Bin Laden urges peaceful overthrow of Saudi monarchy
December 16, 2004
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Osama bin Laden on Thursday declared a new phase in his campaign to topple the Saudi monarchy, urging followers to mount a peaceful revolution while also calling on Muslims not to miss a “golden and unique opportunity” to kill Americans in Iraq.
Bin Laden’s call for a Saudi uprising, in a lengthy audiotape released over the Internet, represented an apparent change in tactics for the al-Qaida leader, a Saudi exile, in advocating popular change. But bin Laden added that should such tactics fail, Saudis would have no choice but to resort to a violent attack on the ruling family to “purge the Arabian Peninsula.”
The unusually long speech from the most wanted fugitive – who called Afghanistan his home – represented the latest manifesto in a stepped-up media campaign by bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, during the past year. It included an up-to-date reference, to a Dec. 6 attack on the U.S. Consulate in the Saudi city of Jiddah.
On the more than hour-long tape, which U.S. intelligence officials said they believed to be authentic, bin Laden lays out a detailed political case for overthrowing the Saudi rulers. It came on the same day as a leading Saudi dissident group called for protesters to take to the streets inside the kingdom. Hundreds of Saudi security personnel and riot police blockaded streets in the country’s two largest cities to preempt protests, which failed to materialize.
Al-Qaida-allied groups have carried out a series of car bombings, beheadings and other attacks on foreign targets and the Saudi government since May 2003, killing more than 80 people in the oil-rich kingdom. Bin Laden has called repeatedly for the royal family’s ouster since it exiled him in the mid-1990s.
The new tape repeats bin Laden’s demand for the Saudi government’s overthrow but urges Saudis to do so in the manner of nonviolent revolutions elsewhere. To head off a bloody “armed uprising” by disaffected youth, bin Laden said, the Saudi elite must reform the kingdom now. Events, he warned, according to a U.S. government translation of the tape, are heading “with unusual speed toward an explosion.”
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“Matters have exceeded all bounds,” bin Laden said, “and when the people move to ask for their rights, security agencies cannot stop them.”
In the Dec. 6 attack in Jiddah, five gunmen stormed the U.S. Consulate and held employees hostage during a three-hour standoff with Saudi security forces. Five consulate employees were killed, none of them American, but the incident showed that even one of the most heavily guarded diplomatic installations in the kingdom was vulnerable. Four of the attackers were killed; the fifth was injured and captured.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the voice on the recording “appears to be” that of bin Laden. “He’s a criminal, he’s a terrorist, he’s a murderer and we’re going to continue to hunt for him,” Powell said.
The number of terrorism incidents in the region has increased since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year. Late Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait warned that it had “credible information that terrorist groups are developing near-term plans for attacks” in the country.
On the tape, bin Laden cheered on the insurgency in Iraq, calling the U.S. occupation the “largest stealing operation” in history and urging Muslims not to miss the chance for “targeting Americans” there. In particular, he urged targeting of oil fields in Iraq and the Persian Gulf to disrupt U.S. access to “cheap oil.”
Bin Laden also made clear on the tape, with praise for the attack on the American consulate, that he was avidly following current events from his hideout. “It’s definitely the fastest turnaround of a bin Laden message we can identify,” said Paul Eedle, a London-based expert on use of the Internet by Islamic extremist groups. The statement was bin Laden’s first since a videotape released just before the U.S. presidential election.
In the lengthy speech, he ranges widely from the fate of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed in 1989, to alleged American involvement in Saudi religious education and the flaws of current leaders in Jordan and Morocco. “He’s a policy wonk,” said Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst and author of “Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden.”
The Saudi government did not respond directly to bin Laden’s speech, but it did put on a show of force after the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia promised to organize widespread demonstrations Thursday in Riyadh, the capital, and Jiddah, a port city. Taking part would be risky behavior in a country where public protests of any kind are banned and criticism of the royal family is illegal.
The threat prompted the Saudi government to shut down large sections of the two cities during the day as heavily armed security forces set up checkpoints and helicopters buzzed overhead. Some advocates of reform here said bin Laden may have timed the tape’s release to coincide with the planned protest.
“It was just talk,” Brig. Gen. Mansour Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, said of the protests that didn’t happen. “It was somebody outside the country presuming they had support somehow inside the kingdom.”
Turki said in an interview that there was no indication a protest was planned, but police assembled several buses and police vans just in case mass arrests were necessary. They also checked identity cards of pedestrians and motorists in the area, effectively preventing any small groups from congregating. “We always take things seriously,” he said. “If something is illegal, it is illegal and the police need to act.”
The opposition group that had called for the protests successfully organized a rare anti-government demonstration in October 2003 in Riyadh and other cities. More than 100 people were arrested. The group’s leader is Saad Fagih, an exiled physician who operates a Web site and radio show from London that call for the establishment of an Islamic theocracy.
Abdulaziz Qassim, a former religious judge who is a well-known political moderate in Riyadh, said there was pent-up desire for reform in Saudi Arabia, though few here would support Fagih’s call for an end to the monarchy.
“If people respond to such radical invitations, they think the stability of the state itself will be endangered,” he said in an interview this week.
He also warned that the stifling of political thought would backfire. “What we fear is that the terrorism and violence will be the only way for expressing ideas and concepts,” he said. “There are no other channels for people to turn to.”
Glasser reported from Washington. Staff writer Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.