Holy Squabbles In Saudi Arabia Give Critics Voice

The condemnation left little doubt: Saudi Arabia's supreme Islamic authorities ruled that last week's bomb attack on US troops was "a criminal act prohibited by Islam."

The government-backed religious leaders invoked the Prophet Muhammad's words: "A person who kills an ally will not smell the fragrance of Paradise."

But extremists opposed to the Saudi regime preach a different Islamic line: Muslims should violently expel American and other Western "infidel" troops who operate from the land that shelters the sacred sites of their Prophet.

In a nation where the monarchy rules with big-brother authority, public political debate is often confined to theological jousts over how to interpret the Koran.

What's really at issue are distinct visions of Saudia Arabia's future - two visions dueling for control of a land that is the world's biggest oil-producer and the center of worship for Muslims worldwide.

On one side of this subtle but swirling debate are the government-backed authorities of the religious establishment. On the other, a mix of extremist preachers, vocal opponents in exile, and young militants known as "Afghans" who have returned home after fighting in "holy wars" abroad and are restless for change.

Saudis, diplomats, and analysts say they believe that such young militants - often operating in loosely defined cells of three or four - are most likely responsible for the blast at the Al Khobar Towers complex near Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia that left 19 Americans dead.

All sides are using Islamic arguments to justify their actions, including opponents in exile who accuse the ruling family under King Fahd of corruption and anti-Islamic behavior.

But the religious establishment has been quick to reply with a line that supports the regime. "They are countering the Islamic threat with Islam," says Othman al-Rawaf, a political scientist at King Saud University in the capital, Riyadh. "Maybe it's the only way."

Region's volatility strikes home

The level of discourse has only recently escalated into more than a war of words. And Western and Saudi officials describe a convergence of factors that may have led to the first two terrorist bombings in Saudi history: the "Afghans"; the presence of militant Gulf Arabs who once trained in Iran; easy backup from known anti-Western terrorist groups throughout the region; and a first-world infrastructure that enables anyone with a telephone, fax, or postage stamp to issue a death threat or launch a campaign.

The first bomb - which was less than 1/10th the size of the Al Khobar explosion - occurred in Riyadh last November, killing five Americans and two others, and dispelled Saudi illusions of security at home.

Of the four men caught and beheaded for their role in that attack, three were veterans who fought alongside the Mujahideen against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. One of those also reportedly fought in Bosnia with Muslim troops.

There are several thousand "Afghans" in Saudi, some of whom have fought alongside Islamic fighters in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Bosnia, and with Palestinians against Israel.

As many as 15,000 volunteers were originally trained by Saudi Arabia and the United States to help the mujahideen "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan repel the Soviet invasion of the early 1980s. Sent originally as a religious force, they returned with a strong sense of militant Islamic ideology that has grated against more traditional elements of Saudi society.

"If you talk about 'Afghans' now, it is almost taboo," Dr. al-Rawaf said. "This war has really lost its glory - it's a 'holy war' that has lost its holiness."

That tarnished image has been compounded by the impression among moderate Saudis that unrest among the "Afghans" will lead to more attacks. Though it is difficult to gauge the "Afghans'" capacity to disrupt Saudi society, the extreme Islamist preachers they follow call for an end to the monarchy and embrace an even purer form of Islam.

Furthermore, because of America's close relationship with Israel - which is seen here as enabling the Jewish state to act with impunity and military arrogance toward Arab neighbors - the large US presence here presents an inviting target.

Some 40,000 Americans live and work in Saudi Arabia, including 5,000 soldiers who help defend Saudi Arabia from Iraq and Iran.

They keep a low profile, but even the strongly fortified military installations - as evident by the two bomb attacks - are vulnerable.

For extremists who don't subscribe to the same moderate interpretation of the Koran as the supreme council of scholars, violence is easily justified.

"When an 'Afghan' fighter comes home, he is used to having bombs, guns, and killings around him. He does not like what he finds and thinks we are trying to marginalize his religious leaders," said a member of the royal family who asked not to be named.

"If he attacks a Saudi target, there will be a big backlash. But if he hits at the US, he can do it and find some support."

Saudi officials say that part of the militancy may stem from a maturing of elements that were trained by Iran's revolutionary leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, in the 1980s.

According to a Saudi official familiar with intelligence reports at the time, some 2,000 to 3,000 Gulf Arabs are believed to have been trained by Iran's Islamic regime to undermine pro-Western Gulf states. Two-thirds of this group are reportedly Saudis.

Explosives seized at border

A recent clue to Iran's involvement may have come last March, when Saudi officials intercepted a car packed with 84 pounds of explosives, including semtex and C4 - an explosive used by the US Army - as well as more than 100 yards of detonation cord.

The car originated from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a stronghold of the Iran-backed Hizbullah militia.

Aware that border police can never stop all illegal traffic, FBI and Saudi investigators are now searching for any link between the 3,000 pounds of explosives used in last week's blast and the March border seizures.

In a region thick with state sponsors of terrorism and sophisticated Islamic and anti-Western groups that have carried out many violent attacks in the past, the list of possible outside conspirators is quite lengthy.

But for many Saudi moderates, the bombings are a sign of weakness and desperation among extremists.

They point as an example to the tepid popular response in late 1994, when two top militant preachers and about 400 senior Islamists were arrested by Saudi authorities. The reaction on the streets was nil. Saudi intelligence services are reportedly also trying to infiltrate the militant cells to prevent further attacks, in line with the ruling of Saudi Arabia's top Islamic scholars that killing anyone for political or religious reason - as at the Al Khobar complex - is a crime.

"Islam and Muslims have nothing to do with this criminal act," the scholars said.

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