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Robert Lacey is a British historian noted for his original research, which gets him close to - and often living alongside - his subjects. He is the author of numerous[…]

The author of one of the most quintessential texts on Saudi Arabia, The Kingdom, describes the region’s clever method for warding off terrorists.

Question: Can the US learn from the Saudi approach to reforming terrorists?

Robert Lacey: Saudi Arabia has this very soft technique for dealing with terrorists, which they’re very proud of, except I tell them, it’s not really so different from the Betty Ford Clinic. You know it’s this sort of rehab for terrorists. There has been quite a lot of publicity about it and it’s slightly exaggerated publicity because the real hardcore terrorists refuse to take part in the rehab. There are about 10, 15% of the guys they’ve caught from Al-Qaida, who want nothing to do -- I mean they hated the Saudi government before. They hate it now and they’re not going to sit around in the therapy circles discussing their problems. In some ways it’s been picked up from America. In other ways again, it goes back to the Islamic Golden Age. I mean the first mental hospitals in the world were created in Arab countries with people like Avasina having the idea of the healthy mind and the healthy body at a time when in Europe mad people were getting thrown into ponds with their arms and legs bound because they were considered as being possessed by the devil. Saudi Arabia -- not Saudi Arabia in those days. Arabia was treating mental, mentally damaged people with kindness and that is the tradition they’re trying now. It’s not just therapy they do. They do practical things.

These ex-extremists when it’s felt they’ve moved along enough to go out into the world they’re supplied with a car. They’re supplied with a job and they’re also most practically supplied with a wife because if you’re a young Saudi it will cost you about 18 to $20,000 to get married. This isn’t the party. This is the bride price you have to pay to get a wife if you’re a young Saudi and lots of kids can’t afford that, so the government pays for these young extremists to get wives and I know a number of them and I’ve got one particular friend, he did time in Guantanamo and he came back, got his car, nice Toyota, nice apartment in Jeddah, nice wife, but after several years his wife hadn’t produced any children, so they went back to the government and they arranged the fertility treatments, so now she is producing children because this is not just charity. This is based on the belief that you’ve got to give these young men a stake in society and it’s been reasonably successful, although Al-Qaida is so cunning.

A number of these young men having been through the process have then fled Saudi Arabia, reappeared in Yemen, which is in the south, like a sort of Afghanistan on the southern border where it’s so remote and mountainess there are camps and that sort of thing where these Jihadies train and the only difference between Yemen and Afghanistan is that Yemen is In the same mobile phone zone as Saudi Arabia, which means that the mothers and fathers can phone up the kids and say, “Come on, you’re disgracing the family.” “It’s time to come home now.” That’s another element of this Saudi therapy. They involve the family. I mean in the West most 18 year-olds can’t wait to get away from their parents. In Saudi Arabia men of 30 or 40 are scared stiff of their mothers and indeed of their fathers and so just last -- a couple of months ago, a few months ago, in August one very clever member of Al-Qaida who had been through the program, gone there to Yemen phoned up the minister, the prince who is in charge of the rehab program and said, “I’m sorry sir, I’d like to come back.” “Can you send a plane to collect me?” And so they sent a plane down to pick him up. It’s was Ramadan time in Jeddah and so there were all these gatherings and he came to Ramadan. He embraced the prince. He said, “I’ve got another friend down there who would like to come back.” “Can we go in a separate room and talk about this?” And, “I’ve got a mobile phone…” Because the security guards tried to take the mobile phone off him he said, “No sir, he won’t answer, he’ll only answer this number if he recognizes it.” So they went in a room. He picked up the mobile phone and called his friend, handed it to the prince. The prince listened to the phone and heard all this cheering and laughing and jeering at the other end and at that moment the guy with him blew up because it was a plot that Al-Qaida had devised and those are supposed to be the last things the prince heard, but unfortunately the -- well, the ingenious way they’d hidden the explosive was to insert the explosive up his rectum inside him. That is the way he got through on security checks and happily human physiology has made the central girdle, the pelvic girdle very strong, so as he stood there the pelvic girdle contained the blast. The blast went down. The blast went up. There were some very graphic photographs in the Saudi papers of these body parts sprayed all over the ceiling and the prince to this day has lived to tell the tale, but that’s the sort of battle that’s going on. I mean even as we speak.

Question: Have you ever felt in personal danger of extremist violence?

Robert Lacey: I have to say, I’ve tried dealing with some real fundamentalists and you try talking to them and they just look away. They sort of don’t acknowledge you as being a human being and I suppose at moments like that I’ve got a sort of sense of the chilling indifference to human life that inspires the members of Al-Qaida and the extremists, but on the whole you know most Saudis I know deplore and are embarrassed by Osama Bin Laden and no, I have to say I feel quite safe in Saudi Arabia.

Recorded on: October 20, 2009