Saudis Confront Extremists With Convert's Passion

Times Staff Writer

The sermon poured from the mosque in this sleepy oasis of farms and factories, carrying over the rooftops and palm trees a plea for brotherhood -- and an exhortation to help the ruling family restore the peace.

"Destruction will fall upon this nation if the faithful kill the faithful for no reason," the imam intoned from the Al Rajkhi mosque. "We must all help uphold security for this great country. Don't let rivers of blood flow on the holy ground in the land of the prophet."

In a town famous for conservative Islam, fiery political preaching and jihad fervor, the sermon was a sign of dangerous times -- and a threatened theocracy.

The rulers of the House of Saud don't like to say so, but Saudi Arabia is at war with itself. Two attacks have slaughtered scores of people in the capital, Riyadh, and a handful of plots to strike other Saudi towns, including the sacred city of Mecca, have been narrowly foiled in recent months.

The Nov. 8 suicide bombing that killed 20 people in Riyadh was a watershed for this rattled kingdom not only because it appeared to target Arabs and Muslims but because it destroyed any illusion that the menace is under control. Saudis and foreign diplomats now talk about fighting "ghosts."

"People are confused. Until now they were able to categorize what this is about and put it into a box. They can't do that anymore," a Western official here said. "I think -- I hope -- what we've been saying to them is starting to come home: There really has been a permissive environment for people like this to operate."

On the dusty, marble steps of the Buraydah mosque, a young man named Abdellah undercut the sermon. "We are governed by religion, nothing else is governing us. Even those in power who think they can govern us, they cannot," the 21-year-old theology student said.

Stroking his wispy beard, Abdellah spoke about why he might "pack the car with explosives."

"They say there's freedom of speech -- as long as it doesn't shake the throne," he said. "I want the West to understand that all Muslims have a bond with those who have done this ugly act. We won't betray them or throw them to the wolves."

Some Saudis say they were too slow to recognize extremism fermenting among the people. No more. Radicals will meet the "rifle and sword," the interior minister pledged after the deadly strike.

It's been six months since Saudi Arabia's harsh awakening -- the massive suicide bombing of an American compound in Riyadh tore apart the kingdom's sense of invulnerability in May.

Since then, Saudi forces have rounded up as many as 600 suspects and shot dead more than a dozen in firefights. Weapons caches -- reportedly ranging from booby-trapped Korans to rockets -- have been seized, and terror cells have been uncovered in far-flung corners of this sprawling nation.

Sources here say it's not clear who's behind the attacks or why the violence has suddenly surged. Some argue that "jihad cells" is a more accurate descriptor than "Al Qaeda."

Authorities say they don't have a clear idea of how sturdy the jihad network has grown in the kingdom. Another Western diplomat said there were "at least numerous cells."

Despair festers in slums whose growth tells the story of Saudi Arabia's gnawing economic woes and rising unemployment. "We don't really know how deep the stream goes here," the Western diplomat said. But, he added, "I don't think Al Qaeda has to worry about running out of recruits here."

The struggle has forced rulers and scholars to confront the relationship between the kingdom's ultraconservative brand of Islam and the burst of violence. They are quick to distinguish between the religious conservatism braided into Saudi culture and the blood-tinged fanaticism of the extremist cells.

"It's really hard for Saudis to be critical of extremists, because it's hard to distinguish between criticizing the extremists and criticizing the religion itself," said Sulaiman Hattlan, a Saudi newspaper columnist.

Islamic clerics help interrogate Saudi detainees, one Western official said. The scholars coax the suspects into theological debates and dismiss radical teachings as heresy.

Many Saudis regard radicals as victims of brainwashing or young men misguided by the folkloric appeal of holy war. Moderates view the fight against extremism as a battle to preserve the kingdom's collective soul.

Among the powerful men who hold the kingdom in their hands, a consensus has taken hold -- it isn't enough to uncover gun stashes and jail militants.

Besides the security battles, Saudi Arabia has embarked on something approaching a nationwide ideological cleansing. Saudi officials issued new textbooks this fall to scrub complaints about non-Muslims from the school curriculum and have fired or disciplined hundreds of Islamic preachers for incendiary sermons.

"It's like the chicken and egg," said a Saudi official. "They say the populace is fundamentalist, and that's why the government can't do anything about it. Others say our schools and government are supporting [fundamentalism]. Most likely both are correct."

Conservative Muslims chafe at the changes and seethe about the police sweeps that have rounded up clerics.

Among some fundamentalist Saudis, the government's attempts to quash jihad have the ring of hypocrisy. They say it was the Saudi government that, arm in arm with the United States, introduced the notion of international holy war by funding and encouraging Muslim youths to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

They came home flush with triumph. But the Cold War ended, and many of Saudi Arabia's "Arab Afghans," as they came to be disparagingly known, were arrested, spied on and treated as unwanted rebels who posed a potential threat to the royal family.

"The government didn't just betray me," said Salem, a 43-year-old sheik who declined to give his last name. He was 26 when he volunteered to fight in the mountains of Afghanistan's Kunar province. "The government betrayed herself."

In a public show of solidarity, Saudi rulers have held up the recent bombings as common ground between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia -- proof that they, too, have been victimized.

"Now everybody realizes we are a target," Prince Abdullah ibn Faisal ibn Turki said. "We have always been a target."

On top of the violence and the pressure to rethink its religious worldview, Saudi Arabia has been ruffled by calls for democracy. Scores of demonstrators are sitting in jail after staging a rare political protest in Riyadh last month, and activists have petitioned the government demanding democratic reform.

Some members of the immense and fractious ruling family are pushing hard for change. Few believe the status quo can endure. Indeed, progress could be a matter of survival.

Planned municipal elections will allow men -- but probably not women -- to vote for half of their municipal council members. Liberal critics call such reforms too little and too slow.

"The most dangerous things could happen here politically and socially," a leading opposition figure warned. "The violence will have even more support if the political reform doesn't speed up."

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