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    Middle East
     Jan 21, 2005
The dangers of silencing Saudi dissent
By Mahan Abedin

The inclusion of Saudi dissident Saad al-Faqih and the organization that he leads, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), in the United Nations Security Council 1267 Committee's list [1] of terrorist individuals and organizations is not an altogether uncontroversial decision. After all, Faqih has been living openly in the United Kingdom since 1994 and has not once ran afoul of the authorities.

The inclusion of the Saudi dissident, and another Saudi, Adil al-Battarji, in the UN list was a foregone conclusion after the US government declared in late December 2004 that it had frozen their assets and submitted their names to the UN. There are essentially two central questions regarding the inclusion of Saad al-Faqih that have remained unanswered: is the designation fair, and, moreover, is it likely to prove effective in the fight against terrorism?

Saad al-Faqih and MIRA
A professor of surgery at King Saud University until March 1994, Faqih moved to the UK in the same year to escape persecution by the Saudi government. Prior to his leaving the kingdom, Faqih was the mastermind behind the "Letter of Demands" of 1991 and the "Memorandum of Advice" the following year. Both documents were signed by a considerable number of prominent personalities and presented to King Fahd.

The "Letter of Demands" was a concise summary of the main demands of the embryonic opposition and the "Memorandum of Advice" presented a detailed program for reform. In 1993, Faqih helped set up the "Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights" (CDLR) and was detained briefly in late 1993 for these activities.

On his arrival in the UK, Faqih revived CDLR with fellow dissident Dr Mohammad al-Masari. CDLR was the first effective exiled opposition forum against the House of Saud. In fact, it was so effective that the Saudis applied intense pressure on the UK government to expel Masari. The British government eventually succumbed to the pressures, but its efforts to expel Massari were thwarted by the UK judiciary.

Despite the unprecedented success of CDLR, Faqih and Masari developed problems, resulting in Faqih leaving CDLR to set up MIRA in 1996. In an interview with the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin (MEIB) in November 2003, Faqih justified his decision to leave CDLR on the basis that:
When we came to Britain, our original mission consisted of four principles, which I felt Dr Masari had later shifted from. The first principle was that CDLR should be focused on Saudi Arabia. It should not involve itself with any other country. The second was that CDLR should be a discreet and independent group. It would respect other groups and might even exchange ideas and experience, but it would not make an alliance or affiliate itself with any other group. The third principle was that decision-making in CDLR should be based on collective consultation. The fourth was we saw our role as ambassadors and messengers. We don't sell or promote ourselves as the future presidents or future leaders of the country. The real action is inside the country. We are only a media window or communications platform.
The four principles that Faqih outlines apparently define MIRA and its operations. MIRA promotes itself as a reformist Islamic organization that explicitly renounces violence and - unlike other Saudi Islamist organizations - resists the temptation to get involved in pan-Islamic issues. MIRA has a truly radical agenda insofar as it seeks to replace the House of Saud with a popularly elected government. Its command and control center is based entirely in London, and Faqih uses satellite technology to disseminate MIRA's ideas and communicate directly with the organization's followers.

Numerically speaking, MIRA is very small and Faqih contends that this feature does not reflect the scope and depth of its popularity. "We extend everywhere horizontally, but we are relatively weak vertically. We have huge numbers of followers inside the country, but we have to admit that the command and control network is not equivalent to the horizontal spread," Faqih told the MEIB in November 2003.

Another feature of MIRA - as far as its London operations are concerned - is that it is completely in the open. Moreover, the obvious fact that the organization's activities are monitored by "concerned" intelligence services acts as a powerful deterrent against engaging in any questionable activities, let alone maintaining terrorist links. Faqih contends that at least seven intelligence agencies closely monitor MIRA's activities.

"While the French, German, Egyptian and Japanese intelligence services monitor our publications and produce regular analytical reports for their governments, and at times even send spies masquerading as researchers and journalists to interview me, the British, Saudis and the Americans are probably in our toilets," Faqih recently told this author.

However, this intense intelligence coverage has not dissuaded MIRA's enemies from striking at Faqih. In June 2003, Faqih was attacked at his home by two intruders whom he alleges were Saudi agents. After this attack - and following years of abusive and threatening telephone calls - Faqih voluntarily asked the British Special Branch to monitor all his telephone calls. This request was gratuitous from a security perspective and merely constituted a legal gesture, for Faqih concedes that all his communications have likely been monitored by British intelligence since his arrival in the UK.

The stabbing attack in June 2003 - which Faqih maintains was an attempt to kidnap him - was taken very seriously by the British Special Branch, who initially launched a comprehensive investigation. The Special Branch even arrested the two culprits, who subsequently claimed they were investigative journalists. According to their story, Faqih had attacked them after being angered by probing questions. It is unclear how seriously the Special Branch treated this implausible defense. However, according to Faqih, the British eventually cut a deal with the Saudis revolving around the freeing of British prisoners in the kingdom detained under alcohol distribution and terrorism charges.

Broadly speaking, the Saudi security establishment has tried to counter MIRA on three fronts. First and foremost it tries to disrupt MIRA's operations by jamming its satellite broadcasts and blocking its website. Saudi intelligence services identify the satellite, uplink the frequency (which is not coded) and then send a signal to the transponder using the same frequency as the MIRA uplink frequency. In order to avoid international condemnation and possible legal sanction, the Saudis conceal the source of the jamming by using multiple sites. The website is not only blocked but is also constantly subjected to electronic attack (technically called "denial of service attack").

Secondly, the regime uses heavy handed methods against MIRA supporters inside the country. For instance, a few weeks ago the regime deployed thousands of security forces to deter people from joining a demonstration called by MIRA. Thirdly, it engages in propaganda and psychological warfare by accusing MIRA of terrorism and links to al-Qaeda.

The terrorist accusation has proven to be the Saudis' most effective weapon. After almost every al-Qaeda outrage in the kingdom since May 2003, the Saudi Arabia Embassy in London has applied pressure on the British government to curtail the activities of MIRA on the basis of unproven al-Qaeda ties. The British consistently resisted the Saudi pressure, primarily because no evidence of terrorist or other questionable links could be found. Interestingly, the Saudis capitalized on this to accuse Faqih and MIRA of an assortment of implausible connections, ranging from British intelligence to oil companies anxious to settle scores with the House of Saud.

Faqih: Terrorist or reformer?
The US charges against Faqih and MIRA essentially rest on three planks: association with detained Saudi dissident and alleged terrorist sympathizer Khaled Fawaz; using personal funds to purchase a satellite phone for al-Qaeda in 1998; allowing MIRA's website to be used for jihadi propaganda and indoctrination.

As far as association with Fawaz is concerned, Faqih maintains that he never shared an office with the detained Saudi dissident, who is awaiting extradition to the US. "The British are well aware that Fawaz's organization was wholly distinct from MIRA and there was no collaboration between us," Faqih recently told this author. Although the UK, alongside Saudi Arabia, jointly supported the US designation, Faqih is in little doubt that the main driving force behind the whole process has been the Americans.

The accusation that Faqih used personal funds to purchase a satellite phone for al-Qaeda date back to 1998, hence raising questions about its revival after seven years. Faqih maintains that this matter was thoroughly investigated by the Americans in 1998 and 1999, and they apparently reached a benign conclusion. The American investigators essentially relied on the eight-hour long voluntary testimony of a Palestinian-American merchant who was at the forefront of the purchase.

According to Faqih's account, the merchant (who was effectively a bulk retail broker) had been doing business with MIRA for some time and acquired all sorts of technical equipment for the organization. "Given the bulk of the transactions between us, and also given that this merchant was doing business with numerous other people at the same time, it is not altogether surprising that a mix-up or cross transaction took place. This innocent incident formed the basis of the American accusations," Faqih recently told this author. The Palestinian-American merchant at the heart of this confused event died in a car crash in Saudi Arabia in late 2001.

The accusation that MIRA's website is used for jihadi propaganda and indoctrination also suffers from fundamental flaws. Faqih asserts that this charge is not only wrong, but it in fact inverts the truth. "Intelligence agencies post incriminating material on our bulletin board and subsequently alert news agencies to their existence in an effort to undermine our reputation. We always make sustained efforts to remove these posts immediately and subsequently ban the contributor. The main problem is that the postings appear on our bulletin board [which is free to the public] and not the website," Faqih recently told the author. Moreover, Faqih asserts that MIRA has officially asked the British Scotland Yard to notify the website's moderator of any articles that incite violence and hatred. "The accusations are even more bizarre since the Americans claim that I have a connection with an Internet ghost writer by the name of Louise Atiyyatallah, who posts analytical articles on certain websites. It is amusing that a superpower is resorting to such puerile accusations," Faqih quips.
The accusation against Adil al-Battarji also seems to be mired in unexplained complexities. According to Faqih, Battarji is close to Saudi Prince Sultan, who is likely to have tipped him off about the imminent designation. "Battarji is likely to have transferred his funds to more secure accounts in order to shield them from the designation's sanctions," Faqih says.

The US-sponsored UN designation does not financially damage MIRA either, according to Faqih. "I personally have very little funds in the UK and MIRA has no assets here or in the US as it is not registered as a charity," he says. As for the timing of the designation, Faqih is in no doubt that they are in response to recent MIRA-organized demonstrations and civil unrest in the kingdom. He refers to recent mass attendance at mosques, called by MIRA, to mobilize supporters and convey a message of defiance to the Saudi government.

According to MIRA, about 60,000 people alone gathered at Riyadh's al-Rajhi mosque. "The Americans are alarmed by our growing success and need to curtail our activities. They cannot undermine us through the British courts since the British are unwilling to abuse their own legal system. Therefore, the only route available to them was the UN process, which the US can manipulate easily. Ideally, the Americans want me detained in the UK pending extradition to the US, even though they know that an extradition cannot take place. The whole idea would be to incarcerate me for several years and destroy my political career in the process," Faqih recently told the author.

Faqih's account, whilst obviously self-serving, does, however, depict a reasonably accurate picture of events. There is no denying the fact that US foreign policy in the Middle East is practically and psychologically inextricably linked to the survival of the House of Saud. It follows that any destabilization of the regime undermines American security interests in the region, as presently conceived. While MIRA is a small organization with limited resources, and while its popularity may be overstated by Faqih, there is no doubt that the threat it poses is taken extremely seriously by the Saudis.

As for the terrorist designation, it not only seems unfair and shoddy but also implicates the UK government in terrorism - or at least turning a blind eye to it. After all, Faqih has been living openly in the UK for nearly 11 years and has not once been questioned by the authorities for anything. Moreover, the designation may have in fact completely missed the point. After all, Faqih and MIRA are arguably allies in the fight against terrorism. MIRA explicitly renounces violence and Faqih contends that by promoting civil disobedience the organization is eclipsing the uncompromising message of the jihadis. "We offer real hope for political change and this undermines the jihadis' position. We are not only peaceful but effective as well," Faqih says, alluding to al-Qaeda's ineffective strategy in the kingdom. Furthermore, the insights on terrorism and al-Qaeda that Faqih has provided to researchers and journalists has proven invaluable.

The central importance of Saudi Arabia to the West in general and the US in particular is beyond doubt. Present US policy is geared toward the survival of the House of Saud, irrespective of the wider political, security and geostrategic costs. The short-sightedness of this policy is all too obvious, and US policy-makers may well be advised to review the disasters that followed America's over-reliance on the former Shah of Iran. While talk of an imminent demise of the House of Saud may be exaggerated, the US should still consider revising its position toward Saudi reformers.

Note
[1] The Security Council's 1267 Committee reports on al-Qaeda and Afghanistan's ousted Taliban leaders. It was established in 1999 under resolution 1267 and strengthened after the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States. The committee has compiled a list of individuals and organizations for which all 191 UN member nations are obliged to freeze assets, block travel and prevent the sale of arms and military equipment. To date, the US has designated close to 400 individuals and entities as terrorists or their financiers or facilitators since September 2001. A US Treasury statement says that the global community had so far frozen over US$144 million in terrorist-related assets.

Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed here are his own.

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