SANA, Yemen “” When the Yemeni authorities released a convicted terrorist of Al Qaeda named Jamal al-Badawi from prison last October, American officials were furious. Mr. Badawi helped plan the attack on the American destroyer Cole in 2000, in which 17 American sailors were killed.
But the Yemenis saw things differently. Mr. Badawi had agreed to help track down five other members of Al Qaeda who had escaped from prison, and was more useful to the government on the street than off, said a high-level Yemeni government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Mr. Badawi had also pledged his loyalty to Yemen’s president before being released, the official said.
The dispute over Mr. Badawi “” whom the Yemenis quickly returned to prison after being threatened with a loss of aid “” underscored a much broader disagreement over how to fight terrorism in Yemen, a particularly valuable recruiting ground and refuge for Islamist militants in the past two decades.
Yemeni officials say they have had considerable success co-opting jihadists like Mr. Badawi, often by releasing them from prison and helping them with money, schooling or jobs. They are required to sign a pledge not to carry out any attacks on Yemeni soil, often backed by guarantees from their tribe or family members. Many have taken part in an Islamic re-education effort led by religious scholars, now being copied on a wider scale in Saudi Arabia.
A number of these former jihadists have become government informants, helping to capture a new generation of younger, more dangerous Qaeda militants “” some of them veterans of the war in Iraq “” who refuse to recognize the Yemeni government. Others have become mediators, helping persuade escaped prisoners to surrender.
But American counterterrorism officials and even some Yemenis say the Yemeni government, more than others in the region, is in effect striking a deal that helps stop attacks here while leaving jihadists largely free to plan them elsewhere. They also say the Yemeni government caters too much to radical Islamist figures to improve its political standing, nourishing a culture that could ultimately breed more violence.
“Yemen is like a bus station “” we stop some terrorists, and we send others on to fight elsewhere,” said Murad Abdul Wahed Zafir, a political analyst at the National Democratic Institute in Sana. “We appease our partners in the West, but we are not really helping.”
That same year, Mr. Saleh hit on an idea that he hoped would satisfy both his American and Islamist partners: “al hiwar al fikri,” or intellectual dialogue. This was an effort to inculcate the idea that Islam, properly understood, does not condone terrorism. Sessions began with hundreds of former jihadists who remained in prison without charges.
That old chestnut. Terrorism, perhaps. But what about jihad?
Some critics have dismissed the dialogue program, which lapsed in 2005 after terror attacks dropped off, as a sham in which inmates feigned conversion to get out of prison. But Nasser al-Bahri, a former driver for Mr. bin Laden who spent four years with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, said it was more like a raw bargain: exempt Yemen from your jihad and you will be left alone.
“It changed their behavior, not their thoughts,” said Mr. Bahri, a cheerful, talkative 33-year-old who once went by the nom de guerre Abu Jandal. “Judge Hetar cannot cancel jihad. It is in the roots of our religion.”
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