A Saudi Oppositionist’s View: An Interview With Dr. Muhammad Al-Massari

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 7

A telephone interview conducted on November 26, 2003, by Terrorism Monitor correspondent Mahan Abedin with the head of the London-based Saudi opposition group, Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), Dr. Muhammad al-Massari. (Note: TM = Terrorism Monitor and MM = Dr. Muhammad al-Massari)

TM: What kind of Islamic ideology does the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights promote? Do you consider yourself a Wahabi organization?

MM: The word Wahabi has become a misnomer. The U.S., for example, uses it to denote Jihadists. They called the Taliban Wahabists, but this was not true. Wahabism has several essential ingredients, and we don’t consider ourselves to be Wahabi. We do, however, share the Jihadi spirit.

TM: Then in what way does your version of Islam differ from the official religious establishment in Saudi Arabia?

MM: The official clergy are basically a government party. They are well organized. Their view is that the regime has flaws but these can be corrected from the “inside.” They basically believe that the regime is Islamic and thus legitimate.

TM: How about the dissident clerics. Do your views differ from theirs?

MM: The radical forces can roughly be divided into two branches: First, there are the Jihadists, who say the regime is Kufr (i.e., belonging to the realm of the disbelievers), therefore it has to be fought and destroyed. [1]

Secondly, there are people [who] say indeed the regime is Kufr, but this does not mean that everybody who serves the regime is a disbeliever. They say the regime has to be overthrown but not necessarily through violent means alone. This is the view of the CDLR.

TM: I take that to mean you believe violence is needed to engineer the collapse of the regime.

MM: We believe that any way to remove the regime is legitimate. However, we are more inclined to move the masses toward some kind of revolt or popular uprising, perhaps along the lines of the French and Iranian revolutions. We also do not rule out winning over powerful factions in the military and subsequently convince them to move against the regime. This will minimize bloodshed. But I should add that the legal and moral issues are exceedingly complex!

TM: There are of course dissident forces both inside and outside the country who do not want the regime to go in its entirety.

MM: There is an in-between group. They are mostly from a Salafi background, [who] have been influenced by the “Muslim Brotherhood.” Most of them take inspiration from Mohammad Sorour and hence they are called the Sorouri Group. [2] They are reluctant to move against the regime. They believe it has many faults, but they hesitate before calling for its overthrow. They possibly have the best intentions, but they lack any coherent program or efficient methodology. I do not believe that they will ever be a real threat to the regime.

TM: There are of course those who say the Saudi royal family has become so embedded as an institution that it now represents Saudi national consciousness. Therefore, getting rid of it would cause an enormous amount of harm to the country. How do you respond to these people?

MM: It is mostly an issue of symbolism. And of course, symbolism is important in understanding the behavior of the wider masses towards the political realities. But never forget that the al-Sauds were once a small and irrelevant tribe. By aligning themselves with the Wahabi movement they evolved, over two and a half centuries, into the powerful establishment we see today. The legitimacy of the regime has always rested on its claim to be Islamic. That has been undermined, so everything else is coming under question. And most people are aware of this. The whole structure of the regime is now in peril. What you call Saudi national consciousness never existed although the regime tried to create something in that direction in the last thirty years, albeit to no avail.

TM: Are the people really that critical of the regime?

MM: There was a recent poll in Kuwait, which is regarded as much more secular and pro-Western than Saudi Arabia, in which 74.5 percent of respondents said that they sympathized with bin Laden and consider him to be a hero. If a similar poll was conducted in Saudi Arabia, I am sure that over 85 percent would register approval with bin Laden.

TM: What tactics does CDLR use to engineer the collapse of the regime? Do you follow the so-called Horizontal Trend Movement of MIRA? [3]

MM: Yes we are very strong horizontally. But we have also developed strong theoretical and scholarly capabilities. We admire Hizb al-Tahrir because they have developed a constitution of the Islamic state. They have worked out all the characteristics of the Islamic state, from women’s rights to elections. Clearly their constitution contains certain scholarly and theological biases, but the important point is that nobody else has done this before. Of course we disagree with many aspects and details of Hizb-al-Tahrir’s constitution, but at least they have put something on the table. So we are very strong theoretically. We do have some vertical capabilities, but our activist network and organization is not properly structured. We are hoping to improve this in the future through the formal establishment of a properly organized and well-structured political party.

TM: How do your views differ from those of Osama bin Laden?

MM: Osama bin Laden is a military leader. He was appointed by the Afghans as Amir of the Arab Mujahedin. Because he has been engaged in fighting for decades, OBL and his followers have not had time to study recent developments and innovations in Islamic politics and philosophy. They have no detailed theory of the Islamic state in whose cause they are fighting. They believe in the Islamic state in a very general sense, and they have no real program. This is the essential difference between OBL and CDLR. Moreover, bin Laden’s obsessive concentration on the U.S. is not really wise. Bin Laden forgot or neglected for tactical reasons that the U.S. did not invade Saudi Arabia. It was invited in by the Saudi royal family. The regime invited the U.S. and it has to pay the price.

TM: There are some people in the U.S. who claim that bin Laden receives support from certain quarters in the Saudi regime.

MM: There are two types of people in the regime who support bin Laden:

1) Some are sincerely fed up with the corruption and lack of respect for Islam.

2) The others hope to use the Jihadis for their “power game” inside the royal family. Turki Al-Faisal, the ex-intelligence chief and current Saudi ambassador in London, is one of the prime suspects.

TM: There have been suggestions that CDLR, and in particular Dr. Muhammad Massari, are increasingly promoting a pan-Islamic agenda and are no longer exclusively focused on Saudi Arabia. How do you respond to these charges?

MM: Any Islamic movement worth its salt has to become international. When the Saudis passed the Saudi citizenship law in 1932, the regime ceased to be an Islamic order. An Islamic state has to be internationalist and inclusive. Islamic tenets demand nothing less. But really we at CDLR remain focused on Saudi Arabia. We may publish an article against Musharaf or any other leader from time to time, but on the whole our focus is on Saudi Arabia.

TM: You have mentioned Hizb-al-Tahrir and said you admire them. Is it not the case that Hizb-al-Tahrir is primarily a British Islamic party?

MM: No, this is a misconception. Hizb-al-Tahrir is still a prime party in Jordan, Palestine and even Pakistan. The Pakistanis are so terrified of them that they have recently moved against the party. In fact they are thinking of banning it. The party is also very strong in Uzbekistan. And of course Hizb-al-Tahrir was the mother of most Jihadi groups in Egypt.

TM: Now, focusing back on Saudi Arabia, do you think the Saudi regime will be able to orchestrate a peaceful transition after King Fahd’s death?

MM: Well, the U.S. pressure on them is enormous. In fact, American pressure has been so great that the possibility of internal squabbles escalating into open fighting has been reduced. The Saudi regime is basically made up of five pillars or entities. These are:

1) Al-Jawharah bint Ibraheem, the youngest and favorite wife of King Fahd. She guards her influence zealously for the benefit of her son, Abdul-Azeez. She controls the royal office and the seals. She is well-educated and sophisticated.

2) Abdullah. He is the Crown Prince and exerts control through the National Guards and has relatively good tribal connections.

3) Sultan. He controls the Defense Ministry in addition to enormous financial assets.

4) Nayef. He controls the internal police apparatus. This is a considerable force numbering hundreds of thousands.

5) Salman. He controls the media and has a strong presence in intellectual circles and some middle class factions.

TM: So there is a fine balancing act between all these factions.

MM: Yes! And the most likely scenario is that Abdullah will become a nominal King, and Sultan will become Crown Prince. The regime has no vision, no program, no strategy and no long term planning. They just manage tactically from day to day with one sole objective: To stay in power at any price.

TM: What impact will the jailing of Sheikh Aki Bin Khudeir have inside Saudi Arabia? How popular is he?

MM: Khudeir was very popular in Jihadi circles. He is hostile to Shias since he is a classic Wahabi. Therefore Khudeir appeals to some of the strongest and most relevant sections of the society. But there are other forces out there and for them he has little or no appeal. But Khudeir has discredited himself by recently repenting and endorsing the Saudi regime. This has undercut his appeal within the Jihadi constituency. But in a way his “repentance” has weakened the regime because:

1) Some Jihadi circles are now free to recruit from other sections of the society. Especially now that they are no longer under Khudeir’s influence or the influence of other clerics of “classical” Wahabi persuasion.

2) Khudair’s “repentance” was most likely elicited through torture and was broadcast a few days after the Al-Muhayya compound bombing. This depicts a weak and desperate regime trying to get intellectual support from anywhere and by any means!

TM: Mamoun Fandy notes in his book on Saudi opposition movements that Saudi opposition leaders are more interested in maintaining their separate voices as critics of the regime rather than engaging in coordinated action. Is this a fair assessment?

MM: It is only fair in a comparative sense. Saudi opposition politics is a very recent phenomenon. Comparing Saudi opposition to places where there have been modern organized political activities for 100 years is unfair. You need to have a well-established political culture to realize the possibility of “separate voices” engaging in “coordinated action”. Such culture is historically lacking in Saudi Arabia and we have to develop it.

TM: Are you referring to other Arab countries here, places like Lebanon and Egypt?

MM: Yes.

TM: What implication will this lack of political maturity have for the survival of the regime?

MM: The regime has survived until now, not due to any real internal strength–it is as stable as a house of cards. However, the winds of popular political maturity are not yet there, so the house of cards persists. But this is now changing, and I am sure the regime will go in my generation. It may take some time, but eventually the regime will disappear.

TM: I want to focus on the wider region now. What do you make of the United States’ war on terrorism?

MM: (Chuckles)

TM: Do you believe it is a war against Islam?

MM: Yes, there is no question about that. But they will sooner or later realize that their aggressive policies will fail. They will kill a lot of Muslims in the process because they have advanced technology and they bomb from high up in the air, but they will blink first. Take Iraq for example; everybody is surprised that the resistance has started so quickly. I thought it would take a year or two before the resistance would start in earnest. But it has happened much more quickly than that. And in Afghanistan as well there is now rigorous resistance.

TM: Do you think the U.S. will eventually fail in Iraq?

MM: It will take a few years but they will fail. They will begin to make blunders, like bombing whole cities, the kind of things they are doing in Afghanistan right now. But of course Iraq is much more sophisticated and they will not be able to cover up their crimes there.

TM: Was al Qaeda behind the recent bombings in Turkey?

MM: Al Qaeda has now become a jackass suitable for carrying any load. They are blamed for everything. There may be a hard core group called al Qaeda, but most of these bombings are by local groups.

TM: But don’t you think there are connections between these local groups and a wider international network?

MM: The connections are ideological and mostly informal. It is very difficult to forge operational connections. The real point is that Western intelligence can not penetrate these groups. We are talking about two divorced worlds with diametrically opposed cultures. Western intelligence is used to using bars, prostitutes and dancing clubs to entrap people, and of course the Jihadists have nothing to do with these things. Even Saudi intelligence, many of whose officers are devout classic Wahabists, has a hard time penetrating these groups. I knew someone in Kabul, and he told me that almost every one in Kabul knew, just before 9/11, that something big was going to happen in America. But of course Western intelligence had no clue. The best way to think of al Qaeda is by using the cluster bomb analogy. A large bomb is aimed at a target but before it hits the target, it divides into hundreds of small and independent bomblets.

TM: And the targets are Western interests and corrupt local governments?

MM: Exactly! Take this bombing in Istanbul. The MOSSAD was hiding in these synagogues and they were bombed.

TM: Are you sure about this?

MM: The Jews have been living in Istanbul for centuries. Why have they become a target now? Also this recent bombing in Kirkuk targeted a center used by MOSSAD operatives. The bombing of this MOSSAD center precipitated Bremer’s recent trip to Washington. [4]

TM: That is very interesting! Going back a few years now, after the Khobar bombing in June 1996, you said that you understood on an “intellectual level” the motives and grievances of the bombers. What exactly did you mean by this?

MM: The bombers wanted these Kufr forces to leave the country in which they do not belong and from which they were performing acts of war against Iraq, a Muslim country. The bombing was intended to force their withdrawal.

TM: You recently took part in a dialogue (which was later compiled into a book) with Ayatollah Araki, the UK representative of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Do you think the Islamic regime in Iran could serve as a model for the future Arabia?

MM: No, I don’t. Also that dialogue was on purely philosophical issues.

TM: What are your views on the Islamic Republic?

MM: That regime has never been able to surpass nationalism and sectarianism. I also find the Velayat al-Faqih doctrine abhorrent. It smells and tastes like the Catholic Church!

TM: But some say the Velayat-e-Faqih doctrine is Sunni in origin.

MM: No, it is not. It is a principle to substitute for the infallible hidden Imam during his “great absence” [5] and now it has just become a tool to ensure the continuation of that regime. The regime in Iran is much better than the others in that region, but ultimately it is, strictly speaking, not an Islamic state. It is an Iranian and sectarian state with some Islamic orientation and plenty of empty Islamic rhetoric very much similar to Saudi Arabia. No wonder that Iran and Saudi Arabia recently have become friends!


1. Kufr is an Islamic term for disbelief. Kuffar means disbelievers.

2. The Sorouris were originally members of the Muslim Brotherhood who gradually adopted Salafist doctrines and beliefs. Their current leader, Muhammad Sorour, is now based in London.

3. MIRA stands for the Movement of Islamic Reform in Arabia. It was created by Dr. Saad Faqih in 1996. Dr. Faqih was the director of the London office of CDLR before leaving to establish MIRA.

4. This story appeared in the semi-official Egyptian newspaper Al-Jumhuriyyah.

5. Dr. Massari is referring to the “occultation” of the twelfth Shia Imam.

Mahan Abedin is a financial consultant and analyst of Middle East politics.