The mentioning of the name Sheikh Hammoud bin Abdullah bin Uqla is enough to send shivers down the spines of Saudi Arabian rulers although he died a decade ago. The highly controversial and well-respected senior cleric was known as the father of the Mujahideen or holy warriors. He was forthright and feared not the threats of the Saudi rulers. He publicly denouncedthe Saudi rulers as disbelievers because of their collaboration with the United States in its war against jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda and served a prison term.
In October 2001, when the US launched its war on terror – which soon turned out to be a war of terror -- in Afghanistan, the Saudi rulers summoned the 80-year-old cleric to check whether he had once again issued a fatwa against the ruling family. He simply replied, “Whoever backs the infidel against Muslims is considered an infidel.”
A few months later the elderly sheikh died a sad man, worrying about the corrupt state of affairs in his beloved country, the birthplace of Islam. But his radical students continued to defy the establishment. Among them was Sheikh Suleiman Nasser al-Alwan, a popular scholar,who is being detained for preaching ‘dissent’. He publicly opposed the Saudi government’s support for the US-led invasion of Iraq. Human rights groups say he was subjected to torture and denied due process. He was pressurised by the government to appear on national television – a method the Saudi rulers resort to toshow the masses that the reformists are a misguided lot -- and recant all the public statements he had made against the ruling family. But he refused and continues to remain in prison.
To be born an intellectual is the greatest misfortune in the kingdom, as religious scholars, top professors, political reformists and human rights activists are among the 30,000 political prisoners languishing in detention centres ortorture chambers.The Arab Spring,which brought down dictator after dictator from their pedestals of power, emboldened the subdued Saudi reformists to rise for the rights of the people. They formed a political party called Islamic Ummah Party in Februaly 2011, but the authorities arrested the leaders of the newparty and released only those who signed a pledge that they would refrain from ‘anti-government activity’. To prevent an Arab Spring revolt, the authorities also resorted to bribing the citizens, by offering pay rises, unemployment benefits and housing facilities.
The London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission in a report titled ‘Saudi Arabia’s Political Prisoners: Three Decades of Silence’ says: “Saudi Arabia is a country in which the al-Saud family represents the absolute political, cultural andreligious authority. This absolutist nature of the Saudi state ensures that free speech is stifled and that all forms of political opposition and dissent are harshly suppressed and silenced. Among the primary tools of this suppression, the government employs the tactic of arbitrary detention without charge or trial, in addition to staging sham trials lacking any semblance of due process, both of which have become hallmarks of Saudi ‘justice’.”
Yet, Saudi Arabia has escaped public shaming in international fora because its western allies such as the US and Britain often come to its rescue. The US State Department’s country reports highlight the absence of democracy and human rights violations in the oil-rich kingdom. The criticisms, however, stop at that. There has never been even an inclination towards a resolution against Saudi Arabia in the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council.
This is because a special relationship exists between Saudi Arabia and the United States – in reality between the Saudi ruling family and the United States. Ever since oil was struck in Saudi Arabia, the United States has considered the defence of Saudi Arabia as the defence of the United States. This special relationship grew from strength to strength as successive Saudi regimes became more corrupt. This week’s disclosure in the US media that the US has been maintaining a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia comes as no surprise to Saudi watchers, given the rulers’servility to the US.
The revelation that the US used the secret Saudi base to launch the drone attacks that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born Jihadi preacher, and a number of other jihadists in Yemen could provoke another wave of attacks on US and Saudi targets.
Religious Saudis regard the entire country as a sacred territory and the presence of a non-Muslim military force within its territory as sacrilege.One of the main factors Osama bin Laden cited as a justification for his jihad against the US was the presence of American troops in ‘holy’ Arabia.Al-Qaeda-backed Jihadi cells in Saudi Arabia carried out a series of attacks on US targets, including the al-Khobar military complex near Prince Sultan airbase in Dahran. Some 19 US military personnel died and 500 were wounded in the al-Khobar attack in 1996. The US set up the al-Khobar base during the first Gulf War but continued to remain there even after Kuwait was liberated and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein defeated. It was only at the behest of the present king, Abdullah, that the US dismantled the al-Khobar base in 2003 and set up a central command in Qatar. Since then the Saudis have maintained the position that no foreign troops are present in the country. Even if there are, they are only for training purposes.
The disclosure of the US drone base in Saudi Arabia came against the backdrop of the Senate hearing on the confirmation of John Brennan as the nominee for the post of CIA director. Brennan is widely regarded as the architect of the US drone programme that was responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries. He was the Barack Obama administration’s hitman with a kill list which had the names of terror war suspects who were to be extrajudicially eliminated. Brennan operated from a heavily guarded operations room in the White House. He would sit with President Obama and pick a target on the kill list on Tuesdays, which the critics describe as Obama-Brennon’s Terror Tuesdays.
One wonders whether the disclosure of the secret drone base in Saudi Arabia was deliberate and aimed at provoking the Saudi-based sleeper cells of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) so that they could be identified and eliminated. Such questions apart, there are plenty of reasons for the Saudi rulers to be worried. They range from public discontent over corruption and the growing youth unrest, to an uprising by the Shiite minority in the eastern parts of the country and the threats posed by the AQAP.
The Jihadis may be terrorists to the United States and the West. But the Muslim world is divided over them, with some justifying their war against the US -- which is encouraging Israel to commit war crimes against the Palestinian people -- while other Muslims condemn the jihadists for giving a terror label to a religion of peace.
The last major AQAP attack on a Saudi target was in August 2009. That was when Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who headed the kingdom’s anti-terror fight, escaped a suicide bomb attack in Jeddah. But world intelligence circles are buzzing with the rumour that Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud was killed in a bomb blast in July last year. The story first appeared in the French website Voltaire Network, and later in the DEBKAfile, an Israeli-based web publication known for breaking stories about intelligence matters. It was given a big play in the Iranian media, too. Some reports claimed that Syrian agents carried out the attack in retaliation for a major bomb blast that killed Syria’s defence minister, President Bashar al-Assad’s brother in-law and top military officers at a military complex in Damascus in July last year. Others claimed that Iran was behind the blast that killed Prince Bandar, who once hit the headlines in Britain for allegedly obtaining US$ one billion in bribes from British Aerospace in return for facilitating a massive arms deal. The prince is a close friend of the Bush family and works closely with the CIA, especially its operations to smuggle arms to the Syrian rebels and moves to destabilise Iran.
The Saudis have neither denied nor confirmed the stories about the death of the prince. But now that Muslim blood is dripping from the hands of the Saudi rulers who style themselves as the custodians of Islam’s two most sacred mosques, some Saudis may be inclined to say that Sheikh Hammoud bin Abdullah bin Uqla was right.
But Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai told Britain’s Guardian newspaper this week that the disclosure of the secret base was not going to shake up the Saudi conscience. “These planes are unmanned so there will not be the same impact as when American planes were flying from the Prince Sultan base. No one will say that the Americans are occupying the country. I don’t think people care about this anymore.”
He says al-Qaeda sympathisers are a small minority. But others say the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers who were involved in the 9/11 terror attacks were Saudi citizens speaks volumes about the popularity of jihadism in the kingdom. The coming weeks or months may show how vulnerable Saudi Arabia is to jihadists’ attacks.