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Eternal enemies or secret bedfellows?

Author: John R Bradley
Source: Asia Times – Sept. 8, 2005

In February, less than two years after suicide attacks on Western residential compounds in Riyadh killed 34 people, including nine Americans, and ushered in an unprecedented wave of terrorist violence across the kingdom, the Saudi capital hosted a three-day international counterterrorism conference.

During the short period between the bombings and the terrorism conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's image had transformed from an oasis of relative calm in an often volatile region into the place held responsible in many ways for al-Qaeda's birth and growth and where the triumph or demise of this international terrorist organization would ultimately be determined.

Underlining President George W Bush's wish to work publicly as closely as possible with the al-Saud in the ongoing fight against al-Qaeda, its affiliates and its sympathizers in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, US homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend emerged from the conference declaring that Washington "stands squarely" with the kingdom's rulers. She emphasized that the conference was proof positive of a "commitment to the elimination of terrorism" on the part of the al-Saud ruling family. [1]

Yet, not all observers were quite so bowled over by the stage-managed proceedings in Riyadh. [2] The delegates from numerous international organizations, the United States and 50 Arab, Asian and European countries, with the exclusion of Israel, which predictably was not among the invitees, sat listening to senior Saudi princes, who have been routinely accused of at the very least failing to prevent the funneling of money from Saudi-based charities to terrorist organizations, give speeches condemning terrorism.

As recently as July, the US government suggested that wealthy Saudi individuals remain "a significant source" of funds for Islamic terrorists around the world, despite widely publicized efforts to shut down these channels. [3] On top of such accusations, it is widely recognized that the royal family has empowered a hardline Wahhabi religious establishment that propagates an extremist interpretation of Islam, which critics argue acts as a guide and inspiration to terrorists such as Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden and his followers, giving it ideological and day-to-day control over the kingdom's mosques, judiciary, schools, media and religious police.

There were thus two polarized reactions to the conference, reflecting the diametrically opposed views among Saudi observers in the West when it comes to the question of the kingdom's role in the "war on terrorism". On one side are those such as Townsend who, believing Saudi Arabia to be a crucial ally, focused on the conference's powerful symbolism. They stressed that one of its important objectives was to dispel persisting doubts in the West about the Saudi royal family's commitment to combating terrorism. On the other side are those who see duplicity in every al-Saud statement [4] and were especially critical of the conference's high symbolism, as it allowed the regime to showcase its purported counterterrorism successes without having to engage in substantive debate on broader, more controversial issues.

Both interpretations contain elements of truth. When it comes to the issue of fighting al-Qaeda, the al-Saud regime has been and continues to be part of the problem in fundamental ways. Yet, it is equally undeniable that, considering the absolute nature of the al-Saud family's rule and the dearth of acceptable alternatives, at least in Western eyes, the regime is indispensable to any solution to terrorism. Townsend implicitly acknowledged in Riyadh that, if bin Laden's goal was to overthrow the House of Saud and subsequently to gain the prestige that would come from the custodianship of Islam's two holy mosques and control of one-quarter of the world's known oil reserves, then the main US policy objective in response must be to guarantee the royal family's survival.

Al-Qaeda stakes its claim
Oddly, it would appear that bin Laden shares Townsend's view that the endgame of the global jihad preached by al-Qaeda will be played out in Saudi Arabia. Having failed to topple regimes or establish permanent Islamic governments in Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan, and with failure imminent in Iraq as well, bin Laden's birthplace remains his last-gasp opportunity. If he fails there, he will ultimately have failed in his broader strategy. Despite their evident willingness to conduct smaller-scale terrorist operations, al-Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia appear to be holding off from a direct attack on an oil installation or pipeline or against the Saudi royal family itself.

In his two direct addresses to the Saudi regime, in August 1995 and December 2004, even bin Laden himself called for internal reform within the Saudi government rather than revolution from below. Self-appointed al-Qaeda spokesmen regularly post on websites that the organization is waiting to launch a full-scale assault against the al-Saud and its economic lifeline because a direct threat to their rule will cause the princes' "separate fingers to become an iron fist". A major attack would almost certainly result in the imposition of a state of emergency, restricting terrorists' mobility. It is better, the spokesmen argue, to let the royal family squabble among themselves about reforms as resentment grows over intensifying economic problems. An increasingly unstable Saudi Arabia would remain a fertile recruiting ground for arms, money and volunteers.

All this, critics claim, is well understood by the al-Saud ruling family, who, it has long been argued, paid off al-Qaeda in the 1990s to ensure there would be no direct attacks launched against its regime. [5] It is indeed strange, considering the often-trumpeted line that al-Qaeda wants to "overthrow the Saudi ruling family and replace it with a Taliban-style regime", that no Saudi princes have been assassinated, despite the many thousands of them, most of whom are more vulnerable to such targeting than Westerners who live in heavily guarded residential compounds. Could it be, therefore, that bin Laden recognizes that, in the official Wahhabi religious establishment he officially despises, because they legitimize the al-Saud regime's rule by, as the favorite Islamist taunt goes, "issuing fatwas for money", he nevertheless sees his closest ideological ally in a world where he is hunted and increasingly marginalized?

Promoting a solution ...
The House of Saud's role as part of the solution is the easiest to assess because it is trumpeted, rather than deliberately obscured, by the regime's officials and the state-controlled media. The Saudi government's counterterrorism framework includes an amnesty offer for militants who turn themselves in, that they will not face the death penalty and will only be prosecuted if they commit acts that hurt others; [6] a massive anti-extremism campaign in the Saudi media and on billboards throughout the main cities, given a boost by the high number of Saudis and other fellow Muslims among the November 2003 bombing casualties; [7] the reeducation of extremist clerics by the Saudi royal family, although the details remained vague and there was never any independent verification that this retraining ever actually took place; [8] and unprecedented cooperation between the Central Intelligence Agency and Saudi security forces, which includes sophisticated command centers in Jeddah and Riyadh. [9]

The May 2003 bombings served as a wake-up call for the Saudi royal family, leading it to construct the above framework, and it has since been locked in an endless cycle of violent confrontation with militants. Between May 2003 and June 2005, more than 30 major terrorism-related incidents occurred in the kingdom. At least 91 foreign nationals and Saudi civilians have been killed and 510 wounded, according to former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal.

Al-Faisal has also stated that 41 security force members have been killed and 218 wounded, while 112 militants have been killed and 25 wounded. [10] Included among these: a November 2003 attack on another Riyadh compound killed 17 people, but this time the dead were mostly Muslims. This attack, however, seems to have been an isolated incident, as all other attacks have targeted the regime, or Western people, buildings and businesses.

In May 2004, gunmen attacked the offices of the Houston-based company ABB Lummus Global, in the Red Sea port city of Yanbu, killing six Westerners and a Saudi. One month later, oil company compounds in the Eastern Province city of al-Khobar were the target; hostages were taken at the Oasis residential building, and at least 30 people were killed. In December 2004, the US consulate in Jeddah was attacked. Militants breached its heavily fortified defenses and, before being killed, managed to pull down the US flag. A group calling itself al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for most of these large-scale attacks. In the meantime, al-Qaeda-affiliated cells in Riyadh and Jeddah have periodically singled out Westerners for execution. Most infamously, US contractor Paul Johnson was kidnapped in Riyadh in June 2004 and beheaded, the ghastly crime recorded on video and immediately posted on Islamist websites.

In the face of such atrocities, no one now seriously doubts the Saudi regime's commitment to hunt down and kill individual militants who have al-Qaeda cells that appear to be avoiding directly attacking the Saudi royal family. The denial of the existence of homegrown extremists, evident in Interior Minister Prince Naif's refusal for six months after the September 11 attacks to acknowledge that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, is today a distant memory.

In fact, Prince Naif's internal security force has born the brunt of the casualties, losing more men battling suspected al-Qaeda cells than any other security force in the Arab world. In April, it was an Interior Ministry announcement that reported how residents of the tiny provincial capital of Sakaka in Saudi Arabia's northernmost province, Jouf, had witnessed a grisly scene in the main public square: the corpses of three convicted and beheaded militants had been tied to poles, on top of which were placed their severed heads. The three, who had returned to the kingdom after fighting in Afghanistan, were executed by the central government after being convicted of murdering the region's deputy governor, a top religious court judge and a police chief. They had also killed a Saudi soldier and kidnapped a foreign national, long before such kidnappings became "fashionable" among Islamist groups in the Middle East.

At its height in 2003, the unrest in Jouf, a power base of the al-Sudairi branch of the ruling family, which included King Fahd, Defense Minister Prince Sultan and Riyadh governor Prince Salman, represented in microcosm the kingdom-wide tensions that threatened to spill over into a general uprising. [11] The rebellion's end in April this year, with the crudely symbolic public display of its leaders' heads, marked the moment that the al-Saud triumphed over the most extreme of its homegrown enemies, at least for the time being.

From a list of the 26 most wanted terrorists issued after the May 2003 bombings, only two remain at large; the others have been killed or captured or have surrendered. Just hours after Riyadh issued a new list of 36 most wanted terrorists in July, the Moroccan terrorist at the top, Younis Mohammed Ibrahim al-Hayari, was killed in a shoot-out with Saudi security forces. [12]

... or fueling the problem?
The other role of the House of Saud - its part in the problem - is much more difficult to document and explain, as the Saudi regime does not want the world to know about it. What is clear, however, is the broad context: Riyadh's fight against terrorism since May 2003 and related calls for national unity have provided a facade for behind-the-scenes moves to strengthen the role of the Wahhabi religious establishment, with whom the al-Saud rules in effective partnership. [13]

Such moves are bad news for the "war on terrorism" in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The Saudi royal family certainly cracked down hard on al-Qaeda in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the subsequent Islamist campaign of violence inside the kingdom. To shore up support among its core constituents, however, whom the crackdown risked alienating, it also reached out not only to the masses through advertising campaigns, but also to the hardline religious establishment whose support legitimizes the royal family. The regime claimed to endorse a "truer" version of Islam than that of the terrorist organizations. Yet, the line between that "truer" Islam and al-Qaeda's proclaimed ideology is becoming increasingly blurred.

Saudi leaders, in their eagerness to prove their Islamist credentials in the face of charges of being US puppets, [14] have empowered a number of clerics who, although not overtly critical of the regime, are also not overtly critical of the terrorists - indeed, on occasion, quite the reverse. The words and actions of these clerics challenge the official, antiterrorism narrative fine-tuned at the Riyadh conference, heavily promoted by the state-controlled media as well as Saudi embassies abroad, and tied to reality by the frequent clashes between the security forces and suspected militants. In this counternarrative, the al-Saud, despite its effort to hunt down those who directly threaten its own rule, is less serious about tackling the deeper issues related to the funding of, ideological legitimization of, and recruitment for al-Qaeda in the kingdom.

Particularly alarming was Riyadh's announcement, just days after the counterterrorism conference and one day before a first round of partial municipal elections got underway, that Abdullah al-Obeid, a former head of an Islamic charity, had been appointed as the kingdom's new education minister.

Described by the Wall Street Journal as "an official enmeshed in a terror financing controversy", he is a former director of the Muslim World League (WML), the parent organization of the International Islamic Relief Organization, which the US Department of the Treasury claims may have had financial ties to Islamist terrorist groups. Obeid was head of the WML from 1995 to 2002, during which time the charity spent tens of millions of dollars to finance the spread of Wahhabism. The Wall Street Journal quoted an essay by Obeid from 2002 in which he blamed "some mass media centers that are managed and run by Jews in the West" for reports linking terrorism and Islam. [15] He also reportedly organized symposiums to explain that Palestinian suicide attacks on Israelis "are conducted in self-defense" and "are lawful and approved by all religious standards, international treaties, norms and announcements". [16]

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(Copyright 2005 by The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (reprinted with permission of the author from The Washington Quarterly, Autumn 2005, issue 28:4, pp 139-152.)

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Page added on: 25 September 2005