In October, at a counter-terrorism conference hosted by the Royal United Services Institute in London, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Great Britain, announced that Saudi security forces had recently “re-educated” 3,500 radical preachers.
While Al-Faisal’s claim was impressive, he failed to address the specifics of this apparently sweeping program, leaving one to wonder whether the Kingdom’s two most notorious clerics, Safar Al-Hawali and Salman Al-‘Auda, were targeted. Known as the “Awakening Sheikhs” due to their powerful influence on young Arab Muslims, Al-Hawali and Al-‘Auda have spent over a decade preaching death to America and forging relationships with members of Al-Qaeda. Their fatwas (religious decrees), which reflect the Saudis’ totalitarian Wahhabi ideology at its most extreme, have served as inspirations to Osama bin Laden and several of the 9/11 hijackers. But the Sheikhs’ influence isn’t limited to the Arabian Peninsula. Thanks in large part to the Internet, as well as the distribution of their writings and sermons at Islamic conferences, the Awakening Sheikhs are revered amongst Islamists worldwide—including in the United States.
Al-Hawali presently serves as secretary general of the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign, a militant, anti-American entity established last April by more than 225 radical figures from across the Islamic world as a response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. One of the founders of the campaign was Al-Hawali’s fellow Awakening Sheikh, Salman Al-‘Auda. The group’s initial statement condemned, “the Zionists and the American administration led by right-wing extremists, that are working to expand their control over nations and peoples, loot their resources, destroy their will, and to change their educational curricula and social system.”
Such rhetoric is commonplace for Al-Hawali—his numerous writings display a fixation with what he views as the inevitable downfall of the West. In one of his earlier works, Kissinger’s Promise, Al-Hawali, much like today’s anti-U.S. conspiracy theorists, framed American involvement in the Middle East as a ploy to control the region’s oil resources. More recently, his 2001 book, The Day of Wrath, analyzed Biblical prophecy from an Islamist perspective. In Al-Hawali’s version of end-time events, Christians and Jews will be decisively defeated in the year 2012, with Islam ruling supreme. Similarly, in an “Open Letter to President Bush,” dated October 15, 2001, Al-Hawali expressed delight at the events of 9/11, which he viewed as a precursor to the coming apocalyptic Holy War between Islam and the West:
In the midst of…continuous confusion and frustration, the events of the 11th of September occurred. I will not conceal from you that 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…Mr. President, if you destroy every country on your list of terrorists, will that be the end or only the beginning?
While the 53-year-old Al-Hawali channels his extremism largely through his writings, Al-‘Auda, 48, who, interestingly enough, was described in a 2001 New York Times profile as “courageous,” and “a voice for the disempowered,” has focused his energies primarily on preaching. In August 2002, Al-‘Auda was detained and deported from Jordan prior to delivering a scheduled speech there. Jordanian authorities were apparently fearful that Al’Auda would incite the country’s Islamic fundamentalists. Judging by Al-‘Auda’s background, the Jordanians were on the right track.
Al-‘Auda and Al-Hawali—both products of the Saudis’ Wahhabist higher education system—rose to prominence during the 1991 Gulf War, as they delivered a succession of rousing oratories and fatwas skewering the U.S., Israel, and, especially, the Saudi Royal Family for its allowing American troops to set foot on Saudi soil. Audio cassettes of the two Sheikhs’ fiery sermons were circulated throughout Saudi Arabia and served as inspiration for two documents seminal to the cause of dissident Saudi Islamists. The “Letter of Demands” and “Memorandum for Advice,” presented to King Fahd in 1991 and 1992, respectively, called for the strict enforcement of Islamic law within the Kingdom (apparently, current Saudi practices like public beheadings are insufficient). Many of the documents’ radical fundamentalist signatories were interrogated and jailed, and Al-Hawali and Al-‘Auda both received warnings to cease from criticizing the Saudi regime. They refused, and were ultimately thrown into prison in November 1994. Their arrest prompted a massive protest in Al-‘Auda’s home city of Buraydah in central Saudi Arabia, a notable development indeed considering the country’s virtual absence of civil disobedience.
The Saudi Royal Family, despite a continuing stream of anti-Western vitriol from the two Sheikhs, has given them a wide berth since their release from prison in 1999. And after experiencing deadly terrorist attacks in Riyadh twice in the last six months, it is unlikely that the House of Saud will further inflame the murderous passions of Al-Qaeda by incarcerating two of the organization’s key spiritual advisors. “For the moment, [the Saudi Royals] are not going to arrest people among popular Saudi scholars,” says moderate cleric Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi, Imam of the Italian Islamic Community. “They will try to maintain the situation as it is.”
Nevertheless, the Awakening Sheikhs’ links to Al-Qaeda are undeniable. When 9/11 hijacker Saeed Al-Ghamdi videotaped his will in December 2000, he made sure to give on-camera praise to both Al-Hawali and Al-‘Auda. Likewise, phone records for Mounir el-Mottasedeq, a Moroccan convicted in Germany last February of assisting Mohammad Atta and other members of the "Hamburg cell" that planned 9/11, show that, in the months prior to 9/11, he made repeated calls to Safar Al-Hawali’s Riyadh offices. And in the Al-Qaeda propaganda video, “The Martyrs of Bosnia,” Salman Al-‘Auda is described as one of the “most important” supporters of the mujahideen regiment in the Balkans led by Al-Qaeda member Abu Abdel Aziz Barbaros.
As for Osama bin Laden, the Saudi government’s crackdown on the Awakening Sheikhs only added to his resentment for the House of Saud. His 1996 declaration of war on the United States, for instance, “bemoaned” the two Sheikhs’ arrests, as did an interview he conducted with CNN’s Peter Arnett in 1997: “When the Saudi government transgressed in oppressing all voices of the scholars and the voices of those who call for Islam,” bin Laden told Arnett. “I found myself forced, especially after the government prevented Sheikh Salman Al-Awda and Sheikh Safar Al-Hawali and some other scholars, to carry out a small part of my duty of enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.” The Awakening Sheikhs have played a significant role in shaping bin Laden’s jihadist mindset, according to Mamoun Fandy’s 1999 book, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent:
Bin Laden is very supportive of the ideas of Safar Al-Hawali and Salman al-‘Auda. He has devoted specific communiqués to defending these young ‘ulama against the (Saudi) state and its ‘ulama. Some of his statements are also taken from either Hawali or al’Auda, especially on the normalization of relations with Israel.
Like bin Laden, several of the 9/11 hijackers were reportedly immersed in the teachings of Safar Al-Hawali. It isn’t difficult for budding Islamists to gain quick access to the Awakening Sheikhs’ world of hate—tapes of their sermons can be found everywhere from the dusty markets of Riyadh to the burgeoning mosques of Hamburg, Amsterdam and London. Their influence also extends to the U.S., courtesy of the Islamic Assembly of North America (IANA), a radical, Ann Arbor, Michigan-based organization. IANA co- founder Bassem Khafagi (also a former Community Affairs Director for the U.S.-based Islamist group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations), recently pled guilty in a federal court in Detroit to two counts of bank fraud and one count of visa fraud. In addition, five men tied to an IANA affiliate in Syracuse called Help the Needy have been charged by federal authorities with sending money to Iraq in violation of U.S. sanctions.
IANA has aided in the dissemination of Al-Hawali and Al-‘Auda’s teachings in the U.S. by publishing the two men’s Arabic-language books and showcasing their fatwas—which glorify suicide bombings and call for the downfall of the West—on IANA websites. According to an indictment handed down by a grand jury in Idaho, the webmaster for a number of these sites was Saudi native and ex-University of Idaho graduate student Sami Al-Hussayen, who was arrested by federal authorities last February on charges of visa fraud and lying to federal agents. In addition to posting radical material on IANA websites (a June 2001 article on the IANA site, www.alasr.ws, was titled “Provisions of Suicide Operations”), Al-Hussayen allegedly kept in frequent contact with Safar Al-Hawali and Salman Al-‘Auda via phone calls and e-mails, consulting with them on their own inflammatory Arabic-language sites. Coincidentally, Saudi Embassy spokesman Nail Al-Jubeir told the Wall Street Journal last May that Al-Hussayen’s U.S. education was paid for by the Saudi government, which also provided him with a $2,700 monthly stipend. His uncle, Saleh Al-Hussayen, is a minister of the Saudi government who oversees the country’s two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina.
Can Saudi Arabia, the chief proponent and financier of Wahhabi Islam worldwide, ever be truly serious about cracking down on the kind of virulent fundamentalism that, in turn, spawns terrorism? Despite the Saudi government’s desire to pacify the United States over its concerns about Saudi support for terrorism, the thought of Wahhabists being “re-educated” by fellow Wahhabists is not exactly comforting, especially when, according to Sheikh Palazzi, “The young princes in the Royal Family are very friendly to [Safar Al-Hawali and Salman Al-‘Auda]. They consider them as men of honor, men of courage. Especially in the family of Prince Abdullah.”
Judging from recent accounts, it appears that the Saudi government and Safar Al-Hawali may now even be working together. On November 21, the Asia Times reported that Al-Hawali was one of over 40 “Saudi scholars” who recently gathered for a three-day conference in Mecca with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. During the meeting, Al-Hawali and his fellow clerics were said to have offered to mediate between the House of Saud and the terrorist elements presently operating within the kingdom. As for the Saudi government’s continued blind eye to Al-Hawali’s own Al-Qaeda links, Palazzi can only sigh. “To a certain extent,” he says. “It is impossible for someone who wants to realize it not to realize it.”Erick Stakelbeck is head writer for the Investigative Project, a Washington DC-based counterterrorism research institute.