WASHINGTON — Sheik Saleh Al Luhaidan, seen in video seated to the right of the crown prince, is chief justice of Saudi Arabia's Supreme Judicial Council. His sermons and words carry great significance.
In an audiotape secretly recorded at a government mosque last October and obtained by NBC News, Luhaidan encourages young Saudis to go to Iraq to wage war against Americans.
"If someone knows that he is capable of entering Iraq in order to join the fight, and if his intention is to raise up the word of God, then he is free to do so," says Luhaidan in Arabic on the tape.
He warns Iraq is risky because "evil satellites and drone aircraft" watch the borders. But he says going is religiously permissible.
"The lawfulness of his action is in fighting an enemy who is fighting Muslims and came for war," says Luhaidan.
The sheik also says those donating money to the fight in Iraq should be sure it actually helps the cause.
"This statement shows the real face of the Saudi government," says Saudi dissident Ali Al-Ahmed of the Saudi Institute, based in Washington.
Al-Ahmed says that while Saudi officials — including Sheik Luhaidan — publicly oppose jihad in Iraq, privately some send a different message.
"He is telling Saudis it's OK to go to Iraq and kill Americans and Iraqis and they won’t be punished for doing that," says Al-Ahmed.
A Saudi spokesman twice denied the tape was authentic, claiming Saudi intelligence analysts determined it was "a crude fake." So NBC News called Luhaidan himself, in Saudi Arabia, and played the tape.
Luhaidan confirmed those were his words, saying in Arabic, "Yes, this is my voice."
But the sheik said what he really meant was that it's not worth it for young Saudis to go to Iraq and that the Iraqis are capable of fighting on their own.
This week, Saudi Arabia's crown prince met with President Bush on economic issues, including oil prices, and a White House official says the problem of extremism was raised.
Dozens of Saudis have been tied to suicide bombings and violence in Iraq. Critics claim the Saudis are now dealing with their own problems with extremists by exporting some of them to Iraq.