RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Some Saudis are starting to call on their government to crack down on extremist Islamic clerics, long tolerated within the religious establishment, after the synchronized attacks that brought terrorism to the heart of the Saudi capital.
The royal family is signaling it may see the need to act. Three radical clerics who publicly praised Islamic militants believed linked to this week's bombings are in hiding, sought by the government.
Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks (search), some Americans have criticized the Saudi government, blaming the country's strict version of Islam for breeding militants like Al Qaeda (search) leader Usama bin Laden (search). Now some Saudis are making a linkage between hard-line clerics and extremist violence.
"It's now a matter of the survival of the nation and society," said Turki al-Hamad, a writer and columnist. "If the government treats the attacks as an isolated incident, the other side will consider it a weakness on the government's part, and the militants' hand will be strengthened."
Only days before Monday night's attacks, three clerics -- Ali al-Khudair, Nasser al-Fahd and Ahmad al-Khalidi -- posted an Internet statement justifying help for a group of 19 suspected militants, some of whom had earlier escaped after a gunbattle with Saudi police.
"They are some of the best mujahedeen [holy warriors] and virtuous devout men ... who have offered their lives, money and blood to God almighty and fought the spiteful Crusaders in Afghanistan with heroism," the clerics wrote.
Now Saudi investigators believe some of the 19 had a hand the coordinated attacks against housing compounds for Western expatriates in Riyadh that killed at least 34 people Monday night.
It wasn't the first time the three clerics called for support of militants: They had long been known for their sympathy for Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
"This is what annoys us," said Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan. "They were known for their fanatic ideas and yet they were left alone."
Khashoggi hopes the Riyadh attacks will mark a turning point in the thinking of Saudi rulers -- an end to the blind eye toward radicals, and even a change in the implicit contract that has structured the kingdom.
"We have to stop talking about the need for reform and actually start it, particularly in education. Otherwise, what happened here on Monday night could be the beginning of a war that leads to the Talibanization of our society," Sulaiman Al-Hattlan, a columnist for Al-Watan and post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, wrote in an article on the opinion page of Thursday's New York Times.
In return for support from clerics of the austere Wahhabi sect of Islam, the Saudi royal family has given Islamists a free hand in social matters.
All women have to be covered in black cloaks in public. The sexes are not allowed to mix. Women cannot drive. They cannot get an education, travel or work without permission from a male guardian. And a big chunk of the school curriculum is devoted to religious studies, some of which encourage a rejection of non-Muslims.
Khashoggi links that social fanaticism to anti-Western violence.
"You begin by getting angry at women revealing their faces, Barbie dolls and satellite dishes and then you move into killing others," he said.
Since this week's bombings, Saudi leaders have hinted that radical clerics will no longer have a free rein.
Crown Prince Abdullah vowed to "put an end" to those who were behind the attacks and said those who promote "ideas that feed" the militants should meet the same fate.
The Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef, followed up with a stern warning. "We will not remain idle and watch certain religious figures who instigate violence by issuing edicts branding certain people as infidels," he told the Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat. "We will hold them responsible for their words and deeds."
The government has proved it can crack down on extremists. Last year, it shut down the Islamist agency in charge of girls' education, shocking most Saudis who had thought the royal family would never touch such a venerable institution.
The action was taken after a fire at a girls' school that resulted in the death of 15 students in a stampede.
It also recently fired several hundred of the kingdom's more than 100,000 mosque preachers for their extremist sermons. And it has closed several foreign offices of a large charity group and changed its board.
"They're sincere and earnest in their efforts to root out Al Qaeda," said U.S. Ambassador Robert Jordan.
But al-Hamad, the writer, cautioned: "It will be a long war."
An Internet statement Wednesday signed only "Islamic warriors" was addressed to Abdullah, his family and his government, vowing to "blow up your institutions and your palaces over your heads."
"We are the ones who proved to the whole world that we are people of action not words," the statement said. "Do you, stupid people, understand or will the horrendous sound of explosions, of which we have plenty, make you understand?"
Some militant figures make extensive use of the Internet, which affords the fanatics a platform to incite and spread their radical messages.
Three months ago, an unsigned fatwa, or religious edict, appeared on the Internet urging Saudi Muslims not to take up residence near compounds that are home to non-Saudis, including Westerners, said lawyer Mohsen al-Awajy.
Another group -- calling itself al-Mowahedoon, Arabic for "the monotheists," a term used by Wahhabi followers -- issued its first statement on the Internet on May 8. It espoused ridding the Arabian Peninsula of Jews and Christians and waging holy war against "infidels," said the Saudi Information Agency, a U.S.-based Saudi opposition group.
Observers say the clerics do not have a large following, but that does not mean they're weak.
"Their fatwas flood the Internet," said al-Awajy, spokesman for a new group, Global Campaign for Resisting Aggression, that advocates the peaceful defense of Muslim rights. "This means that the ground is very fertile for these plants to grow even if we admit that these are not nice plants."
Several factors have made the ground fertile: an increased hostility toward the United States spurred by the Palestinian uprising and the war on Iraq, an unemployment rate estimated at 15-30 percent and corruption in the royal family.
Khashoggi, in an Al-Watan editorial, said the government should see Monday's attacks, which fell on the 11th of the Muslim month Rabia al-Awal, in the way Washington saw the Sept. 11 attacks: as the beginning of a new era.
"Just as their [Americans'] world changed that day, our world changed that night and we should get ready for what's coming," wrote Khashoggi.