|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  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
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
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
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
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
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.
 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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