November 13, 2006 | The Weekly Standard

Maqdisi’s Minions

Authored by Dan Wilson

On November 13, 1995, two explosions ripped through an American-run training center in the heart of Riyadh, killing five American military advisors and wounding nearly sixty others. It was al Qaeda's first coordinated attack in Saudi Arabia — just nine months before Osama bin Laden declared war on America. The day after, American and Saudi officials were stunned: this was the first attack against the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia in half a century. But weeks passed without an official report from the Saudi government, and the attack was quickly forgotten. How did we ignore this crucial event?

The terrorists were Sunni Muslims in their 20s who grew up in the Saudi capital and had extensive combat experience in Afghanistan and Bosnia. They had faxed their demands early in the spring to the American embassy in Riyadh and several Western news organizations; according to published reports, they wanted American and British troops expelled by the end of June. If the “crusader forces” stayed beyond the June 28 deadline, the terrorists promised deadly reprisals.

Within six months, the plotters were rounded up and executed by Saudi security forces. During their confessions on state-run television, four Saudis described how they met in Riyadh and began planning the operation in 1994; contacted Islamic army operatives linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network; smuggled explosives across the border from Saadah, one of Yemen's thriving arms markets; faxed their demands to the American embassy in Riyadh; and timed a 220-pound bomb to go off in a pickup truck parked outside the training mission.

Authorities discovered that the terrorists were influenced by a popular opposition figure named Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, whose writings have inspired dozens of terror plots in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United States. Abd al-Aziz al-Mi'thim, who led the group, named Maqdisi as his principal influence:

We read and exchanged books that declared the rulers of the Arab countries and the rulers of this country as unbelievers, such as the book called Clear Evidence on the Infidel Nature of the Saudi State . . . written by Abu Muhammad Isam al-Maqdisi. When I read this book . . . I was eager to pay a visit to Abu Muhammad Isam al-Maqdisi and, indeed, I visited him on many occasions in Jordan and was affected by his ideas, publications and books that declare that leaders of Arab states and the government and the body of senior ulema of this country Saudi Arabia are unbelievers.

Maqdisi, a preacher from the Salafi branch of Sunni Islam, began writing and teaching in the early 1980s and quickly became one of the movement's leading intellectual lights. He was tracked down and arrested by Jordanian spymasters in 1994, and has spent most of his writing career in and out of prison. During his time in Jordan's Swaqa prison, he published and distributed his essays with the help of a close friend, Omar Uthman Abu Omar, a Jordanian-born Palestinian known as Abu Qatada. Abu Qatada traveled from Kuwait to Afghanistan with Maqdisi, and then settled in London where he continued to preach and eventually became the spiritual leader of al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, al Qaeda's branch in Europe.

Maqdisi's most important treatise, Clear Evidence of the Infidel Nature of the Saudi State, insisted that jihad be conducted offensively against the enemies of Islam–especially against those “near enemies” ruling in Riyadh, Amman, and other major Muslim capitals. He attacked the kingdom's establishment clerics, who allowed the government to co-opt and control their message. The book was so violent that even Osama bin Laden refused to distribute it.

Today, Maqdisi's popularity among Saudi youth is soaring. These are just a few examples:

* The London daily Asharq Alawsat reported in 2005 that Abdulaziz Muqrin was influenced by Maqdisi. Muqrin led an underground network in Saudi Arabia known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which violently opposed the Saudi regime. He was gunned down by security forces in 2004.

* In a series of three-hour interviews with 639 Saudi prisoners conducted in 2004, the Interior Ministry discovered that the most influential figure in the prison population was not Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national, but Maqdisi. To counter his teachings, the government deployed former radical clerics inside the country's prisons to “reeducate” hardened believers.

The 9/11 Commission Report singled out November 13 as a “major benchmark in the evolving Islamist threat to the United States.” Authorities either hadn't read or didn't appreciate Maqdisi's appeal. How many more Maqdisis are out there, and how much–or, more to the point, how little–do we know about them?

Dan Wilson is communications coordinator at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.