Saudi calls for jihad against US 'crusader'

Iraq is not the only source of concern for America in the Gulf, reports Robert Fisk
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To the shock of many of his supporters, the Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden has called for a "holy war" against the US inside Saudi Arabia and for "swift and light forces working in complete secrecy" to strike against what he calls the "crusader" army in the Gulf states.

Parts of the original statement from Mr Bin Laden, the wealthy leader of hundreds of Arab fighters who has returned to live in Afghanistan, where he once fought Soviet troops, were published in Saturday's London edition of Al-Quds al-Arabi but without proof of authenticity.

However, the Independent has confirmed Mr Bin Laden, accused by the US State Department of being "one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world today", did write the call for jihad (holy war) from Afghanistan on 22 August.

He said "the presence of the American crusader forces in the Muslim Gulf states ... is the greatest danger and the largest harm which threatens the world's biggest oil reserve ... pushing out this American occupying enemy is the most important duty after the duty of belief in God." He urged the Saudi armed forces to stand aside from the struggle against the Americans, who have about 5,000 military personnel in Saudi Arabia, alongside smaller British and French contingents.

For Mr Bin Laden's supporters among the dissident Saudi "Advice and Reformation Committee" outside Afghanistan, his call was a profound surprise. "We do not think this is the right moment to start a conflict with the (Saudi) regime," one told the Independent yesterday. "Osama has made a detailed, 12-page statement, a major plan to explain the declaration of jihad, a whole project. But we thought we were all agreed that we should try to keep the situation under control in the country, to control the people and not let things get out of hand. I was expecting the concept of jihad in Saudi Arabia to come up a long time ago - but not from us. Saying we have an enemy is one thing but declaring war is something else."

Why Mr Bin Laden chose this moment to make his most extreme remarks about the US presence in the Gulf is unclear. It comes, however, when organisers of the "Rally for Islamic Revival" are planning a major conference of Islamist groups in London on Sunday at which, say some reports, will be shown a videotaped statement from Mr Bin Laden (the Government has told him he will not be allowed in), an interview with Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the Egyptian cleric jailed for alleged involvement in a planned New York bombing, and a phone interview with Ali Belhadj, one of the jailed leaders of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, which was banned when it was about to win a second round of elections in 1992.

Mr Bin Laden's colleagues dismiss the report of a videotape message and are mystified by the claim that Sheikh Omar would be able to make a videotape in his US prison. Other Islamist groups express astonishment at the idea that Belhadj, under the constant eye of the Algerian security services, would be able to participate in an interview.

The London conference has nevertheless provoked predictable anger among Arab leaders who claim it will encourage "terrorists" in their own countries. President Hosni Mubarak has complained to Britain that it "will not help the international struggle against terrorism". Algeria's Foreign Ministry has complained that "the commanders, instigators, theoreticians, financiers and zealots of international terrorism" will be taking part.

Up to 80,000 people have died in Algeria's four-year war, in which "Islamists" and death- squads have murdered thousands of innocent civilians, by shooting and throat-cutting. Since 1992, more than 1,000 people have been killed in Egypt, mostly policemen and "Islamists" but also foreign tourists, businessmen and at least one US intelligence agent.