Saudi Double Talk

August 4, 2004

Saudi Double Talk

Saudi Arabia's month-long terrorist amnesty program officially expired on July 23, bringing to a close the Kingdom's latest attempt to portray itself as an ally of the U.

Saudi Arabia's month-long terrorist amnesty program officially expired on July 23, bringing to a close the Kingdom's latest attempt to portray itself as an ally of the U.S. in the War on Terror.  


While the amnesty did secure one major victory-the surrender of close Osama bin Laden associate Khaled Al-Harbi-it was a resounding failure overall, as just six militants turned themselves in to Saudi authorities (with an additional 27 low-level Al-Qaeda operatives handed over to the Saudis by neighboring countries). 


Nevertheless, one leading Saudi cleric has called on the Saudi government to extend the amnesty. Safar Al-Hawali, a radical sheikh with ties to Osama bin Laden and several of the 9/11 hijackers, claims that he was in the process of negotiating the surrender of Al-Qaeda's leader on the Arabian Peninsula, Saleh Al-Awfi, when the amnesty expired.


In early July, Al-Hawali-acting on behalf of the Saudi government-also mediated the amnesty-related surrender of another top Al-Qaeda operative, Othman Al-Amri. The irony here is delicious: Al-Hawali, a longtime bin Laden confidante and Al-Qaeda spiritual guide who continues to preach the destruction of the United States and Israel, is being employed by the Saudi government to reign in the very terrorist elements that he frequently praises in his public statements and writings. Indeed, Al-Hawali himself is suspected of having had a hand in the funding and planning of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.


Al-Hawali's "mediator" role shows that the Saudi government is either extremely desperate or blatantly insincere in its supposed war against Al-Qaeda. While news that Al-Hawali is working for the House of Saud is undoubtedly the most troubling revelation to emerge out of the Kingdom in recent weeks, other incidents have raised eyebrows as well.


The surrender of Khaled Al-Harbi-who appeared in a November 2001 videotape with Osama bin Laden, laughing and gloating over the 9/11 attacks-was an undisputed coup for the Saudi amnesty program. But Al-Harbi's apparent joy at being taken into custody by Saudi authorities ("Thank God," he told Saudi TV. "I have come obeying God and the Saudi rulers.") was strange given his past calls for the overthrow of the Saudi government.


In 1994, Al-Harbi's Saudi citizenship was revoked as a result of his attempts to organize opposition against the royal family, according to the Washington Post. He is said to have traveled to Bosnia and Chechnya soon afterwards to wage jihad alongside fellow Al-Qaeda terrorists.


But as of September 11, 2001, Al-Harbi was not only back in Saudi Arabia, he was even preaching regularly at a mosque in Mecca. Whether his Saudi citizenship had been restored at that point is unclear. What is known, however, is that Al-Harbi left Saudi Arabia once again shortly after the 9/11 attacks, this time heading to Afghanistan to battle U.S. forces. It is also unclear if the Saudis' favorite negotiator, Al-Hawali, played a role in Al-Harbi's surrender. But judging from their mutual associations (Al-Hawali is said to have maintained contact with bin Laden even after the 9/11 attacks), it is a distinct possibility.   


Al-Harbi is purportedly in dire medical straits. He lost both of his legs while fighting in Bosnia and is currently wheelchair-bound. Prior to his surrender to Saudi officials, he was stranded along the Afghan/Iranian border, with a new U.S. offensive in Afghanistan-Operation Lightning Resolve-looming.


These maladies were reason enough for Al-Harbi to opt for the amnesty program, under whose guidelines he will not face the death penalty. However, Al-Harbi may also have been banking on another perk: namely, the same type of embarrassingly lenient treatment the Saudi government has accorded other captured terrorists in the past.


In 1997, for instance, Abdulaziz Al-Muqrin, who was Al-Qaeda's chief of operations for the Arabian Peninsula until being killed in a shootout with Saudi authorities last month, was sentenced to eight years in a Saudi prison. But it was recently revealed that in the summer of 2001, after he had served only half of his sentence, the Saudi Interior Ministry released Al-Muqrin, reportedly because he had "memorized the Koran" while behind bars. 


Al-Muqrin went on to direct several devastating terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia that killed close to 80 people. In addition, he personally beheaded American contractor Paul Johnson. Of course, at the time these acts were committed Al-Muqrin should have been serving the seventh year of his eight-year prison sentence. 


One can only hope that the terrorists who accepted the Saudis' amnesty offer aren't as adept as Al-Muqrin at Koranic memorization. 


Additional questions about the Saudis' integrity in fighting the War on Terror were raised last month, as Saudi Interior Minster Prince Nayef acknowledged for the first time that Saudi citizens had infiltrated Iraq to join the insurgency against Coalition forces.


Up until Nayef's admission, Saudi officials had repeatedly denied that any Saudi nationals were taking part in the insurgency. But Saudi newspapers have published several obituaries for Saudis said to have died fighting in Iraq.


Plus, Iraq's Human Rights Minister has said that 14 Saudis are among the 99 foreign fighters currently in Iraqi custody.


This revelation left Prince Nayef with no choice but to finally admit that Saudi citizens are indeed waging jihad in Iraq, just as they did in the past in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya (where they had the full approval of the Saudi government).


As usual, the House of Saud's ambiguous-and in its embrace of Safar Al-Hawali, even scandalous-tactics leave us with more questions than answers.


 Erick Stakelbeck is Senior Writer for the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counter-terrorism research institute.