Al-Qassim, Asharq Al-Awsat – Asharq Al-Awsat’s search for information about Haylah al-Qassir or “Mrs. Al Qaeda” as she later became known, was something of a mission impossible. Al Qaeda went in search of information about Mrs. Al Qaeda, in her hometown of “Al-Shaqqa” which is a village in the al-Buraida region of Al-Qassim. Asharq Al-Awsat also visited the neighborhood in Riyadh where she was arrested, along with two members of Al Qaeda who were wanted by the Saudi authorities.
Asharq Al-Awsat discovered that a large proportion of people in Al-Qassim claim never to have met, or even heard of Haylah al-Qassir, whose affiliation with the Al Qaeda organization has propelled her name across the world. In the face of Asharq Al-Awsat’s questions and inquiries, the al-Buraida community collectively denied knowing anything about Haylah al-Qassir, fearing that their region would once again find itself the subject of scrutiny following the emergence of the next male or female extremist.
Asharq Al-Awsat’s search for information about Mrs. Al Qaeda was therefore an extremely difficult one given the reticence of the local community, and the social and cultural constraints in a society where even mentioning a woman’s name is taboo, let alone the name of a woman who was arrested for funding and recruiting for Al Qaeda.
The Beginning: Al Khubaib District
The Khubaib district lies in the far-east of the city of al-Buraida; it owes its establishment to Sheikh Fahd Bin Abdulaziz al-Ashad, and it is here that a group of al-Buraida ascetics or zahids first turned their back on modern living. It is here that Haylah al-Qassir’s story begins.
Haylah al-Qassir graduated from al-Qassim’s Faculty of Education’s Geography Department, later working as a prayer supervisor for a public school in al-Buraida. However we cannot ignore one of the most important points in Haylah al-Qassir’s life, which was her marriage to one of the most renowned ascetics of Khubaib District, Abdul-Karim al-Humaid.
The practice of this form of asceticism is what initially attracted Haylah al-Qassir to al-Humaid, who rejected all aspects of modernity such as cars and even electricity. However the question that must be asked here is to what extent did this form of asceticism – which was followed by Haylah al-Qassir following her marriage to al-Humaid until their divorce – affect the extremist Islamist beliefs she went on to embrace, especially in light of the fact that there is still a well-respected ascetic community living in Khubaib today?
Abdul-Karim al-Humaid wrote an article in 2006 called “Warnings against Excess and Immoderation” that gives us an idea of the struggles faced by Haylah al-Qassir during her marriage. The asceticism practiced by Haylah al-Qassir’s husband went far beyond not using money or electricity, or not wearing shoes or riding in cars to include doctrinal and faith-related issues in terms of what is religiously permissible and prohibited. According to al-Humaid, excess and immoderation is defined as exceeding the customs, traditions, and limits established during the age of the Prophet [pbuh] and his Companions. He wrote “we were not told to develop with the time and act in the same manner as other people; rather we were told to follow the path of the Prophet and his Companions.”
Abdul-Karim al-Humaid goes on in his article to say that “the best thing is to follow the path of the Prophet [pbuh] and his Companions; that is to do what he ordered and avoid what he prohibited. This is the moderation that he ordered us to follow. However if you believe that moderation is to follow your inner self or what other people of the same age, then you are doing something that is against God’s will, and defaming the Prophet, his companions, and our ancestors.”
However the significance of the Khubaib district in the life of Haylah al-Qassir is not just due to its connection with her first marriage. The Khubaib district is inhabited by more than 5,000 people, the majority of whom are Saudi Arabians who are living in an untypical manner.
Al-Khubaib district is a place where those who are smoking or caught listening to music could be stoned, and where men wrap their faces in the shemagh upon seeing a veiled woman. Foreign workers and laborers are barred from residing in this area, whilst women who work in the primary school within al-Khubaib district must park their cars outside of the district and continue their journey on foot.
Outside of al-Mo’attaq House
After searching the area for days, Asharq Al-Awsat finally managed to locate the al-Mo’attaq house in Khubaib district where Haylah al-Qassir hid from the authorities – along with two male Al Qaeda operatives – and was later arrested. Haylah al-Qassir was also accompanied by her only daughter at this time.
Anybody who enters Khubaib district and asks the location of this house is met with silence and suspicion, however Asharq Al-Awsat managed to learn about Haylah al –Qassir from a number of children who used to play outside of al-Mo’attaq House, with Haylah al-Qassir’s own daughter. These innocent children managed to disclose more than the brave adults. A girl who shall be referred to in this article as “H.A” and who lived close to al-Mo’attaq House spoke eloquently to Asharq Al-Awsat about Haylah al-Qassir’s time there. She said “I would often see Haylah al-Qassir sitting alone in her room upstairs whilst I was playing with the daughters of the al-Mo’attaq family.” She added “Haylah al-Qassir did not let her daughter visit any of the neighbors, and she was only allowed to play in front of the house.” H.A. also revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that “there was no television in the house.”
Meanwhile, “Abu Ali” who owns a building adjacent to the al-Mo’attaq House informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Haylah al-Qassir and the two Saudi men who were being pursued by the Saudi security apparatus utilized his wireless internet connection to contact members of Al Qaeda in order to avoid security surveillance. Abu Ali said that his wireless connection was not password protected, and the last thing he expected was for it to be used by members of Al Qaeda. He told Asharq Al-Awsat “I did not see those who were wanted by the police except for when they went out to pray.” He also revealed that they “bought running equipment and installed it in the house’s yard, in order to maintain their physical fitness.”
Haylah al-Qassir’s Funding and Recruitment Activity
Although Haylah al-Qassir is from the al-Qassim region, her financing and recruitment activity for Al Qaeda was not limited to this province, and a security source informed Asharq Al-Awsat that her financing activity even reached Riyadh. Haylah al-Qassir even collected money from unsuspecting people who thought their charity would be used to build mosques, or given to the poor.
Following the end of her affiliation with al-Humaid and Khubaib district, Haylah al –Qassir moved to Riyadh after marrying Mohamed al-Wakeel, who was killed in a shootout with security forces on 29 December 2004 following a failed car bomb attack on the Saudi Interior Ministry. Haylah al-Qassir was five months pregnant at the time of al-Wakeel’s death, later giving birth to a daughter who she named Rabab. Al-Wakeel was the Al Qaeda operative who played a significant role in bringing Haylah al Qassir into the world of Al Qaeda.
Haylah al-Qassir was known for never missing a visit to any family who had lost one of its members – either killed or detained in hotspots like Iraq, and Yemen, or in clashes with the Saudi security apparatus – where she would congratulate the family on his martyrdom and entry into paradise.
Haylah al-Qassir reportedly collected 2 million Saudi riyals for Al Qaeda, and recruited nearly 60 new members for the terrorist organizations. Sources also informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Haylah al-Qassir had initiated a project to temporarily marry girls to imprisoned Al Qaeda members, although time had prevented her from completing this project and it ended with only one successful marriage.
Haylah al-Qassir and the al-Mo’attaq Family
Haylah al-Qassir’s relationship with the women of the al-Mo’attaq family started three years ago in Khubaib district, where she began to have a psychological influence on the women of the district through her monthly gathering’s with the Khubaib women.
The most prominent person in Khubaib district that Asharq Al-Awsat managed to speak with in connection to Haylah al –Qassir was a close relative to the al-Moattaq family. This al-Moattaq cousin, who we shall refer to as “M. al-Mo’attaq” told Asharq Al-Awsat that the two men who were arrested along with Haylah al-Qassir were “al-Rashoudi” and al-Ghamedi” although he did not disclose their first names. M. al-Mo’attaq also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “al-Mo’attaq’s wife had a strong personality, unlike my cousin who I used to meet every week and who never demonstrated any sign of religious extremism or fanaticism.” He added that “it was his wife who convinced him to receive Haylah al-Qassir.”
However according to his cousin, al-Mo’attaq, who is in his forties and self-employed, changed in a short period of time. M. al-Mo’attaq told Asharq Al-Awsat that his cousin was no longer keen to attend family gatherings, and began to make religious criticism which touched upon political issues. According to information obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat, one of the al-Mo’attaq brothers was killed in Iraq, while another was imprisoned for 8 months [in Saudi Arabia] on security charges.
Women’s Role in Jihad
Haylah al-Qassir, who was later revealed to be one of Al Qaeda’s most successful financiers and dubbed Mrs. Al Qaeda is today being treated as part of the Saudi Arabian Munasaha rehabilitation program for extremist ideology. Are the beliefs that are held by Haylah al-Qassir the result of her marriage to her first husband, the ascetic Abdul-Karim al-Humaid, or her marriage with her second husband Al Qaeda operative Mohamed al-Wakeel, or did she hold such beliefs before she met either of them?
It is not new for women to participate in Al Qaeda activities, which was a principle expressed by prominent Al Qaeda member Yusuf al-Ayriri – who was killed in clashes with the Saudi security apparatus in 2004 – in his book “Women’s Role in Jihad” which he wrote under the alias Abdullah al-Zaid. However Al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is known to object to women participating in Al Qaeda operations, and so it is clear that Al Qaeda’s policy with regards to women’s participation is confused and contradictory. However following Al Qaeda’s official recognition and praise for Haylah al-Qassir and the role that she undertook, it seems that the uncertainty surrounding this issue within the organization has been lifted. Perhaps Al Qaeda is attempting to use the story of Haylah al-Qassir or Mrs. Al Qaeda as a rallying point and a weapon during a period of stagnancy, however it must be reiterated that this is something that is in direct contradiction to the literature of other Salafist groups which reject women playing any role whatsoever outside of the home.