Dissident Saudi Cleric Brought Further into the Fold

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 31

On September 17, the Saudi-run, London-based Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat published an opinion piece from Tariq al-Humayd titled “Why after Six Years, Shaykh Salman?” referring to the well-known Saudi dissident cleric Salman al-‘Awda. After his imprisonment in the 1990s and more recent run-ins with the Saudi police, al-‘Awda has taken on a more pro-regime stance—even pronouncing his distance from al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, on al-‘Awda’s Middle Eastern Broadcasting Channel. The above distancing from bin Laden, as mentioned in al-Humayd’s al-Sharq al-Awsat piece, is not of great significance six years after the events of 9/11. Yet, it does represent the Saudi kingdom’s strengthened grip on its clerics and the Saudi information campaign to distance its Salafi Islam from that of bin Laden and other jihadis.

In 2003, a Michigan-based Salafi outreach group, the Islamic Assembly of North America (IANA), came under intense scrutiny for posting fatwas from Salman al-‘Awda and fellow Saudi dissident cleric Safar al-Hawali—both identified as spiritual advisers to bin Laden in the 1990s—on their website, iananet.org. IANA’s webmaster at the time was the nephew of the influential Saudi Minister of Awqaf, or Religious Endowments, Sami Omar Hussayen. He was deported from Idaho, where he was a graduate student, after the investigation into the fatwas, which condoned the killing of American civilians in jihad.

In Abu Bakr Naji’s Management of Savagery (Idarat al-Tawahhush), he lists Salman al-‘Awda and Safar al-Hawali’s movement al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya (Islamic Awakening) as a distinct strand of Salafi Islam. Al-Sahwa was founded in the 1960s in Saudi Arabia, based largely on the social mobilization model and methodology of the Muslim Brotherhood. In this sense, they are not necessarily aligned with either the Saudi Salafi establishment of bin Baz, al-‘Uthaymin, et al, nor that of al-Qaeda. The unique and comparatively progressive stance of the movement is illustrated by a letter al-‘Awda wrote while imprisoned in the 1990s: “many of us talk among ourselves about the absence of social justice from our society. The problem lies in our failure to apply the rules of our religion (Sharia) which [were] sent with a comprehensive reform message that included the spreading of justice, equality and abolishment of state and societal oppression” (https://www.islamicawakening.com). Al-Awda also runs the popular Islamtoday.com website.

In recent years, the Saudi regime has managed to gain the help of former jihadi preachers in the kingdom, such as Salman al-Awda, who have since participated in “national dialogue” talks to help “bring in” Saudi mujahideen. The regime has also dealt blows to the Saudi mujahideen movement with the killings of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia leaders Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin and Salih al-Awfi in recent years. In the coming future, the degree to which al-‘Awda and other previously dissident leaders can be brought into the fold of the Saudi information campaign will be a milestone of not only the regime’s strength, but the diminished vigor of the Saudi mujahideen campaign.