updated 1/24/2005 6:37:28 PM ET 2005-01-24T23:37:28

Fundamentalist Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia are telling militants intent on fighting “infidels” to join the insurgency in Iraq instead of taking up Osama bin Laden’s call to oust the Saudi royal family at home, say Saudi dissidents who monitor theological edicts coming out of the kingdom.

Iraq as a battleground offers the solution to a quandary facing the Saudi clerics who have to both placate the kingdom’s rulers and keep their radical base happy.

“If they preach that there ought to be absolutely no jihad, they would lose credibility and support among their followers. So what they do is preach jihad — not in Saudi Arabia, but in Iraq,” said Abdul-Aziz Khamis, a Saudi human rights activist in London.

“To them, Iraq is the answer to their dilemma.”

Wahhabism on the march
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 gave the Saudi government the opportunity to send men there to wage holy war against communism, supported by the United States.

It also opened the field for the Saudi regime to spread a rigid form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. The royal Al Saud family adheres to it, as do Saudi-born bin Laden and his followers.

Today, Iraq, more than anywhere else in the world, is where the future of political Islam is being shaped. It has become a free-for-all for extremists and anti-American movements.

Although there are reports that Saudis are among suicide bombers in Iraq, the most radical al-Qaida group isn’t heeding the clerics’ advice to give up the fight against the kingdom.

In the latest strike in Riyadh, the “al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula” group claimed responsibility for a Dec. 29 attack in which five suicide bombers blew up two vehicles outside the Interior Ministry, wounding 17 police officers. The group said the intended targets were the interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud, and his son.

Bin Laden statement
In the weeks before the bombings, bin Laden issued a statement calling on his followers to focus attacks on the kingdom. Bin Laden accuses the West of seeking to destroy Islam and criticizes the Saudi royal family for its allegiance to the United States.

The al-Qaida branch operating in Saudi Arabia, known as the Jihadis, has been behind a string of bombings and shooting attacks in the kingdom that began in May 2003, killing dozens of foreigners where they live and work. Last June it kidnapped American contractor Paul Johnson and posted three photos on the Internet showing his body and severed head.

Following another series of attacks last May, several Saudi clerics promised the government not to wage jihad, or holy war, inside Saudi Arabia and to refrain from recruiting activists from the Jihadis group, say Saudi dissidents. Two of them, Salman al-Odeh and Safar al-Hawali, even agreed to fight the Jihadis, although they agree with their ideas, said Khamis.

“Al-Hawali and al-Salman still believe in the principles of jihad. But now they link it with the authority of the ruler,” said Khamis. “Al-Hawali finances and supports people who go to Iraq to fight there, but he is against fighting on Saudi soil.”

Saudis among the insurgents
In Iraq, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army — a group that follows Wahhabism, claimed responsibility for a Dec. 21 suicide bombing at a U.S. base in Mosul, Iraq, that purportedly involved a young Saudi. The bombing killed 22 people, mostly American troops, and was one of the worst attacks since the war started in March 2003.

While Ansar al-Sunnah indicated the bomber was Iraqi, the London-based Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat daily identified him as Ahmed Saeid Ahmed al-Ghamdi, a 20-year-old Saudi medical student from Riyadh.

Iraqi and U.S. authorities have said Saudis are among foreign fighters who have gone to Iraq, although the insurgency is mostly run by local Sunnis and disaffected Iraqis.

Saudi authorities have been trying to smash the persistent al-Qaida branch for some years. The founding leaders are in jail in Saudi Arabia and some of their successors have been killed.

“Bin Laden gave Wahhabism glory,” said Hamza al-Hassan, a Saudi dissident in London, who noted the al-Qaida leader was inspired by his radicals beliefs to fight in Afghanistan.

An extreme vision every 10 years
“Wahhabism produces an extremist version every 10 years, and each new one is more extreme than the previous one, making the previous ones seem like moderates,” added al-Hassan.

The Jihadis, now the most extreme al-Qaida group in Saudi Arabia, believe in global holy war. The government claims they were imported, but Khamis said they were homegrown.

In the 1980s, the late Sheik Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, during the Afghan war urging Muslims to fight infidel Soviet occupiers on Islamic soil. Today, this fatwa applies to Iraq, say dissidents Khamis and al-Hassan.

Saudi clerics such as Al-Odeh and al-Hawali have issued several fatwas saying jihad is legitimate in Iraq. Al-Hawali also opposes beheading foreign hostages for political reasons, even though he supports it from a religious point of view, said Khamis. Al-Odeh was among 26 clerics who called for jihad in Iraq last year.

Saleh al-Owfi, believed to be al-Qaida’s leader in Saudi Arabia, claimed in a Web site statement that al-Hawali had asked him not to fight at home but to go to Iraq, and that he would arrange for him to go there, says Khamis. But al-Owfi replied that everyone should fight on his own turf.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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