Saturday, October 02, 2004

Cleric With Links to 9-11, Bin Laden and Madrid
Made Secret Deal with Saudi Regime

The Associated Press reported this week that a Saudi cleric, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, funneled money to an Egyptian, Rabei Osman Ahmed, who is said to be the mastermind of the Madrid train bombings last March. Al-Awdah's name has been repeatedly linked to al-Qaeda and Bin Laden, yet since 9-11, he has tempered his rhetoric. The disparity between his public and his covert activity can be explained by a secret agreement between the Saudi regime and al-Awdah's Movement for Islamic Resurgence.

Osman Ahmed's Milan apartment was reportedly wiretapped by Italian anti-terrorism police. In one taped conversation he is reported to say that "The Madrid attack is my project." He is also recorded saying that al-Awdah is "everything, everything."

"[Sheikh Salmon al-Awdah is] everything, everything..."
"I worked for him in Spain."
Rabei Osman Ahmed

In a May 26 conversation with a potential recruit, Osman Ahmed describes his relationship with al-Awdah: "I worked for him in Spain. I did really well in that period, in which I earned 2,000 euros ($2,400) a month. There were days I earned 1,000 euros ($1,200)."

Al-Awdah was last heard from on Wednesday when he insisted on Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television that he did not encourage violence by Muslims. Yet, Al-Awdah's biography paints a very different picture.

It is well known that many of the September 11 hijackers were Saudis. It is not well known that thirteen of the 19 suicide attackers on 9-11 came from villages in the southern part of the kingdom. Six family names were of particular interest to investigators: Al Shehri, Ahmed, Al Suquami, Al Ghamdi, Al Omari and Al Hanzi. All of these were from the Assir region and a part of two influential clans, the Hamedi and the Sharahni. These clans are breeding grounds for radical Wahhabite groups, part of the Salafiyya movement (from al-salaf al-salih, the "virtuous forefathers") in opposition to the monarchy because it did not practice a pure form of Islam. The two clans were the impetus behind the rise of the Islamic Resurgence Movement that was headed by two young ulamas (religious men), Safar al-Hawali, a teacher at the Oum Al Qora university in Mecca, and Salman al-Awdah, a cleric who was practicing in the town of Buraida.1

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Al-Awdah and al-Hawali were signatories to two petitions critical of the monarchy and demanding reform. The first was sent in May 1991 to King Fahd and the second in September 1992 to the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh 'Abd al-'Azia bin-Baz. The petitions called on the ummah (Muslim community) to defend its holy places by itself, rather than relying on alliances with the West.2

To avoid tarnishing the country's image even more, Bin Laden's friends agreed to keep a low profile and the regime promised to tolerate their presence.
Sheiks al-Awdah and al-Hawali described the royal family as secular and corrupt, basing their case on unyielding Wahabi tenets, founded on a literal reading of the Koran. The clerics claimed that the royal family, by permitting the infidel Western troops onto the Arabian peninsula, had betrayed the laws of Islam.3

After a string of fiery sermons, and a public demonstration in Buraidah criticizing the presence of foreign troops in the kingdom, Sheik al-Awdah was jailed in September 1994, along with Sheikh Safar al-Hawali and Sheikh Naser al-Omar. They languished in jail for five years, without trial or conviction, but were released in June, 1999, because of the help of the new grand mufti, Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah al-Shaikh, who had succeeded to the position two days after the death of Abdulaziz Bin Baz on May 13.4

Le Monde reported in October 2001 that a tape recorded by Salman al-Awdah had been circulating underground in Europe and the United States

His "sermon on death" calls on the Saudi intellectual elite to prepare for sacrifice and martyrdom in order to attack the Westerners and the Saud regime, accused of serving the "crusaders."

The text of this famous fatwa is particularly striking. Here is one excerpt: "The opposition must be brought to the forefront by a group of people from the elite, who would be willing to sacrifice everything for the cause. This small group of people must prepare itself to face arrest, torture, and even death. It must be solidly determined and must strike with precision so that the rest of the support will crumble."5

Soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Sheik al-Awdah sat down for an interview with the New York Times. He presented himself as a voice of moderation. His mission since September 11, he claimed, was "to prevent such things from happening again." He told the interviewer: "What they did in America was to attack people they had no problem with in the first place."6

There was an incongruity between this new moderate image and the radical connections between al-Awdah and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden had recorded a videotape thanking Salman al-Awdah and Safar bin Abdul Rahman al-Hawali for their support and for "enlightening" Muslim youth. The release of al-Awdah had been a key demand of the Muslim militants believed to have been behind the bombings in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996 in which 24 U.S. servicemen were killed.7

An explanation for the disparity between al-Awdah's post-9-11 public image and his past was given by Intelligence Online in a revealing article in June, 2002:

The minutes of a meeting held in Riyadh on June 15 between senior officers from Mabahess Alamat, the Saudi general intelligence agency, points clearly to the confusion reigning within the country's secret services. The meeting, held in the office of deputy interior minister Ahmed Bin Abdel Aziz, centered primarily on current unrest in several cities and on planning swoops on Al Qaeda sympathizers. Two factors lie behind the difficulty encountered by security chiefs in handling the situation, even though they have received support from Al Mutuon, the religious police. One is the support that Al Qaeda commands in the religious elite, including at the Um Al Qora university in Mecca. Another is that since Sept. 11 an informal pact has governed relations between the ruling Saud family and sympathizers of Ben Laden. To avoid tarnishing the country's image even more, Bin Laden's friends agreed to keep a low profile and the regime promised to tolerate their presence. The agreement was reached between the boss of internal security, Nayef Bin Abdel Aziz (presently convalescing in Switzerland) and members of the Movement for Islamic Resurgence, a front for Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Officials from the interior ministry feared - and rightly so - what would happen if the pact were broken. Under the accord, the two leading figures in the movement, Sfar Al Hawli and Salman Al Awdah, promised to abstain from any anti-American acts or rhetoric (which nonetheless continued in dozens of mosques after Sept. 11) in return for the government's leniency and eventual release of group members who were jailed some months ago.8

The article concludes by reporting that the American campaign in Afghanistan and the reorganization of Al Qaeda's leadership "put the skids" to the informal understanding. Demonstrations flared anew in Najrane and Assir, Mecca and Buraida. Cassettes calling for martyrdom against the West and the royal family began to circulate. Prince Nayef called on June 17, 2002 for a wave of arrests in religious circles. The operations "made clear Al Qaeda was still getting assistance from welfare organizations and import-export companies. The round-up also confirmed that dozens of Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan had managed to make their way back to the country after Sept. 11."8

The agreement was reached between the boss of internal security, Nayef Bin Abdel Aziz members of the Movement for Islamic Resurgence, a front for Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.
Also in 2002, an investigation by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review exposed connections between Muslim students at the University of Pittsburgh and suspected terrorists. As this month's Atlantic Monthly reports, these ties might have been found sooner "had analysts examined the Islamic student magazine, which from 1991 to 2000 contained quotations from Salman al-Awdah, and a related Web site that quotes Safar al-Hawali." [One can read several of Safar al-Hawali's writings, on the topics of theology and ethics, at] The Atlantic Monthly alleges that both clerics have lent support to al-Qaeda. The writings cited by Al-Awdah was said to "embraces the extension of jihad worldwide and accepts civilians and fellow Muslims as legitimate targets."9

Al-Awdah surfaced again in the news in September 2003, when Al-Jazeera broadcast a video of Sa'id al-Ghamidi, one of the September 11 hijackers. The recording showed al-Ghamidi reading his last will on December 23, 2000. Al-Awdah received special attention:

They [the enemies of Islam] repressed the honest scholars and silenced the sincere preachers. They did this to our noble scholar Humud al-Uqlah al-Shu'aybi, Shaykh Abdallah Jibrin, Shaykh Safar al-Hawali, Shaykh Salman al-Awdah and Shaykh Nasir al-Umar, may God protect them, and many others.10

Al-Awdah again adopted a moderate tone in June of this year, when he signed, along with Safar bin Abdul Rahman al-Hawali and four other clerics, a condemnation of the attacks against Westerners Kenneth Scoggs and Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia. The attacks were carried out by a group identifying itself as "al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula." The clerics condemned the attacks as "a heinous crime," and even went so far as to adopt the monarchy's description of the attackers as "deviants."

"We condemn the criminal acts committed by the deviant group in a number of Saudi areas in which many innocent people were killed....The nation's theologians are in consensus that it is a sin to kill a life without a right, be it Muslim or non-Muslim."11
The otherwise puzzling turnabouts make sense if there was indeed a secret agreement between Nayef Bin Abdel Aziz, Salman al-Awdah and other members of the Movement for Islamic Resurgence. If al-Awdah has never ceased supporting al-Qaeda, both philosophically and financially, if he surreptitiously supported the mastermind of the Madrid bombings, then would it not be likely that he has also been supporting those who are currently planning future terrorist attacks against the United States? Since Wednesday, Salman al-Awdah has not been available for comment12. Perhaps Riyadh might be.

1"Saudi Regime's Underpinnings are Shaken," Intelligence Online, October 18, 2001.
2Mary-Jane Deeb, "Prepared Statement before the Senate Intelligence Committee," July 10, 1996.
3Douglas Jehl, "In Saudis' Heartland, Unrest Is Aimed at Rulers and U.S.," The New York Times, November 5, 1996.
4"Islamist leaders released," MEED Quarterly Report -- Saudi Arabia, August 1999.
5Ali Laïdi, "Terrorists Within the Regime's Opposition: The Saudi Connection" Le Monde, Oct. 4, 2001, reprinted in the January 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 1).
6Douglas Jehl,"A Nation Challenged: A Critic; After Prison, a Saudi Sheik Tempers His Words," New York Times, December 27, 2001.
7"Dissident cleric: Saudi releases four leading Islamic activists," The Associated Press, July 6, 1999.
8"Saudi Arabia Discovers its Fundamentalists," Intelligence Online, June 27, 2002.
9Stephen Grey, "Follow the Mullahs," The Atlantic Monthly, November 2004.
10"Al-Jazeera TV Broadcasts 'Last Will' of Alleged 11 September Hijacker," BBC Monitoring International Reports, September 13, 2003.
11Salah Nasrawi, "Saudi Clerics Condemn Attacks Against Westerners," Associated Press, June 15, 2004.
12The Associated Press, "Report Examines Madrid Bombing Funds; Report Says That Suspect in Madrid Train Bombing Was Bankrolled by Saudi Cleric, ABC News, September 30, 2004.

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