guarantor, to be jailed to finish out the sentence.
Authorities do not ask Islamic extremists to forsake their sympathies or apologize for acts of terror. "The West looks at Sheik Osama as a terrorist, but for us he is a saint," al-Bahri said.
The three men said they promised the government they would obey the law, not stage attacks in Yemen or use Yemen to plot attacks elsewhere. In exchange they were freed, given money, jobs or even an arranged marriage, Interior Minister Rashad Al-Alimi said in an interview.
Yemeni officials defend the program as a practical solution in their country, the ancestral homeland of the bin Laden family where Islamic extremism is common. There are more men from Yemen held at Guantanamo Bay than from any other country.
"We are one of the first countries which had a problem with al-Qaida that has set up a committee for dialogue with these people," said Al-Alimi. The government committee conducting the talks seeks to moderate extreme views, he said.
Mohammed Ali Abulahoum, head of the ruling party's Foreign Relations department, said "most of the time it is successful. In Yemen we have two options: Either we contain them or we fight them. Fighting doesn't work in the longer term. It just doesn't."
But Gregory Johnsen, an analyst for the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation research group, says the program is a failure that is simply a "tacit nonaggression pacts with Islamists."
What the government has done "is not so much convince the militants that they were misguided and wrong, but rather that they were hurting their own cause and base of operations by acting violently within the borders of the state," Johnsen said.
Yemen was the site of the notorious al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in 2000 that killed 17 American sailors. In recent years, it has been the scene of sporadic Islamist-inspired violence, such as on Monday, when a suicide bomber killed seven Spanish tourists visiting a temple site linked to the biblical Queen of Sheba.
All three of the al-Qaida men interviewed by The Associated Press refused to forsake the organization or participation in Islamic-inspired warfare.
"Al-Qaida is not an individual, it is the pulse of the nation. Jihad is our religious duty," said al-Wajeh. "But I have an agreement with the government. I agreed to respect law and order, respect the rulers of Yemen as the authority, and take no action in Yemen or outside. But I have not changed my ideas."
A Western diplomat in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a called Yemen's program an "imperfect system of parole and control."
Government efforts to control al-Qaida suffered a major setback with the February 2006 prison break in which al-Wajeh took part. Among 23 escapees were individuals considered among the most dangerous jihadists in the country. "It was a real disaster," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition that his name not be used because he did not want to harm relations between his country and the Yemeni government. He predicted the break could help resuscitate al-Qaida in Yemen.
Before then, al-Qaida here had been in decline. In November 2002, a U.S. Predator drone airplane killed the Yemeni al-Qaida leader, Abul Ali al-Harithi, with a missile. A year later, the Yemeni authorities arrested his successor.
Al-Wajeh says he stays in touch with those who have remained fugitives, including one man who declared himself the new head of al-Qaida in Yemen. Two other escapees died last year in a failed attack on Yemen's oil facilities.
Yemen presents a complex wrinkle for the international anti-terrorist coalition. President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government considers itself to be cooperating with the West in the war against Islamic extremists, but it also has a history of close association with hardline Islamists, including Sheik Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, whom the U.S. has called "a specially designated global terrorist."
Al-Zindani's al-Imam University in Sana'a is said to finance al-Qaida and recruit fighters. He is also often described as bin Laden's religious mentor.
But al-Zindani has remained close to Saleh even after his Islamic Islah Party broke with the government several years ago, opposition political spokesman Mohammad al-Sabri said.
"The escape of the al-Qaida militants shows that the government is penetrated by these Islamists," al-Sabri said.
Yemen remains a fertile recruiting ground for groups fighting the West elsewhere in the Middle East. Recruiters give would-be militants the equivalent of about $1,300 to go to Iraq, Yemen's Interior Minister Al-Alimi said in an interview.
"For us in Yemen, we think the biggest problem is unemployment and poverty," he said.
Yemen is one of the least developed countries and is among the 30 "least livable" countries in the world, according to the U.N. Human Development Index for 2006.
But some of those who have recruited Yemenis to fight in Iraq contend it is conviction, not money, that motivates them.
Sitting on the floor of a second story apartment in Sana'a, al-Kurdi freely acknowledged that he used to dispatch young warriors to Iraq.
"One of them carried out a suicide bombing in Baghdad in 2005 and another carried out a suicide bombing near Abu Ghraib prison," al-Kurdi said with the pride of a teacher speaking of his students, showing no trace of regret for the blood he helped to spill.
He says he has stopped recruitment now only because of his compact with the government.
"Someone has guaranteed my release. If I do anything, they will take him," Al-Kurdi said. "Also they gave me $1,700."