Sheik Khaled al-Harbi got his first few minutes of fame in an hourlong video that aired around the world in December 2001. In it, the radical Saudi imam praised Osama bin Laden for the spectacular success of the Sept. 11 attacks. "Hundreds of people used to doubt you," he burbled, "... until this huge event." The imam was on camera again last week, but he was singing a remarkably different tune. In a video released by Saudi authorities, al-Harbi announced from his wheelchair that he was taking an offer of leniency issued in June by Saudi King Fahd to his nation's many Islamic militants. "I came in obedience to God and the ruler," the imam explained. "There is no doubt that this is a gracious initiative by King Fahd and his crown prince."
That "gracious initiative" assures militants that they will be given due process and--provided the families of their victims consent--spared execution in exchange for their surrender and cooperation. The deal was devised to reel in lower-level militants in hopes of isolating their hard-core leaders. It was also a canny political move. It enables King Fahd to point to the grace period he offered Saudi militants before his security forces begin a promised crackdown.
Al-Harbi was only the third man to take the King's offer, which expires this week. A Saudi official tells TIME that al-Harbi contacted the Saudi embassy in Tehran two weeks ago from a hideout along the Afghan-Iranian border and negotiated his surrender over three days. U.S. officials doubt al-Harbi has a great deal of useful information. "He was a confidant and spiritual sounding board for bin Laden," says one, but no al-Qaeda operative. The Saudis are more optimistic. Saudi security analyst Nawaf Obaid tells TIME that al-Harbi, who is cooperating, was a "very successful recruiter" for al-Qaeda and could have the goods on as many as 100 Saudis he is thought to have enticed into bin Laden's service.
--By Scott MacLeod and Elaine Shannon