a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The Saudi Wahhabite role, contd.

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 31st, 2001

Following up on earlier posts about Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia: In the New York Times, the 12/27 article “Holy War Lured Saudis as Rulers Looked Away” provides an account of the role of Saudi secular and religious establishments in that country’s jihadist movement. Re religious establishment:

A half-blind man of 61, Sheik Sadlaan is a professor at the kingdom’s leading Islamic university and a religious adviser to a senior member of the royal family. What he says carries the weight of the ulemaa, Saudi Arabia’s official religious establishment, and what he says, carefully, is that the king is his imam, and the king does not currently advise young men to march off to holy war.

But asked about other scholars, like Sheik Hamoud al-Shuaibi, who since Sept. 11 and the American retaliation have openly called for jihad against the United States, Sheik Sadlaan stops short of condemnation.

“He made a mistake, but it was not a major one, and it does not detract from his reputation,” he said of Sheik Shuaibi, a former teacher.

Even the Saudi government is not known to have taken action against Sheik Shuaibi, despite his statements that those who support infidels, or unbelievers, should be considered unbelievers themselves, a statement that would seem perilously close to treason in Saudi Arabia, still home to more than 5,000 American troops.

Out of roughly 10,000 religious scholars in the kingdom, perhaps just 150 embrace such a radical view, according to American estimates. But among this group, only a handful is known to have been detained by Saudi authorities since Sept. 11…

This in a country known for crushing religious uprisings of whatever stripe, from the defeat of the Ikhwan in 1929 to the 1979 Mecca Mosque uprising to the 1992 Burayda roundups.* Mr. Sadlaan’s ambivalence may be changing in light of Crown Prince Abdullah’s call yesterday for unequivocal condemnation of terrorism (AP). Then again, it may not, given that “legitimate armed struggle” by the Palestinians was specifically distinguished from terrorism in Abdullah’s comments (Reuters). I don’t know whether Abdullah considers suicide bombing a pizza parlor or busloads of commuters “legitimate” or not.

Re government oversight, there is a lot of detail about the surveillance of Al Qaeda and “Afghan Arabs” by the Saudi government. But this is suggestive, I think:

But in private, Saudi and American officials say the real mystery to the Saudi government is not whether Saudi citizens took part [in the 9/11 attacks], but how so many of them were able to evade detection by the Saudi authorities. […]

To the Saudis, American officials say, the fact that the Saudis involved in the assaults were unknown to them was almost as startling as the attacks themselves.

In recent years, the mubahith, the Saudi equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, infiltrated Al Qaeda cells within the kingdom, while the monitoring of the Saudis fighting abroad was thought to have kept a handle on potential troublemakers.

Assume for a moment that the article is accurate in portraying the Saudi government as merely feckless or negligent in their handling of the “Afghan Arabs.” It seems to me we are still left with a portrait of (1) extremist clergy tolerated in a notably intolerant country — suggesting the government either fears them, believes they are sufficiently well observed, or both — and (2) gaping blind spots in the mubahith surveillance of Al Qaeda. As a theory, I suggest that some of these mubahith officials, and likely some of the domestic mutaween religious enforcement police may be treasonously extremist Wahhabites themselves, and may have helped the 9/11 attackers evade detection in Saudi Arabia. The CIA, FBI, and reliable muhabith should be (and may well be) looking for “sleeper” cells in the Saudi government, particularly in their police forces.


* Viorst, Shadow of the Prophet, Ch.7: “The Saudi Dilemma.”

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