Evaluating the Saudi Amnesty

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 1 Issue: 1

On June 23 Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah declared on behalf of King Fahd a one-month ultimatum, during which al-Qaeda members should surrender themselves to authorities. A headline figure of half a dozen insurgents responding to the amnesty by the deadline of July 22 spelt an apparent failure of the measure. Not surprisingly, al-Qaeda announced that it had rejected the amnesty outright. This was made clear in a statement posted in issue number 20 of the al-Qaeda mouthpiece on the web, the Sawt al-Jihad, “This [offer which is made to us] despite our meager means” ran the declaration, “is nothing but your defeat and fumbling … This path we have taken is a religion, and we owe it to Allah to cling to it”. (https://www.hostinganime.com/neda2/sout/index.htm)

It was undersigned by Sheikh Ubay Abd al-Rahman al-Athari bin Bajad al-Utaybi, who is on the 26 most wanted members list of the Saudis. The evidence of radical co-operation with the amnesty was particularly belittled and dismissed by al-Qaeda leader, Salih al-Awfi, in an interview posted on a Jihadist website on June 25. He noted that: “These negotiations are an indication of a weakness in the regime. As for those who are in charge of them, they are a disgrace to their religion … The Mujahideen will not listen to or obey those who did not cover their feet with dust for the sake of God”.

However, there may be more to the affair than meets the eye. At the beginning of the one-month amnesty period the Saudi Shura (Advisory) Council had an extraordinary session with the radical Wahhabi cleric – the object of Al-Awfi’s ire – Sheikh Safar al-Hawali and others who were, like him, in a position to deliver individuals from al-Qaeda. Details of the meeting were understandably not published, but the results must have been reassuring, as it was followed very shortly by one of the half dozen high-profile surrenders: Othman al-Amri, number 25 on a list of 26 most wanted militants, billed as a ‘weapons smuggler of the first degree.’ The Government ensured that the generosity of his treatment was well publicized. Al-Amri was granted the possibility of choosing which prison to remain in pending investigation, financial support for his family, the payment of all his debts, and indeed, a monthly stipend for himself. Another earlier signer to the amnesty was Saaban al-Shihri, whom security sources say provided logistical support for al-Qaeda. On July 13 a particularly high profile figure and close colleague of bin Laden signed up. This was Khaled al-Harbi, also known as Abu Suleiman al-Makki, who acted as spiritual guide to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and Bosnia. It was said that the authorities in Iran where he was staying, gave him the choice of surrendering voluntarily to the Saudi embassy or being sent back to Riyadh.

If there was no flood of high profile respondents, it has to be said that the Saudi authorities never held out much hope that there would be. The amnesty was conceived as a psychological wedge, opening the door less to the active belligerents than to the ideological figures of those groups. Given the vulnerability of Islamist militants to issues of religious correctness (a feature which western security organizations have yet to exploit), the defection of these is a potential fatal blow, and directly undermines operational morale. As it turns out, there has been enough going on through discreet back-channels for the Saudi regime to be able to derive some satisfaction from it. For instance, on July 18 an unspecified ‘sisterly’ country (probably Iran) handed over no less than 27 wanted men. For those held up in Iran for over two years, the amnesty is clearly seen as a catalyst.

In what is perhaps the most interesting development, although unverifiable at present, the mediating cleric Safar al-Hawali is reported to have spoken on July 23 of his current efforts on eight cases in the Kingdom and two in Yemen. Among the group of eight are none other than al-Qaeda’s group leader, Salih al-Awfi, and two others on the wanted list who had asked him not to release their names. (IslamOnline.net 23 July) The next day an Arab paper quoted al-Hawali as saying that he was handling ten cases in the Kingdom and 10-15 in other Arab states. While it would appear to fly in the face of recent events, the report that al-Awfi is negotiating his surrender merits at least some credence, because al-Hawali would lose all credibility if this were not the case. If true, the surrender of al-Qaeda’s latest leader would come as a defining blow to the insurgency. Al-Awfi is the most experienced in field operations and in managing operations. Without him the remainder of al-Qaeda in the kingdom is made up of relatively inexperienced junior youths who have not received the classic training outside of Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

The evidence of attrition suffered by al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia is worth considering. The levels of those accepting the amnesty, due to the sensitivities of their identity, is very likely higher than is being revealed publicly. However, as the recent attack on a western individual in Riyadh has illustrated, its effect may be limited at most to al-Qaeda’s ability to carry out large-scale operations. There are also reports of large numbers of Saudi fighters returning from Iraq, attested to by stepped-up border security operations. If the manpower gap is duly filled this way, and the attrition momentum is lost, it is hard to see what more the security forces could do in their fight against al-Qaeda.