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Saudi Dissident Feels Comfortable in Britain

Exile is called a terrorist by the U.S., but says he finds that London respects his opinions.

July 12, 2005|Ken Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The Bush administration has labeled Dr. Saad Faqih a terrorist and supporter of Osama bin Laden.

The Saudi government accuses him of involvement in an alleged plot to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah.

But Faqih, a fierce opponent of the Saudi royal family who fled the kingdom in 1994, has thus far had few troubles with the authorities in Britain, his adopted home.

He openly operates an organization here that calls for the nonviolent overthrow of the Saudi regime, regularly speaks with reporters and is the host of a radio program that is beamed into the kingdom. He has even offered advice to the British government on how to confront radical Islam.

Faqih denies that he supports Al Qaeda or terrorism, but he says attacks such as the one that rocked London last week are an inevitable response to Western foreign policy, especially the invasion of Iraq.

American and Saudi accusations against him are purely political, Faqih says, a response to his attempts to mobilize opposition to the Saudi regime, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. He said the British government has not questioned him about the charges.

"Fortunately, the British ... are not emotional," said Faqih, who spoke by phone from a location outside London, where he was spending the weekend with his family. "They don't support us politically, but they respect [our opinions]."

Britain, with its tradition of tolerance and civil liberties, has granted sanctuary to dissidents from across the globe. Its courts have repeatedly refused to extradite terrorism suspects to their native countries if they could face the death penalty, which has been abolished here.

While advocates defend Britain's policies as the essence of an open society, its actions have enraged some Middle Eastern and Western governments that believe the British have been naive in allowing extremists to take root and flourish on British soil.

The case of Faqih, 48, is precisely the type that sparks controversy. A prominent surgeon in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, when he began calling for political change in the country in the late 1980s, he was jailed by the government in 1993, two years after he joined a fledgling reform movement.

He was released after four weeks, and the following year he and his family left for London. They took up residence in a northern section of the city, home to numerous Muslim political exiles.

Faqih soon founded the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, which calls for the nonviolent overthrow of the Saudi regime. He calls for its replacement with an Islamic-inspired government, but said it should be democratic and respectful of human and civil rights.

He describes the royal family as corrupt and a lackey of the United States, which he said wants to dominate the Middle East and control the region's oil resources.

The U.S. government has no interest in democracy in Saudi Arabia, Faqih says. "That will give them trouble because power-sharing means consultation of the people, and the people will put their own interests before foreign interests," he said. Faqih's nightly radio show has a wide audience in Saudi Arabia.

Mahan Abedin, who edits a newsletter about terrorism, said the show's success had earned Faqih the intense enmity of the Saudi government. "He has become the leading Saudi dissident, not just in London but anywhere," Abedin said. "There is no one of higher stature."

Saudi government officials say Faqih is the real enemy of democracy. They accuse him of encouraging terrorist attacks in the kingdom and last year said he had discussed a hit job on Abdullah with a Libyan intelligence officer.

The U.S. government has also attacked Faqih. Last year, it added him to its official list of foreign terrorists, saying in a Dec. 21 statement that he had "provided material support" to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. It said that extremists "utilize a website controlled by Faqih

U.S. prosecutors charged during a 2001 trial that Fawwaz had played a role in the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The prosecutors also alleged that Faqih paid for a satellite phone of Fawwaz's that was used during the attacks.

Faqih does not dispute that he was friendly with Fawwaz, but he vigorously denies ever having bought him a satellite phone.

He said he did not support Al Qaeda or terrorist acts committed by the group, and said he had never done so during years of political activism.

"I challenge them [the U.S. government] to produce a single evidence of a verbal or practical support," he said.

At the same time, Faqih doesn't mince words in attacking American foreign policy, which he said provoked the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent terrorism by Al Qaeda. He cited the invasion of Iraq and continued American support of Israel as having inflamed Muslim opinion against the U.S. government.

"Those reasons for hatred of the United States have not been reduced after Sept. 11. They have been augmented hugely by the campaign against terrorism," he said.

Abedin said he had seen no concrete evidence linking Faqih to terrorism: "His organization is explicitly peaceful, and he has been highly critical of jihadists in Saudi Arabia, saying that violence is counterproductive."

Faqih said he didn't have any fears that the British government would take action against him in the aftermath of last week's bombings, no matter how much pressure is exerted by the U.S. and Saudi governments.

He said Britain's legal and intelligence systems were fair.

"[They] don't frame people," he said.

Faqih said the Bush administration should look to people like him as "a moderate, peaceful alternative" to the Saudi regime.

But he said he didn't expect a friendly call from the American government any time soon.

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