ACCORDING TO A NEWLY-RELEASED DOCUMENT from the former Iraqi regime, during a February 1995 meeting with members of Iraqi intelligence in Sudan, one of bin Laden's first requests was for "the broadcasting of Sheikh Salman al-Ouda [who has influence both in Saudi Arabia and outside as a religious personality] and dedicate a program for them through the station directed inside the country." While bin Laden's desire to see a radical Saudi cleric broadcast on Iraqi TV has been known since the New York Times first reported on the existence of this document in the summer of 2004, the identity of that cleric has not been revealed until now.
Salman al-Ouda, like his better-known colleague Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, has long been known as a leading figure in the world of Islamic extremism. During the Gulf War, the two men were jailed in Saudi Arabia for criticizing the government and calling for an end to the U.S. military presence in the Kingdom. They were released after five years and today, their worldviews seem largely unchanged. In the case of al-Ouda, a growing pattern of evidence seems to indicate that he has continued to support violence against the United States and its allies since his release.
While al-Ouda has long been characterized as a "friend" of Osama bin Laden, federal investigators told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in March 2003 that he and al-Hawali "have direct contact" with Osama bin Laden. In a number of al Qaeda propaganda videos, bin Laden has praised al-Ouda for "enlightening" the Muslim youth as well as for his support of jihadi causes.
In April 2003 following the invasion of Iraq, al-Ouda joined a group of 225 Islamist clerics, scholars, and businessmen--led by al-Hawali--in establishing a new organization that respected Israeli academic Dr. Reuven Paz described as nothing less than "the Supreme Council of Global Jihad."
(It is perhaps worth noting that one of the members of this Supreme Council was Ahmad Abu Laban, one of the chief architects in internationalizing the controversy over the Danish Mohammad cartoons. Other members of the Supreme Council included several Iraq Shiite clerics, defying the conventional wisdom about non-cooperation between Shiites and Sunnis. Paz also noted that two Arab Americans were members: "Dr. Ahmad Sharbinia lecturer in the American Open University in Colorado, of Egyptian origin, and Sheikh Walid Manisi, the Imam of the mosque in that university.")
There is evidence connecting al-Ouda to one of the suspected masterminds of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. In September 2004, El Mundo and Corriere della Sera reported that Rabei Osman Ahmed, a former Egyptian army explosives expert and one of the purported masterminds of the bombings, was quoted in conversations wiretapped by Italian authorities as saying that al-Ouda was "Everything, everything" to him and that "I worked for him [al-Ouda] in Spain. I did really well in that period, in which I earned 2,000 euros ($2,400) a month. There were days I earned 1,000 euros ($1,200)." While whether or not any of the money that al-Ouda sent Ahmed was used to underwrite the Madrid bombings appears unclear at this point, it would seem worthy of further investigation given his other activities.
While al-Ouda joined other Saudi Islamist clerics in condemning attacks in Saudi Arabia in June 2004 (under pressure for the Saudi authorities), such condemnations did not extend to terrorist attacks in Iraq. In November 2004, al-Ouda and 25 other Saudi Islamist scholars called on Iraqis to support the insurgency, issuing a letter which stated "Fighting the occupiers is a duty for all those who are able. It is a jihad to push back the assailants . . . A Muslim must not inflict harm on any resistance man or inform about them. Instead, they should be supported and protected."
Interestingly, in March 2005 al-Ouda's lawyer filed a defamation suit against the Saudi newspaper al-Watan, which had reported that al-Ouda's son, Muaz, had planned to travel to Iraq to fight the United States, but that his father, fearing he would be killed, contacted Assistant Interior Minister for Security Affairs Muhammad ibn Naif and arranged for him to be captured on the Saudi-Iraqi border.
This thumbnail sketch makes it clear that Sheikh Salman al-Ouda is not simply a cleric, but a key part of the Islamist brain trust. Discussions of his sermons being broadcast on Iraqi state TV should be viewed within that context.
Dan Darling is counterterrorism consultant for a Manhattan Institute Center for Policing Terrorism.