Why the Saudis deported Abu Jundal

The Saudi govt seems to have developed a significant mistrust of the radical elements among the Salafis

Written by Muzamil Jaleel | Published: July 13, 2012 3:33 am

The Saudi govt seems to have developed a significant mistrust of the radical elements among the Salafis

In A recent interview to the Karachi-based Ummat,Hafiz Saeed described the two years he spent at King Saud University in Riyadh as the “turning point” in his life. He described the “deep impression” left on him by Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baaz,the then Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia,who had mentored Osama bin Laden as well. “If I had not met him (Sheikh Bin Baaz),perhaps the idea of setting up Jama’at-ud-Da’wah would not have come to me,’’ he recalled. “In fact,Sheikh Bin Baaz had set up an institution… to preach Islam across the world. I was so influenced by this institution that I decided to set up a similar institution in Pakistan. Thus,in 1985,I laid the foundation of Jama’at-ud-Da’wah.”

Over the years,Saeed’s group has received support from Saudi Arabia,especially because of his Salafi credentials and strong links to the kingdom’s powerful Salafi clergy. Since the beginning of militancy in Kashmir,top militant commanders have travelled freely to Saudi on pilgrimage,held important meetings and raised funds. The Saudi government’s Kashmir stance hasn’t been proactive,but the balance has tilted towards Islamabad.

Two recent incidents involving Indians in Saudi suggest this might be changing. On May 13,Fasih Mehmood,an engineer from Bihar,was picked up by Saudi security personnel — allegedly accompanied by Indian officials — from his home in Jubail. In the last week of May,a Red Corner Notice was issued,alleging his involvement in anti-national activities.

Syed Zabiuddin Ansari,suspected to be a key player behind 26/11,was arrested by the Saudis last summer. Though they agreed to deport him only after they were convinced of his identity and nationality,handing over Ansari is in itself a gamechanging step. Even if Riyadh continues to dodge New Delhi’s requests to arrest Pakistani nationals wanted in terror cases in India,Ansari’s deportation is likely to act as a deterrence to the suspects’ entry into the kingdom.

The change in Saudi policy is significant not only because of Riyadh’s strong,multi-layered relationship with Islamabad,but also because of the strong Salafi connections of the Jama’at and Lashkar-e-Toiba. There is enough evidence to suggest that Riyadh is acting systematically against the presence,on its territory,of people involved directly or indirectly in militant activity anywhere in the world. The Saudi government seems to have developed a significant mistrust of the radical elements among the Salafis. The Arab Spring has engendered a general wariness about outsiders involved in political struggles and militant movements.

When a senior Saudi official visited New Delhi in the fall of 2010 to attend a conference,he met with Salafi leaders from Kashmir and asked them to restrict their activities to the “promotion of knowledge only”. The change in the Saudi attitude was palpable,a senior Kashmiri leader said.

Sources said that the Saudis were perturbed by the assassination of the Jamiat-e-Ahle-Hadees chief Moulana Showkat Ahmad Shah in Kashmir on April 8 last year. Salafi ranks in Kashmir had swollen under Shah’s leadership,and the reason he was targeted by radical elements was the perception that he disallowed the use of the party platform for militancy. In a rare case,Lashkar,after initially blaming Indian agencies,probed the murder and concluded that the “killer was one among us”, and promised to take action.

Ansari’s arrest in Saudi Arabia in May 2011 followed the assassination of Shah,and there is every likelihood that the murder contributed to the Saudi decision to go after the alleged Lashkar operative. Shah’s assassination was condemned by Salafis in South Asia,and the Lashkar was under pressure to come clean. The Imam of Ka’aba (Grand Mosque in Mecca) Abdul Rahman Ibn Abdul Aziz as-Sudais expressed deep sorrow over the assassination,and a gayabana nimaz-e jinaza (funeral prayer in absentia) was held at the Grand Mosque. In a bid to distance himself from Shah’s assassination,Hafiz Saeed too led a gaybana jinaza for Shah in Islamabad.

After 9/11 and the American intervention in Afghanistan,Lashkar refused to send fighters to join the war,claiming its interest was limited to Kashmir. Apart from the arrest of Abu Zubaydah,suspected to be involved in the 1998 attack on the US embassies in Africa,from a Lashkar safehouse in Faisalabad,Pakistan,there was no evidence of the group’s involvement in any anti-Western operation. Cases like that of the French convert Willie Brigitte,arrested in Australia,who had allegedly received arms training at a Lashkar camp,were few and isolated.

Around 2003,Lashkar’s relationship with al-Qaeda was seen as “frosty”. Evidence of cold vibes between top Lashkar commanders and the commander of al-Qaeda’s 303 Brigade can be found in David Coleman Headley’s interrogation by the National Investigation Agency. The sophistication and precision of the 26/11 attacks,however,raised Lashkar’s profile,and the Americans started comparing Lashkar with al-Qaeda. Lashkar began to feature regularly in Washington’s security talks with Islamabad,and the Americans began to prod the Saudis to help.

The formation of Difa-e-Pakistan Council,a conglomerate of 40 radical and religious organisations led by Hafiz Saeed and Samiul Haq in December last year to campaign against allowing passage to NATO supplies and to resist drone attacks inside Pakistan,led to a sharpening of US mood. In April 2012,the US offered a $10 million bounty for Saeed. Though Washington didn’t pursue the hunt for Saeed,the announcement of the bounty was part of a larger narrative.

The Salafis’ connection to the royal family of Saudi Arabia goes back to the 1744 pact between Muhammad bin Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab that led to the formation of the first Saudi state. The pact has survived and the Salafi school of thought continues to instruct the Saudi government. The Al ash-Sheikh,descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab,are a respected religious clan in the kingdom. And Saudis have helped spread Salafi thought and movements across the world.

The rise of al-Qaeda,however,hurt this campaign badly. The blurring of the line between Salafis and the people whom the French scholar Gilles Kepel calls “Jihadist Salafis” has meant that legitimate funding of Salafi institutions — both educational and charitable — has come under increased scrutiny.

The foundations for the new cooperation between Riyadh and New Delhi were laid when King Abdullah came to India in 2006,the first such visit in 51 years,followed by the visits of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defence Minister A.K. Antony to Riyadh recently. Bilateral engagements at the top were followed by closer contact on the security front. At the same time,India’s ties with Iran have entered awkward terrain after the US sanctions on Tehran and the attack on the Israeli diplomat in Delhi,where the Delhi police claimed the role of Iranian operatives. The growing warmth between Riyadh and New Delhi has this,as well as the Saudi-Iranian chasm,as a backdrop.

muzamil.jaleel@expressindia.com

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