Last week, Saudi Arabia scored a victory for its recently-announced terrorist amnesty program, as Othman Hadi Al-Maqbul Al-Amri, an Al-Qaeda operative and one of the Kingdom’s most wanted men, gave himself up to Saudi authorities.
Although the surrender of Al-Amri, a veteran jihadist who had been on the run for two years, was certainly a positive development, the means by which it was accomplished were extremely dubious.
According to reports, Safar Al-Hawali, a radical Saudi cleric with links to Osama bin Laden and several of the 9/11 hijackers, played the role of “mediator” between Al-Amri and Saudi officials.
Over the past year, Al-Hawali has also negotiated the surrender of two other high-ranking, Saudi-based Al-Qaeda operatives, Ali Al-Faq’asi and Ali Abdel Rahman Saeed al-Faqaasi al-Ghamdi.
That Al-Hawali, a longtime Al-Qaeda supporter who spent five years in a Saudi prison for seeking to overthrow the Royal Family—and who continues to preach the destruction of the United States and Israel—has apparently become a trusted mediator for the Saudi government speaks volumes about the Kingdom’s “war” on terrorism.
Al-Hawali’s ties to Al-Qaeda are numerous. When 9/11 hijacker Saeed Al-Ghamdi videotaped his will in 2000, he made sure to give on-camera praise to Al-Hawali. Likewise, phone records for Mounir el-Mottasedeq, a Moroccan convicted in Germany last year of assisting Mohammed Atta and other members of the “Hamburg cell” that planned 9/11, show that, in the months prior to the attacks, he made repeated calls to Al-Hawali’s Riyadh offices.
Al-Hawali was also one of the original incorporators of the Dublin branch of the Mercy International Relief Agency (MIRA), which was heavily involved in the planning and funding of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania by Al-Qaeda.
In addition, Osama bin Laden is known to be a devout follower of Al-Hawali’s teachings and is said to have maintained direct contact with the Skeikh even after the 9/11 attacks. In his 1996 declaration of war on the United States, bin Laden “bemoaned” Al-Hawali’s arrest by Saudi authorities.
Along with another extremist cleric, Salman Al-Auda, the 53-year-old Al-Hawali rose to prominence in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War, delivering a succession of fatwas (religious decrees) targeting the U.S., Israel, and especially, the Saudi Royal Family for its allowing American troops to set foot on Saudi soil.
Al-Hawali and Al-Auda, who together are known as the “Awakening Sheikhs” due to their powerful influence on young Saudi Islamists, eventually were thrown into prison in 1994 for their repeated criticism of the Saudi government. Upon his release in 1999, Al-Hawali shifted his focus towards Israel and the West, particularly the U.S.
His 2001 book, The Day of Wrath, analyzed end-times prophecy from an Islamist perspective, arguing that Jews and Christians would be annihilated by Muslims in the year 2012. Similarly, in an October 2001 “Open Letter to President Bush,” Al-Hawali expressed delight at the events of 9/11, which he viewed as a precursor to a coming apocalyptic war between Islam and the West:
". . .a tremendous wave of joy accompanied the shock that was felt by the Muslim in the street…America will eventually pay for its enormities, because Muslims will never forget the wrongs they have suffered."
Al-Hawali’s influence extends far beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Tapes featuring his incendiary sermons can be found everywhere from the dusty markets of Riyadh to the burgeoning mosques of Hamburg, Amsterdam and London, and his fatwas in support of suicide bombings have been posted on numerous Islamist websites.
Since 9/11, Al-Hawali has also been a frequent guest on Al-Jazeera, where he is described simply as a “Saudi preacher” and “scholar.” Last week, in his most recent appearance, Al-Hawali praised the Saudi amnesty program and encouraged terrorists to turn themselves in to government authorities.
This was a far cry from a July 2002 telephone interview Al-Hawali conducted with Al-Jazeera in which he referred to America as a “tyrannous and evil nation that Allah is manipulating, unbeknownst to it, until it reaches the end to which it is sentenced.”
In the same interview, Al-Hawali offered a chilling warning to the U.S., should it attempt to interfere with the affairs of Saudi Arabia:
"… it will have no protection from the cruelty of God and the vengeance of the soldiers of Allah, the mujahideen. It will have no protection, even if it digs a hole in the earth or seeks refuge in space…they will find no one who loves martyrdom more than we [do], and no one more willing to die—as this is the hope of every man in this land."
The House of Saud’s current willingness to allow Al-Hawali to serve as a conduit between Saudi authorities and Al-Qaeda terrorists is likely an act of desperation. The spate of terrorist attacks that have hit the Kingdom over the past 14 months, and Saudi authorities’ largely failed efforts to respond accordingly, have left the Saudi Royals scrambling for solutions.
In the Saudis’ eyes, who better to negotiate with Al-Qaeda than Al-Hawali, a man regarded by the group as a spiritual mentor and source of inspiration? Someone like Al-Hawali, who is so attuned to Al-Qaeda’s ideology, would certainly be more effective in persuading young Islamists to turn themselves in than would regular Saudi security forces. Indeed, according to sources, Al-Hawali is even looked to as a role model by several young princes in the Saudi Royal Family.
While it appears that the Saudis have benefited from Al-Hawali’s mediator role, the question remains as to what Al-Hawali—who, as his continued pro-jihad statements show, is anything but reformed—intends to gain from it.
The answer could profoundly impact the outcome of what the Saudi government has deemed—at least in public—as a battle to the death against Al-Qaeda.
Erick Stakelbeck is Senior Writer at the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counter-terrorism research institute.