Some extra light was cast upon the obscure events of last January in the Gulf state of Oman (reported in Terrorism Focus Vol II, Iss 3) when a group of ‘Islamists’ were picked up. On April 18 the trial began of a total of 31 suspected Islamist militants accused of planning to launch attacks in Muscat during the city’s Cultural and Trade festival held last January, in a bid to overthrow the regime. Until this point speculation had been rife about the motives and the identity of the detainees, including suspicions of connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was implicated in an earlier plot in 1994. However, something akin to a news blackout had been imposed.
Oman is highly sensitive to the public relations fallout of the incident, fearing loss of investment potential in a state that in 2003 produced some 800,000 barrels of oil per day and one which occupies a crucial strategic position opposite the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf. They have strenuously played down any perceived threat of terrorist attacks of the sort that have shaken neighboring Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and part of Yemen.
As a mark of the sensitivity of the issue the case was closed to the foreign press and not held in public. Only the lawyers acting for the families of the accused and members of Oman’s consultative council were admitted, and few details were published in the main press of the legal proceedings. The Omani daily al-Watan noted only that “certain members had regretted their joining such an organization” [www.alwatan.com ]. However, the Arabic language web magazine Shafaf al-Sharq al-Awsat added some interesting details on the case. It reported that the statements of the accused varied between expressions of regret and explanations that the goals of the Ibadi group were those of “self-preservation against internal and external enemies” [www.metransparent.com].
Most of the accused considered that their mission was founded on the principle of concealment (kitman) for the initial stage of the “Imamate of Concealment”, to be followed by “Imamate of Epiphany” as it became overt and finally the restoration of the Islamic Caliphal State or Imamate which was abolished in 1959.
Others explained that the Higher Council of the organization had decided two years previously on foregoing political aims in favor of other ‘consciousness-raising’ aims, such as publishing the Ibadi rite and defending it. The common thread in the case of the accused was that removing the regime was precisely counter to their aims, and that their actions constituted an ideological defense of Ibadism, in case the government should change and other Islamic schools take its place.
If so, it appears that this Gulf Islamist phenomenon is effectively an ‘anti-jihad’ in the making, against the al–Qaeda inspired extremists spreading in the Gulf. In all, the authorities have detained 42 suspects, including those put on trial.