in search of al qaeda
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saad al-fagih

A Saudi Arabian dissident living in exile in London, Dr. Saad al-Fagih heads the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia. He tells FRONTLINE that the Saudi regime's claims that they have eradicated Al Qaeda within the kingdom are false and that every Saudi is a potential bin Laden. He also says that sources in Saudi Arabia have told him that the bulk of Al Qaeda leaders are alive and probably hiding in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. This interview was conducted on Aug. 13, 2002.


saad al-fagih photo
saad al-fagih photo

... Where is Al Qaeda on the ground?

That question is very interesting, because Al Qaeda does not work like a hierarchy. Al Qaeda regards itself as a college or university, which have people coming into courses and then graduated. Then they settle down somewhere geographically, somewhere socially, somewhere mentally or intellectually, and somewhere in terms of proficien[cy] and their job or task. And they can decide.

Only if they need bin Laden in terms of logistical support or consultation for specific incidents, they would come back to him. But most of Al Qaeda cells are sort of free to decide their own on many of the issues.

You're confident that bin Laden is alive?

I think there's enough evidence to make us certain that he's alive.

What evidence is there that he is alive?

Well, most of Al Qaeda circles inside the country, according to people who know them very well--

Inside Saudi Arabia?

Inside Saudi Arabia. They are confident or certain that he's alive. People are talking about specific incidents -- that he, for example, sent a letter to his mom. We are showing here that he's alive and well and he's coming up with something very soon. There are more examples of those small stories confirming that he's alive.

What other examples?

For example, a message to the Saudi authorities that, unless they behave well, they will be his next target. We were told by people in the security forces that some of the new detainees who came from Iran, they carried the letter, really from bin Laden himself that, "OK, torture us, do anything to us. But bin Laden wants you to know that you might be the next target."

They carried an actual letter?

Not a written letter. It's a verbal letter.

So a verbal message from their leader, Osama bin Laden, that if they were mistreated or if the Saudis didn't behave correctly, they would be a target?

Every Saudi is a potential bin Laden

Yes. And there was a response by the Saudi authorities, by improving the treatment of those detainees. Interestingly, in the last year, torture is seldom used with those jihadi detains.

After the battles of Tora Bora and Shah-e-kot, Al Qaeda went where? Where did they go?

I'm not an expert on Afghanistan. But people who know the situation say it's very simple to be only few hundred meters away from American troops and you are fully protected. And nobody knows you, where you are. Especially a system in Afghanistan is exploited very successfully by Al Qaeda in order to have full protection.

Explain. How so?

I don't know the details. But there are some types or some people who are still very strong allegiance to Mullah Omar or to jihadi Islam, to the degree that no way they can abandon [the] protection of those Al Qaeda or Mullah Omar and Taliban.

You have your ear to the ground. You have sources in Saudi Arabia and in Pakistan, presumably. You have been told where Al Qaeda went to after the battles?

No. We have not yet been told specifically. The main bulk of, I think, what Western intelligence talking about -- eastern Afghanistan, western Pakistan -- it is not far from the truth. They could well be there -- the main bulk of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda leaders. ... I would not expect bin Laden to leave Afghanistan. If he would leave Afghanistan, he would leave it to a place in the border of Pakistan and keep moving in and out. I would not expect him to leave Afghanistan forever. ...

But the rest have dispersed. They went either back to their countries or they have been arrested or they just vanished in some other country. We are aware that hundreds have come back to the Gulf, to Yemen and to Saudi Arabia.

How are you aware that hundreds have come back to the Gulf?

Well, both the Saudi authorities know about that, and they are aware of people just [returning] from either Iran or Pakistan. Those jihadi [circles] inside Saudi Arabia also talk about big number of people who come back from Pakistan or Afghanistan.

So what have you heard exactly?

Oh, there's no specific story of Mr. So-and-So coming. It just repeats this tip of quite a few people coming from there.

We're talking hundreds of people?

Hundreds. Yes. And quite a few have been arrested, actually. The ones they come in, they would be arrested. They could stay forever, or they could spend a month or could spend few days or a few weeks, according to their real story or according to their influence inside the Saudi society.

How do the escapees from Afghanistan get to Saudi Arabia?

The problem is how to get out from Afghanistan. When you go to Pakistan, it may be still difficult, because of Pakistani intelligence keeps an eye on those people. But when you go to Iran, it's much safer. Iran did arrest quite a few, but it might have kept a blind eye on others.

I think Iran did not want to communicate with America and how to deal with them. It wanted to give them back to their original countries and get rid of the whole headache. But they just go to Pakistan and Iran, and they sort themselves out. In Iran, they feel a little bit safer, because in Pakistan, they are still in big danger.

Many Saudis, even those who are in relief groups or in just simple business coming to Pakistan, were arrested by Pakistanis and sold -- really sold, literally sold -- to the Americans, as if they were members of Al Qaeda. One-third of Guantanamo are prisoners of this sort of people.

So they're not at all Al Qaeda fighters?

Well, the other third is people who joined Al Qaeda after Sept. 11. And one extra third, again, junior Al Qaeda members. But we're not aware of a single Al Qaeda senior, Al Qaeda leader, who is in Guantanamo.

So they escaped to Iran how?

We have no idea. On those details, we have no idea. ...

Then from Iran, how do they go back to Saudi?

The people we spoke to, they say it's from beyond. They just go to one of the Gulf countries, if they are not arrested by the Iranian authorities. Go to one of the Gulf countries, and the country of Saudi Arabia as they are come from Emirates or [Qatar]. They might be questioned what have been they see the passport Iran.

There's no mention of Pakistan, of course. It might ask them, "What are you doing in Iran?" But they would have prepared some answers. If the person is known to the Saudi authorities as a suspicious name, they say they will not held them. He will be arrested and kept in jail for quite awhile. But otherwise, they might get away with it. ...

In our last interview, you described Al Qaeda as primarily a Saudi Arabia phenomenon. What did you mean by that?

Well, if you make a very crude calculation, you will discover that 80 percent of Al Qaeda members come from Saudi Arabia. ...

First of all there is this Islamic [nature] in the whole society. Second, bin Laden himself is a very well-respected person since the 1980s. He's not a sort of polluted figure like Saddam Hussein or a Qaddafi or any other person. Third, there is this huge oppression and prevention of all types of freedoms in the country, so the people can't express themselves by any means. They have to channel their anger. They have to channel their frustration and their resentment by some means. ...

Eighty percent of Al Qaeda is Saudi Arabian. Therefore, many of them have returned home, from what you hear?

What we know is that the people who have joined Al Qaeda after Sept. 11 have either been killed or captured or sent home. Again, the junior members of Al Qaeda who joined after the Kenya, Tanzania bombings -- most of them either dispersed all over the world or come back to Saudi Arabia again, possibly arrested.

Now the original bulk of [Al Qaeda], the senior people or leaders -- I think most of them are safe, if we were to believe the Al Qaeda circles in Saudi Arabia.

Those are your sources, the Al Qaeda circles in Saudi Arabia?

People who are close to Al Qaeda circles.

That's where you get your information?

Yes.

From Al Qaeda circles inside Saudi Arabia?

Well, people close to Al Qaeda circles. Not directly Al Qaeda circle itself. People close to Al Qaeda circle, they insist that most, if not all, apart from one or two, [have not] been killed. Said that all Al Qaeda leaders, or senior members, are safe and well. ...

What's your best guess as to where bin Laden is now?

People who know him and know his mentality and know Al Qaeda strategy, they say he's unlikely to have been away from Afghanistan. If he would be out of Afghanistan, he would be in the border of Pakistan only for a few days and go back. So it will be continuous movement. It's extremely unlikely that he has left to a third country. ...

What's the strength of Al Qaeda inside Saudi Arabia?

In terms of physical presence, we are talking about limited figures. Even they are hundreds or thousands, they are still limited, compared to the population of 15 million or 16 million. But in terms of sympathy and providing a natural cover for Al Qaeda with a natural hatred towards America, and sympathy towards bin Laden -- almost everybody is sympathetic to Al Qaeda and bin Laden. Even the most liberal Saudis are sympathetic to bin Laden, because he is doing something which nobody has done towards America -- including the Arab leaders.

What should Americans think about a country that produces this kind of hatred, this kind of allegiance to Al Qaeda which the United States, American citizens, see as a terrorist organization?

Yes. Well, with different degrees or ratios of emotions, we have the same situation in Egypt and Palestine and Jordan and Syria and Morocco and Algeria. So it's not specific or unique to Saudi Arabia.

But you said that 80 percent of Al Qaeda is Saudi.

In terms of hatred to America, it's not specific to Saudi Arabia. But in terms of the whole phenomena, it's more related to Saudi Arabia. If America wants to think wisely and rationally, the worst thing it should do is to confront the people with their beliefs and traditions.

This tendency by many Americans to talk about Saudi Arabia -- it's in total nation and the government as enemy, or the way Islam is taught as the problem, is evasion from the main problem. The main problem is the American policies are wrong in the Middle East. If America wants to be wise, it should revise its policies; not only regarding Palestine and Iraq, even in Saudi Arabia.

People cannot accept the fact that America is supporting this corrupt despotic regime, and cooperating with it to loot the country's resources. People are very much aware that there has been income of almost like $3 trillion in the last 30 years, and the country is ending up with more than 140 percent of the GNP and national debt.

The national debt is a fortune -- $200 billion. So people are angry with America, not only because Palestine and Iraq. They're angry with America because of Saudi Arabia itself -- this close relation between Al Saud and America.

After 9/11, when we talked to you, you said there is this huge sentiment against America. Every Saudi, whoever he is, if he's in the army, in the National Guard, or any civil servant -- every Saudi is a potential bin Laden candidate; so you can never trust a single Saudi in an airport not to suddenly decide to hit an American airplane. Is that still the case?

If every Saudi is a potential bin Laden, that is still the case. After what Israelis have done on March, the sentiment has even jumped higher. I am aware of people who did not agree with Sept. 11, and they have criticized bin Laden fiercely. After what happened at Palestine in March and April, they said, "We were wrong. Bin Laden was right." ...

It seems that you've said for a long time that Saudi Arabia is very unstable. In fact, you've said that after the bombing campaign, there was going to be drastic revolt inside Saudi Arabia.

Which bombing campaign?

On Afghanistan. You said the people of Saudi Arabia are ready to do something against Americans in Saudi Arabia or the royal family themselves, if the royal family goes ahead and supports a non-Muslim force -- that is, the Americans -- against a Muslim nation like the Taliban. But a revolt didn't happen.

Well, I did not specify the [revolt] as people in the streets. There has been enough expression of this revolt in terms of statements in the media and gatherings around some scholars. But also there has been a foiled attempt to attack Americans or the royal family.

There have been quite a few arrests -- not few, hundreds -- since Sept. 11. The Saudis have admitted one incident that what they claim to be a missile fired at American C1-30. They say that is a failed attempt. The true story was there has been five incidents in five different cities, five or six different cities, of the Al Qaeda leaving pieces of weapons, saying, "We are there. If you go on with your cooperation with America, we want to prove that we can hit."

The Saudis, among the many other stated, they have confiscated eight missiles smuggled from Yemen, with three or four rocket launchers. The people who had been arrested with those missiles have been transferred to Riyadh immediately. That was in around, I think, late February, early March this year.

I think you're saying that Al Qaeda has sort of left weaponry lying around in conspicuous places in Saudi Arabia as a kind of a calling card to say, "Hey, we're here. Watch out." You know, "We're on the attack."

That's what they did. They left pieces of weapons in five or six places. We know of one of them that was in the second security zone around Prince Sultan Base. There are three zones in Prince Sultan Base. The first zone is controlled by Americans. The second zone is controlled by mixed American and Saudi escorts, and the third zone is absolutely Saudi. That was found in the second zone, according to our information inside --

So they had breached the Saudi zone?

Yes. ...

This isn't very impressive. I mean, the government is going to tell me, "Look. Al Qaeda is not strong here. There have not been any real attacks." I mean, so what? They've left a few weapons parts scattered around the country. At best, they're not showing any real strength inside Saudi Arabia. And the government will say, "We're quite secure."

They can say that, but still the message is there: We have breached the security zone. And we have breached there. And we had it in some other places. What is protecting the Saudis is the same reason which have deceived the Americans all the time: that is secrecy. Saudis have deceived the Americans. The Americans needed the 15 hijackers among 19 -- this is cover. They have been deceived for many years. There is a huge element of Al Qaeda presented inside Saudi Arabia. All this claim by Prince Naif, the minister of interior, that Al Qaeda has been eradicated, or the jihad radicals have been eradicated, is not true. ...

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