Sleeper Cells and Shi’a Secessionists in Saudi Arabia: A Salafist Perspective

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 18

Former AQAP leader Muhammad al-Ofi

Salafi-Jihadi internet forums continue to warn of Shi’a plots to control the Sunni Arab regions of the Middle East, most recently in a posting entitled “The Sleeper Cells of the Rejectionists – The Danger Within – Iran’s Upcoming War of Bubbles" (, June 1). The posting compares the gradual Iranian escalation to the bubbles in boiling water – the longer the United States maintains pressure on Iran, the more allies Iran will draw into the confrontation (such as Hamas and Hezbollah), with each new ally acting as another bubble in boiling water. The posting followed an announcement on the same forum of the creation of a Shiite state in the Arabian Peninsula. Intended to warn Sunni jihadis of Shi’a intentions in the Arabia, the posting was entitled “Saudi Shiites announce the establishment of the East Arabian Republic” (, May 15).

Iran’s Sleeper Cells in the Sunni World

“It’s bad enough getting stabbed in the back by individuals, groups or countries, but it’s worse when loud warnings of imminent dangers go unheeded.”  So started forum member Subhi Jadallah’s warning of Iranian penetration of the Sunni Islamic and Arab world. Jadallah complains that Salafis are not paying attention to Iran’s efforts, carried out by billions of dollars worth of dedicated research centers, to find new ways to propagate Shi’i Islam and control the region. Iran studied the situation well by planting sleeper cells all over the Gulf States (especially Saudi Arabia) before pursuing its nuclear aspirations. The sleeper cells are trained, armed and funded by Iran. The cells have succeeded in controlling Lebanon and influencing Syrian rule.  “They are preparing for the inevitable confrontation” between the West and Iran, says Jadallah, presenting the following to corroborate his argument:

• Israel is not only trying to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, but is also plotting to rid Pakistan of its nuclear arsenal.

• Americans, Europeans and Israelis know very well that defeating and weakening Iran means the submission of the whole region to Western hegemony. On the other hand, Iran
seeks to negotiate control of the Middle East with the West. Once Iran acquires nuclear weapons capable of reaching Israel and Europe, the West will lose influence in the Middle East to Iran.  To avoid making any concessions to Tehran, Israel and the West will wage war on Iran sooner or later.

Arab countries will have no independent role in the anticipated confrontation between the West and Iran. Arab countries will only contribute what the West designates for them. The West needs a united and stable Arab front; therefore, the United States will work hard to solve all the issues impeding a united Middle Eastern front against Iran. Jadallah claims the attempt to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict is evident in Israel’s conciliatory gestures toward Syria. An Israeli-Syrian peace deal would end the strategic Syrian-Iranian alliance, although Hezbollah would remain the biggest threat to Israel if war breaks out with Iran.

Iran’s War of Bubbles

According to Jadallah, the defeat of the old regime in Iraq favored Iran. Ostensibly, Iran was the number one enemy of the United States, but the Iran-Contra scandal during Ronald Regan’s presidency revealed the true nature of their relations and the secret cooperation between the U.S and Iran on certain issue of mutual interest. Further, the cooperation between the U.S and Iran on Iraq and Afghanistan was extensive during George Bush’s tenure as President.

Jadallah alleges Iran’s sleeper cell tactics date back to Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran in 1979. The new revolutionary regime realized the Muslim Sunni world would not yield to Shiite ambitions. They established the cells and provided them with money, weapons and secret training in Iran, Syria and Lebanon. The sleeper cells vary from the military type to politically motivated groups. Whole Shiite families are sent off to live in Sunni target countries; once settled in the designated country, the cell commences political manipulation and sabotage activities with the help of similar cells in the same country. According to Jadallah, Iran also managed to plant sleeper cells in Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, all of which contain substantial Shi’a minorities.

War Scenarios in the Middle East

As Jadallah sees it, there are several possible scenarios for a war involving Iran:

• Iran is capable of absorbing any limited Western strike against its nuclear installations, which would lead to serious negotiations over power-sharing and eventual Western concessions in the Middle East.

• In an all out confrontation with the West, Hezbollah, on orders from Iran, will launch massive rocket attacks against Israel.

• If Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on Israel fail to end Western attacks, Iran will ignite the Syrian front. In the meantime, it would strike many targets in the Gulf States. Iranian sleeper cells in the region would be awakened to stir up internal riots and revolts in the whole region.  

Very few jihadi forum members thought (from a military and intelligence perspective) that the strength of Iran was exaggerated in Jadallah’s posting. Some members underlined the rapid Shi’a surge in the region by warning that Egypt’s Sunni Sufi orders could be easily penetrated by Shiites through the unclear dividing lines between Shi’ism and Sufism. The Salafi accusations against Egypt’s tiny Shi’a minority echo those of President Hosni Mubarak, who claims Shiites are only loyal to Iran (Jafariya, November 13, 2006). Despite the Salafists’ anxiety, the Shi’a have had little influence in Egypt since the collapse of the Shi’a Fatimid Dynasty in 1171.

Iranian sleeper cells and intelligence activity in the Gulf countries and Europe were first revealed by a former Iranian consul in Dubai, Adil al-Asadi, who defected to the West and sought political refuge in Sweden in 2003 (, March 15, 2007). In an interview, al-Asadi said even European Shiites are approached by Iran, adding, “It’s normal practice for Iranian diplomats in the Gulf States to recruit local extreme Arab Shiites, send them to the U.K for training and bring them back laden with big cash.”    

The East Arabian Republic

Iranian incitement and interference in the Gulf States culminated in the announcement by Saudi Shiites of a Shi’a republic in the Arabian Peninsula.  Jihadi forums posted a leaflet issued in Beirut announcing the establishment of the East Arabian Republic in the southeastern al-Ahsa and Qatif provinces in Saudi Arabia. The headline of the leaflet read: “In a bold move and in response to Shaykh Nimir al-Nimiri’s call, the residents of al-Ahsa and Qatif announce their independence from the totalitarian regime of the Saudis. The East Arabian Republic is located in the southeastern area of the Arabian peninsula.” Shaykh Nimir Baqir al-Nimiri is a 50-year old Saudi Shiite opposition leader first incarcerated by Saudi authorities in August 2008. After his release from prison, al-Nimiri accused the Saudi regime of religious discrimination against the Saudi Shiites in a Friday sermon and called for the secession from Saudi Arabia of the Shi’a majority regions of al-Ahsa and Qatif. He has been a fugitive ever since.
Jihadi forum members insist that Iran is not only behind the announcement of a Shiite republic in eastern Saudi Arabia, but is also involved in the war on Iraq, the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the encouragement of Hamas and the instigation of turmoil in Yemen, Egypt and Kuwait. One forum member cited earlier warnings from King Abdullah of Jordan regarding the creation of a “Shiite Crescent” stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Another jihadi forum asserted Iranian interference in Iraq by posting an allegedly official letter sent by the Iranian government to Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr (, June 5).  The letter said Muqtada al-Sadr represented a base of support for the Islamic Republic of Iran, therefore he and his followers should be consolidated to guarantee Iran unique political weight in Iraq. The Iranians stated they were serious about supporting Muqtada as a representative of Iranian religious institutions on the Iraqi scene.

Al-Qaeda and the Salafi Perspective

Despite speculation of possible secret cooperation between al-Qaeda and Iran, Salafists believe they should take advantage of any confrontation between the West and Iran, says a forum chatter nicknamed Abu Rashi, who adds that the Salafis usually lose at the end of any such confrontations regardless of who they ally themselves with (, May 29). To make significant gains for Salafism in any Western-Iranian confrontation, Salafists should work to prolong the confrontation and demand the following:

• The abandonment of Western-backed secular officials in the Arab world.

• Salafist control of the media.

• The abolition of mundane laws passed by secular regimes and the implementation of Shari’a.

Salafis should not drift towards the West or Iran in the event of a confrontation between the two and should try to make as many gains for Salafism as possible from both sides.  

Who might the Salafis and al-Qaeda side with to achieve these goals? In a televised confession, former al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Muhammad al-Ofi claimed al-Qaeda was supported in Yemen by Iranian intelligence agents working through Shi’a militants of northern Yemen’s al-Houthi insurgency (Yemen Observer, March 31; al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 30; al-Shooma, March 29;, March 27). Furthermore, Iran and al-Qaeda already have mutual interests in their struggle with the West. The United States is the number one enemy of both Iran and al-Qaeda. In any confrontation with the west, al-Qaeda expects to receive weapons of mass destruction from Iran to use in attacks on Western targets (, May 11). Hence, al-Qaeda would most probably join Iran against the West at least until the end of the confrontations.