by Mansour Alnogaidan
In September 1994, Saudi Arabia arrested dozens of Islamists on charges of incitement. Three months later, the late Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, then the Interior Minister, was on his way out of the Al-Jawhara mosque in Jeddah after Friday prayers, surrounded by members of his entourage. A 22-year-old man named Salem called out to him, “O Nayef, fear Allah and release the clerics.” The prince frowned at Salem and left — but subsequently had his entourage invite the young man to visit with him at the palace. Seated with Salem at his resplendent court, Prince Nayef said, “Now tell me all you need to say.” Salem, perhaps a bit awed, replied, “I’ve already said all I have to say.” The prince clasped Salem’s hands. “You were bolder at the mosque in front of the crowd,” he said.
Nayef went on to respond to Salem’s comment at the mosque. “I am a soldier for this country,” he said. “I did not order their arrest; the King did following a fatwa from the senior scholars, and if his majesty orders their release this moment I will have to obey.” Salem dropped his jaw. The prince calmed him and asked if he needed anything. “No, thank you,” Salem replied. “If you have not decided to arrest me, may I leave?” “But why would I arrest you?” asked the prince — then invited him to lunch. Salem asked to be excused and thanked the prince for his hospitality.
I know this story having met with Salem three years later, in 1997. He recalled to me as follows: “The prince walked with me to the palace gate. My father had arrived after hearing about what happened from a friend of mine who was at the mosque. When my father saw the prince, he ignored me and went to greet him. The prince then turned to me and said: ‘I need to have a word with your father.’ They spoke for 20 minutes, and my father never told me a word of this conversation. But he did not rebuke me in any way for what I’d told the prince.”
Less than a year later, Salem sent a letter to Saudi Arabia’s mufti, the late Abdul Aziz bin Baz, declaring that he held Bin Baz accountable for what the young man believed was “a deviation from Sharia and persecution of good men.” The letter received no response.
After the November 1995 terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, security officers arrested Salem. His name had come up repeatedly in the confessions of several suspects, each referring to his staunch ties to various Takfiri jihadists in the kingdom.
In light of Salem’s wrongheadedness, it was striking how respectfully he was treated by authority figures in his life. His father, a respected person with high status among his tribe, admired him. The highest ranking security official in the kingdom responded to his bellicose manner of speaking with warmth and hospitality. He was never left wanting, let alone mistreated. Yet on two occasions, as police eventually learned, he played a supporting role in terrorist acts targeting his own country.
People are motivated to wage acts of terrorism by a range of deep, at-times conflicting motives. One of them may be a hope, instilled either by peers or more distant voices of exhortation, to revive an ancient glory that faded before the advent of modern states. In my country, many young people have been schooled in a misleading historical narration of raids and tribal vengeance. Their ingrained ignorance has been weaponized in the name of “jihad.” Induced to perceive criminal anarchism as a virtue, they go on to torture the living on behalf of a conjured distortion of the past.