In the Arab world as well as the West, the discussion of yesterday’s execution of Saudi Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr has been strident: Sunni Gulf states applaud the action as a step forward in the struggle against terrorism, Iran and Arab Shi’ites condemn it as part of a war on their sect, and in the West, Nimr has mostly been cast as a nonviolent opposition leader, unjustly imprisoned and wrongfully killed.
For clarity’s sake, here is some information from Saudi sources whom I regard as reliable, including one who maintained a personal friendship with Sheikh Nimr for over a decade, which speaks to the context in which the decision to execute him was made.
In the 1980s and early ‘90s, Nimr al-Nimr was a leadership figure in “Hezbollah al-Hejaz,” an avowedly Khomeinist armed group established in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and active in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. In sermons and other public statements, Nimr declared the three Sunni ruling dynasties to be illegitimate, and called for taking up arms against their governments. It was a period of lethal confrontation between the movement’s activists and Saudi security forces, a predictably asymmetric conflict claiming lives on both sides. Many of the group’s fighters, and Nimr himself, fled to Iran.
In 1992, Riyadh established a truce with Hezbollah al-Hejaz, on the basis of amnesty for members who renounced the movement, forswore ties to Iran, and declared their loyalty to the Saudi state. Among the many returnees from Iran was Nimr al-Nimr: He rejected the terms of amnesty, but temporarily toned down his rhetoric.
By 2009, however, he had returned to openly advocating for “the military option,” calling in a sermon for secession from the government in Riyadh. The remarks followed a confrontation between Shi’ite protestors and Saudi police at a cemetery containing the graves of venerated Shi’ites in the holy city of Mecca. After delivering the sermon, Nimr went into hiding.
He resurfaced in 2011 in the Eastern Province during the period of the Arab spring demonstrations. At a time when some of the area’s Shi’ite leaders counseled peaceful protest and others called for taking up arms, Nimr joined the latter camp, and was seen publicly with youth who threw molotov cocktails and fired at security forces. In the final incident which came to the public’s attention, in the course of a further armed confrontation, he was seen in a car with armed youth as they fired at Saudi police.
The Saudi government contends that throughout his years as an activist, in addition to inciting violence, he played a role in organizing it, though it has not made evidence available to the public. From the standpoint of the interior ministry, Nimr is simply the Shi’ite equivalent of Sunni members of ISIS and Al-Qaeda whom they believe to have blood on their hands, a number of whom were also executed yesterday. Whatever the case might be, the interior ministry did apply the same policy toward Nimr’s family which it accords the relatives of Sunni jihadists — by tending to their most urgent needs during the period of his imprisonment: His wife, stricken with cancer, was flown to a New York hospital for care, where she stayed for nine months at the government’s expense. Within the context of Saudi political culture, this measure can be understood as part of an effort to stem a cycle of vengeance, reassure the prisoner that no ill will is harbored toward his loved ones, and ultimately “reacquire” the family as loyal subjects. Nimr’s sons declined to visit their father in prison during his incarceration.