“My God, bin Laden is so handsome”
From the New York Times: glorification of jihad and Osama among Saudis.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, April 22 — On Wednesday morning, just hours before a suicide bomber demolished a Saudi police building in downtown Riyadh, the family of a young man was accepting congratulations for his death in the jihad over the border in Iraq, the one that enjoys no small support here.
“He went to Iraq seeking martyrdom because of the recent events there,” Abdullah al-Enezi said of his younger brother Majid, who was training to be a computer technician.
“America’s unjust policy toward the Muslims is the main reason,” Mr. Enezi said by telephone from the family home in Al Kharj, a town just south of Riyadh. “Everyone feels this humiliation; he’s not alone, there are so many young men who wish they could cross over into Iraq to join the jihad, but they can’t. Thank God he was blessed with the ability to go.”
In Saudi Arabia, a strategic ally of the United States, violence against the occupation in Iraq is seen by many as jihad, or a holy struggle, but virtually no one accepts violence as jihad when it unrolls here at home, in the heart of what is supposed to be the most Muslim of countries.
In Iraq, attacks by American troops serve as evidence to some that the United States occupation of a Muslim land must be reversed. Requests for God to avenge American actions pour down from mosque minarets, and some women university students sport Osama bin Laden T-shirts under their enveloping abayas to show their approval for his calls to resist the United States.
But many Saudis consider the attack here on Wednesday a shocking and unsettling crime, especially since the attackers chose for their first major government target an office building that virtually every adult male must visit to collect a license or car plates.
A group calling itself the Brigade of the Two Holy Mosques posted an unverifiable claim of responsibility on two Web sites on Thursday, bragging — in language that closely echoed Al Qaeda’s — that the attack rained devastation on the “criminal, apostate” Saudi government and warning of further strikes. Some viewed the claim as dubious because it did not name the suicide bomber.
The toll rose to five overnight, apart from the bomber, after a police captain died, the Interior Ministry announced. Saudi television also showed a pitched gunfight between security forces and militants in a residential neighborhood in the coastal city of Jidda in which three militants were reported killed.
“May God curse you, you vermin, you people of filth and not jihad,” said a posting on one of the same Web sites where the responsibility claim was posted, adding, in case anyone missed the point, a picture of coffins draped in American flags over the caption, “This is jihad.”
Experts on the topic believe that most Saudis do not view the two battles as even remotely related.
“When people see Israeli operations in Palestine and the American cruelty in Iraq, they feel angry and frustrated,” said Abdullah Bejad al-Oteibi, a former fundamentalist now working as a legal researcher. “They cannot control their anger and they admire bin Laden, so that is why many people volunteer for jihad. But when there are operations here, people feel angry and betrayed.”
No officials or analysts have a firm command of how many operate in either sphere. Although it is likely they rely on similar theological underpinnings to justify their actions, anyone acting within Saudi Arabia would have to be far more radical to overcome the heavy sanctions against killing fellow Muslims.
“They might be the same group of people, from the same pool of jihadis,” said Jamal Khashoggi, an expert on Islamic groups and an adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to London.
“But to recruit somebody to fight in Saudi Arabia is way more difficult than to fight in Iraq,” he noted. “You have to be really militant to believe that a country where religion is practiced day and night is apostate.”
The difficulty, some experts believe, refers back to a slightly different interpretation of the concept of jihad espoused by the Wahhabi teachings that hold sway in the kingdom. Whereas most sects in Islam view jihad as necessary only when attacked, the Wahhabis view it as a means to spread their religion.
“You should never initiate fighting without a reason; you undertake jihad when you are `defending’ an Islamic nation, like the situation in Iraq or Palestine,” said Abdel Rahem al-Lahem, a lawyer and specialist in militant groups.
The Wahhabi school, on the other hand, believes in smiting one’s enemy first, Mr. Lahem said, although senior clerics preached against that idea last year after attacks here killed Muslims.
Saudi Arabia has a troubled history with preaching jihad, which was officially sanctioned against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. The ruling Saud family thought it could rid itself of the radical fringe, but instead their sponsorship now haunts them. Afghanistan became the training camp for elements now trying to overthrow them.
Hence there is no similar mobilization for going to Iraq.
“We do not believe in the American invasion of Iraq, it is illegal and illegitimate,” said Soliman al-Oadah, a cleric once known for expressing hard-line views but whose pronouncements have grown more moderate in recent years. “We see that allowing people to go to Iraq has many negative points. For example, when the war is over, they will be trained and shaped in a way that could go out of control. They might go back to their home countries and act in bad way.”
Fearing such an outcome, Saudi officials say they are ensuring that the long border with Iraq is sealed. They have installed heat sensors to detect movement, one official said, noting that events in Iraq are likely to inspire more problems at home.
“They can’t do anything over there, and they think Arab governments are not doing anything,” said Sayid A. al-Harthi, a senior adviser to Prince Nayif bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud, the interior minister. “They are consumed with anger which they transfer to their own government. If we let them, thousands would go, not just from Saudi Arabia, but from every Arab country.”
Instead, the government has been trying to let off steam by, for example, allowing otherwise tightly controlled mosque sermons to inveigh heavily against the Americans.
“Oh God, avenge America, oh God, avenge its allies,” the prayer leader at Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz mosque in a northern Riyadh neighborhood said last Friday. “Oh God, order your soldiers to show them torture, oh God divide them, oh God avenge them for what they are corrupting in Iraq.”
Mr. Enezi, whose brother, 25, was killed fighting the Americans last Saturday, said he was unaware of any cleric swaying his brother’s mind. He simply left one day about a month ago, entering Iraq from Syria.
“It was very normal, just like any other tourist crossing to Iraq,” said Mr. Enezi. He called periodically to check in, and then his friends called to say he had died in a firefight with American marines near Qaim on the Syrian border. He was buried there.
“People are calling all the time to congratulate us — crying from happiness and envy,” Mr. Enezi said.
Even among prosperous, upper-middle-class Saudis it is possible to hear support for such actions, especially after the string of events in the past month with the killing of two Hamas leaders in Gaza and President Bush’s endorsement of Israeli plans to keep West Bank settlements and to prevent the long-cherished return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Often the anger takes the form of endorsing Mr. bin Laden’s calls for fighting the Americans.
“Young people are wearing T-shirts with bin Laden’s picture on them just the way people used to wear pictures of Che Guevara,” said Tufful al-Oqbi, a student at King Saud University. “It’s simply because he is the only one resisting. Even if we reject his methods, it’s because there is no other way, because this is the only way.”
Fowziyah Abukhalid, a sociology professor at the university, has noticed a parallel phenomenon among her students. “Many young women are saying `My God, bin Laden is so charming,’ or `My God, bin Laden is so handsome,’ ” she said. “He is politically appealing, that is why they view him as handsome.”
Such feelings are volatile though, depending on whether the attacks are inside or outside the kingdom. “People literally change their minds and feelings every day about bin Laden,” Mr. Oteibi said.