A sudden crackdown and arrest of “Islamists” in 2004-05 raised fears about Oman becoming entangled in the vicious cycle of terrorism, much like several other countries in the Persian Gulf region. The trial of the “saboteurs”—who attempted to challenge the status quo like in 1994—and the continuing calm thereafter indicates that the scourge of violence in the name of religion has still not reached the shores of the Sultanate.
The reason for terrorism not occurring in Oman is mainly attributed to the peculiar religion of the Omanis, who are followers of Abdallah ibn Ibadah al-Maqdisi’s branch of Islam, a breakaway from the Khariji (“quietist”) movement in Basra in 650 AD. Some experts suggest that the movement is an offshoot of a dissident Shiite sect hailing originally from Ibadh in Saudi Arabia, which was introduced to Oman in the eighth century.
Oman is the only Ibadhi country in the world, with its tenets closely linked to the Maliki Sunni school. Ibadhism rejects primogeniture succession and asserts that the leadership of Islam should be designated by an imam who is capable and elected by the people. In fact, both political and religious Ibadhi leadership is vested in an imam.
The Ibadhi orientation, which many Muslims consider unorthodox, has conditioned the society in such a fashion that in a region extremely conscious of sectarian affiliations, the 2004 census did not even seek to ascertain the composition of the Omani population along divisive lines, though it is understood that roughly 25 percent of the population is estimated to be Sunni. Further proof of Oman’s uniqueness lies in it becoming the first Gulf Cooperation Council country in December 1994 to host an Israeli prime minister—Yitzhak Rabin—though there were murmurs of discontent among the Islamists.
In this backdrop, it is no surprise that there is no record of Omanis having fought in Afghanistan or being held in Guantanamo Bay. In fact, the only two available references linking al-Qaeda and Oman are: first, without details, the 9/11 commission report simply mentions that Osama bin Laden’s Islamic Army Council (the initial ruling body of the International Islamic Front prior to the 1998 reorganization) included Omani Islamists; second, Kuwaiti-Canadian al-Qaeda member Mohammed Mansour Jabarah—who traveled to Oman, possibly on his way to Saudi Arabia—was arrested in the Sultanate in March 2002. Several months later, Muscat confirmed that it had arrested members of an al-Qaeda cell, but gave no details. While Muscat denied reports that they were extradited, Washington said “they were transferred to the United States” .
The incident that sounded the alarm bells in Oman and reverberated around the world was the late December 2004 and early January 2005 arrests of “100-300” suspects (as reported initially)—including civil servants, military personnel, preachers, Islamic scholars and university professors from the Ibadhi sect—for allegedly planning attacks in the Sultanate. The arrests—carried out in the interior of the country—were facilitated by a road accident that exposed a truck carrying a consignment of weapons allegedly meant to disrupt the month-long Muscat cultural and trade festival, which was boycotted by Islamists because it was seen as being against the precepts of Islam (Khaleej Times (UAE), January 26, 2005).
Police seized and displayed computers, cameras, a GPS system, about 40 Kalashnikov rifles, revolvers, maps of Oman, about 35 books dealing with military training, explosives and how to face interrogations, as well as a large quantity of ammunition.
Relatives of some of the accused denied any link between the detainees and arms shipments or with al-Qaeda. “We were astonished by father’s arrest in his Muscat home at dawn on January 9,” said Taleb al-Abri, son of Islamic studies professor Ali bin Hilal al-Abri . Taleb acknowledged that, like many Muslims, his father opposed the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but insisted that he had no connection to terrorist activities or to al-Qaeda.
The government initially admitted to a “religious extremist” plot, but insisted “they are not violent extremists.” It revealed little information beyond stating that “the reason behind these detentions was an attempt to form an organization to tamper with national security, which is a red line that requires to be dealt with sternly” (Times of Oman, January 31, 2005). It was only in March that the government revealed that only 31 were arrested and clarified that “the arrests have nothing to do with terrorism or foreign parties” of the sort that were being undertaken in neighboring countries .
The trial by the State Security Court, which finally began on April 19 and continued for three consecutive days, was unique because it was the first of its kind to be open to a selected public, relatives of the accused, journalists and members of Majlis al-Shura (the elected consultative council) and Majlis al-Dawlah (the appointed state council). The accused appeared in national attire with no handcuffs and there were no barriers separating the trial panel and the audience. Despite their “dangerous” depositions, some of the accused declined the services of defense lawyers, placing their faith in the integrity and fairness of the judicial system . The ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, ordered the authorities to continue paying salaries to the families of the suspects until a verdict was reached.
The charges filed against the accused included joining a secret organization first set up in 1982; forming the al-Bashaer military group, raising funds to finance it and conducting military training, convening secret meetings in wilayats (“districts”), arms smuggling and possession and sales of illegal arms; forming a committee to take control of the oil and gas fields, and organizing seminars and summer camps to spread the group’s agenda (Gulf News (UAE), April 20, 2005). The prosecution screened videos to support their charges.
During the court deliberations, some of the accused confessed to joining the banned secret organization to spread the ideology of imama (“rule of the imam”) and its values, but most argued that their intention was not to overthrow the regime, but to spread the Madhab (“Islamic jurisprudence”) of Ibadhi. Some others confessed to taking part in the organization’s activities, but denied being its members. A few others claimed they had quit the organization some years after joining it because they viewed the return of the imama as unrealistic. The proceedings revealed that the group regularly met in remote desert areas. Many of the defendants, however, regretted joining the organization and pleaded for forgiveness.
One of the accused confessed to taking part in a meeting of the secret organization in 1997 through a person who had convinced him that the aim was to check the tide of strict interpretation of Islam in the wilayats. Another accused, a cleric, was in charge of securing areas of meetings, which were described as “dinner parties” to avoid attracting attention. A third admitted developing a special way of hiding weapons in hollow cement pillars in his farms. One of them said: “We did not call it an organization; it was a group, and our aim was dawa (“preaching”) and correction of deviations in the religious branch.” Another said: “I continued contacts until I went to Britain for higher studies during 1990-95 and abstained from the activities afterwards. My mistake is I did not inform the authority concerned” .
A fourth session convened on April 25 to hear final defense pleas. Seven lawyers pleaded their clients’ innocence, saying they had merely sought to promote Ibadhi teachings in the face of “external currents.” They said possession of weapons was in keeping with Omani norms and that the worst their clients can be accused of is holding firearms without a license (Arab News, April 26, 2005).
Jailed and Pardoned
On May 2, the court handed jail terms of between one and 20 years—six defendants, accused of being leaders of the group, were sentenced to 20 years in jail, 12 received 10-year terms, another 12 received seven years, while the 31st, who was acquitted of seeking to overthrow the regime, received a one-year jail sentence for holding weapons without a license. The judge said the defendants could not appeal the verdict but could ask for a pardon from Sultan Qaboos within 30 days (Arab News, April 26, 2005).
The same day, the government released the names of those convicted for “treason.” Those who received 20 years in jail (age in brackets) were: Saleh bin Saleem al-Rubkhi (45), Yousef bin Ebrahim al-Sarhani (44), Mohammad bin Sulaiman bin Mohammad al-Shaili (50), Humaid bin Mohammad bin Sulaiman al-Yahmadi (45), Saleh bin Rashid Bin Ali al-Maamari (48) and Khamis bin Rashid bin Said al-Dawi (39).
Those who received 10-year sentences were: Mohammad bin Salim bin Mohammad al-Harthy (40), Mohammad bin Saif bin Hamad al-Rawahi (49), Nasir bin Sulaiman bin Said al-Sabei (37), Khalifa bin Ahmad bin Humaid al-Qassabi (42), Abdullah bin Said bin Khalfan al-Maamari (33), Ali bin Hilal bin Mohammad al-Abri (45), Hilal bin Yahya bin Zaid al-Ismaeili (43), Khalifa bin Said bin Nasir al-Busaidi (35), Abdul Hamid bin Mohammad bin Harib al-Habsi (33), Mohammad bin Khamis bin Ali al-Shamsi (30), Mahmoud bin Mohammad bin Sulaiman al-Azri (31) and Abdul-Aziz bin Yahya bin Ahmad al-Kindi (44).
Seven-year sentences were given to Kahlan bin Nabhan bin Abdul Rahman al-Kharousi (33), Jabir bin Ali bin Hamoud al-Sadi (40), Mohammad bin Rashid bin Saleh al-Gharbi (37), Khalid bin Salim bin Nasir al-Khawaldi (31), Mohammad bin Zahir bin Said al-Abri (38), Said bin Sultan bin Mohammad al-Khanjri (50), Salim bin Ali bin Ashain al-Namani (39), Said bin Saif bin Salim al-Mawali (45), Yaqoob bin Yousuf bin Nasir al-Azri (35) Abdullah bin Yahya bin Ahmad al-Kindi (35), Said bin Abdullah bin Sallam al-Saqri (35) and Saif bin Salim bin Ali al-Busaidi (31). Nasir bin Sulaiman bin Mohammad al-Shaili, 47, received a one-year sentence (Times of Oman, May 3, 2005).
Though Sultan Qaboos ratified the sentences, he pardoned all 31 on June 9, 2005 (Arab News, June 10, 2005).
Though unconnected, Oman witnessed a similar incident in 1994. After the 1963-76 Dhofar civil war, dissidence was under control until a wave of arrests in May 1994 exposed the existence of opposition factions. About 430 people were interrogated on charges of forming an illegal political party to undermine state security and subversion . A state security court was convened in November 1994, which sentenced about 135 to prison terms and a few death sentences were commuted by the Sultan to life imprisonment. Finally, all prisoners, who the Sultan had accused of being Islamist extremists, were freed as part of an amnesty in November 1995. Thereafter, Omani officials opted for a political, social and educational model that was relatively open and that discouraged large-scale opposition. Islamists, nevertheless, worked in secrecy to keep their agenda alive, but were decisively undermined for a second time in 2005.
In the final analysis, while the 1994 and 2005 episodes may have assumed religious connotations, they were more about changing the status quo than acts of terrorism with broader objectives. The fact that there has been no indication of Omani Islamists colluding with foreign Islamist militants provides optimism for the future.
1. Arab News (Saudi Arabia), August 26, 2002. A German tourist was injured in a shooting incident in November 2003 and an American and a German were killed in Muscat in December, but investigation revealed that these were not acts of “terrorism.”
2. See http://www.gulfinthemedia.com (UAE), January 28, 2005.
3. Arab News, April 19, 2005. Most of the accused were from the Nizwa region, which was historically a major center of learning and the seat of the Imamate rebellion in the 1950s.
4. Oman Daily Observer, April 25, 2005. In its editorial, the paper said: “Preaching religion is achieved by prudence and good advice, not by force…Likewise, the call for reform and guidance to the path of piety does not require underground measures or secret meetings.”
5. For more accounts of the trial, see Times of Oman, April 20-22, 2005, Khaleej Times, April 22, 2005.
6. The Islamists accused the Sultan of being influenced by Western powers and criticized the visit of Israelis to Oman, as well as Muscat’s steps to cooperate with Tel Aviv at a time when the Palestinian issue was not resolved. Muscat also swapped economic representation offices with Tel Aviv, which were closed in 2000 for lack of progress in the Middle East peace process and Israel’s reaction to the Palestinian intifada.