Controversial preacher Salman Al-Odah, who once referred to Osama bin Laden as “brother,” has influenced young Saudis and Muslims for decades.
Al-Odah capitalizes on his show of piety with softly spoken words, but is criticized for using this approach to incite terror and intolerance.
Born and raised in the Saudi city of Buraidah, he first rose to prominence as a lecturer at the local institute in the 1980s, and then took a sharp turn at the end of the decade to become a voice of the Islamic Awakening (Al-Sahwa) movement.
It was halted in 1994 by the Saudi government as the movement took a more extremist approach to Islam, spreading a terror-related ideology among the region’s youth in opposition to the foreign military presence in the Kingdom during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
For years, as the leader of that movement, Al-Odah and his associates preached anti-Semitic and anti-Western ideas to their followers.
In 1993, a joint commission spearheaded by the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz found Al-Odah’s rhetoric a danger to Saudi society.
Al-Odah was ordered to attend a rehabilitation session, and was banned from conducting sermons and lectures.
But he disregarded the order, continued preaching disdain for the presence of American soldiers, and was sentenced in 1994 to five years in prison.
The charges included spreading hate rhetoric that jeopardized the sanctity and religious stability of Saudi society.
After his release from prison in 1999, Al-Odah came across as a reformed man, suggesting on talk shows that he had changed paths from his previous conservative and highly controversial views.
His first test came after the 9/11 attacks. His critics argue he averted condemning them clearly, however on the sixth anniversary, he said on a TV show: “My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilled? How many innocent people, children, elderly and women have been killed … in the name of Al-Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God Almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands or millions of victims on your back?”
While Al-Odah once deemed watching television evil, he began to build a major fan base via appearances on multiple Arab channels, such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera Arabic and the Saudi Almajd TV Network.
He even hosted his own show, “Al-Hayat Kalima” (“Life is a Word”), on the Saudi-owned MBC. The show was cancelled in 2011.
With the development of social media platforms, Al-Odah reached out to a much larger audience, gradually establishing himself on YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and Telegram to speak directly to his followers. His messages on these platforms focused on philanthropy, religion and social issues.
Appearing nonchalant in numerous TV interviews, refusing to admit wrongdoing while dodging challenges with his elusive rhetoric, he denied issuing his controversial fatwas (religious edicts), even though they are documented, distributed and available in Arabic on his personal website.
He is accused of developing affiliations with groups that have been regarded as terrorist organizations, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and the International Union of Islamic Scholars, of which he is a member of the board of trustees.
The union was listed as a terrorist organization by several Arab countries in November 2017 for its support and funding of acts of terrorism worldwide, specifically in the West.
In a 2010 interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Qaradawi described Al-Odah as “one of my closest friends.”
In May 2017, Al-Odah was put on a blacklist of six preachers banned from entering Denmark for two years for preaching against the fundamental values of Danish society. The list included Christian pastor Terry Jones.
In September 2017, Al-Odah was detained in Saudi Arabia. Al-Odah’s son Abdullah Alaoudh (he spells his name differently than his father), a Washington Post and New York Times (NYT) contributor, has been a vocal critic of his father’s arrest.
In an NYT op-ed, Alaoudh questioned the legitimacy of his father’s arrest and defended his subtler approach to Islam.
“For almost two decades, he (Al-Odah) has vocally led the campaign against terrorism in Saudi Arabia,” Alaoudh wrote. “He has called for renewing religious discourse and argues for moderate Islam.”
However, Alaoudh does not delve into what many critics believe is the devastating effect his father’s hate preaching has had on Muslim youth.
Nor does he explain his father’s contradictory points of view on serious topics such as non-Muslims, Western values and justification for taking lives.
Many critics believe that Al-Odah’s ideas, documented below but also on his website and social media platforms, show a side that is much more extremist than moderate.
On jihad and terrorism
Al-Odah is infamous for his early-1990s sermons “Come for Jihad” and “The Industry of Death.”
Circulated on clandestine audiotapes that were spread throughout Saudi Arabia and beyond, the sermons called for his followers to perform jihad in Afghanistan, Iraq and other occupied Muslim lands.
Although after his release from jail in 1999 he profusely refuted claims in TV interviews on MBC that he incited jihad, his audiotapes are still obtainable on his personal website.
In his “Come for Jihad” lecture after the Afghan-Soviet war, Al-Odah begins: “The title of this lecture, dear ones, is ‘Come for Jihad’ … Are you ready? Now that you know the title, are you ready for jihad? This is a call for jihad. If you’re a military man and have special capabilities that others don’t have, then go there (Afghanistan). If you’re a preacher and you aren’t needed here, and if you’re saying that you want to spread the call for Islam and good knowledge there, this is also good.”
Al-Odah tried to beautify a dangerous and misunderstood concept of jihad and suicide attacks, declaring that a suicide attacker - which he called a martyrs’ - heroism will be rewarded by the gift of 72 virgins.
In “The Industry of Death,” he said: “God forgives him (a martyr) with the first drop of blood and he sees his seat in paradise, wears the garb of faith, and is married to 72 virgins. Go away, oh people of materialism, people of lust, enjoy your body and your pursuits. Enjoy your transitory moments. The real martyr will find 72 virgins waiting for him. (They are so transparent that) the bone marrow in their legs can be seen through their flesh.”
In “The Industry of Death,” Al-Odah defended infamous Muslim clerics such as the “blind Sheikh” Omar Abdul Rahman, the late leader of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya who was convicted of conspiracy in the US after the 1993 bomb attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
Overlooking the atrocious act of violence, Al-Odah instead pointed a finger at the cruel and unjust ways of the Americans who arrested Abdul Rahman, claiming that he was falsely accused.
“What makes the whole world, with its governments and UN agencies … wage war against so-called Islamic extremists and depict them as being behind every event, every crime, every bombing, every assassination, every explosion, and weave threads of illusion around them, to such an extent that you see an old, blind, sick man like Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, presented by the global media as an octopus whose fingers stretch behind every event, every explosion, every group that’s struggling or fighting, each faction and every Islamic movement?”
On Aug. 22, 2001, less than a month before the 9/11 attacks, Al-Odah posted on his website a fatwa praising the Taliban.
“I believe that the Taliban has a significant impact on the maintenance of security in Afghanistan and the unification of its territory, except for the area that is under the rule of the opposition in the north, and this is a great achievement,” he said.
On the West
With the rise of social media, Al-Odah used various platforms for his “reformed self” to teach his followers the true meaning of tolerance. Love, empathy and appreciation were common themes.
Not so in a recent lecture posted on his personal website on Feb. 12, 2017, under the title “What is after Iraq?”
In a drastic contradiction to the peaceful demeanor he projects, he tells readers how hating America is a form of jihad.
“We should educate children, the elderly and young people about boycotting American goods, hating America, and rejecting all that’s American,” he said.
“We should express this in words and actions through communication channels that are broadcast, for example, by radio or satellite, websites, articles and gatherings … This is one type of resistance and jihad, and we should spread it and educate people about it.”
On other religions
In one of his fatwas on his website, first issued in 1992, Al-Odah spoke of enmity between Muslims, Christians and Jews.
“The Muslim nation hasn’t yet reached the point of clear confrontation with the crusader Christian enemy or the Jews, and I think that this confrontation will come soon, as indicated by many events,” he said.
“Christians can’t tolerate the presence of a person whose origin is Muslim, or his name is Mohammed, Abdullah, Hussein or similar names, and he must be eliminated.”
In one of Al-Odah’s old fatwas, posted on his website in 2017, he prohibited women from wearing trousers in front of others because, he said, they show the size of women’s sexual organs, causing “sedition and excitement.” He allows them to wear trousers in front of their husbands only.
Female participation in the sports sector was highlighted in a lecture titled “Women’s Concerns,” published on Al-Odah’s website in 2017.
“Inviting girls to contribute to the field of sports writing is a prelude to their participation in sports,” he said, contrary to his daily contributions on his social media profiles, in which he told people to embrace change.
In the same lecture, he portrays the act of simply watching a sports event as a threat to a woman’s dignity that could lead to her committing a sin.
“It’s unreasonable, dear fathers, to buy a TV set, put it in the home, and yet be unaware of what happens next,” he said.
“The least we can say to you: This device shows sports events. It’s possible that one of the players, who appear in a way that reveals most of their bodies, may attract the attention of girls and be a source of temptation and attraction.”
In the view of critics, Al-Odah has developed a reputation for shifting like a chameleon to avoid censure, riding the wave of his choosing. He appears as a soft-spoken spiritual cleric appealing to younger generations on social media, while masking his extremist views with elusive rhetoric or dismissing previous sermons as back in the past. But it cannot be denied that he promotes his extremist views on his own website and has extensive affiliations with terrorist organizations.