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Distrusting America, Saudi Arabia Embarks on More Assertive Role

Posted on 19 May 2011 by hashimilion

As U.S. President Barack Obama seeks to reinvigorate his administration’s policy in the Middle East, he will have to contend with several issues where U.S. influence is less than overwhelming.

Chief among them, according to Middle East analysts, is the growing assertiveness of Saudi Arabia as it confronts Iranian influence in the region and tilts away from its historic bargain with the U.S.: oil for security.

In recent months, the Saudis have essentially taken the gloves off — sending troops into Bahrain to prop up the island’s Sunni monarchy against a rebellious Shiite majority; consolidating their relationship with Pakistan as a regional counterweight to Iran; and expanding the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to reinforce the club of Sunni monarchies.

Through the GCC Saudi Arabia has also moved to resolve the crisis in Yemen, its neighbor to the south, where al Qaeda is establishing a foothold and where the Saudis suspect Iranian meddling.

Their core mission, says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, “is to ensure stability in their neighborhood.” Bremmer believes “the single most important long-term implication of the Arab Spring may be a consolidated GCC that is tacking away from the West.”

At the same time, the Saudi kingdom’s relations with the United States have deteriorated — in part over the Obama administration’s support for pro-democracy movements in the Arab world. On two occasions in recent months, according to well-placed sources in the Gulf, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia even refused to meet senior U.S. officials.

Earlier this week, Saudi grievances were laid out in a Washington Post op-ed by Nawaf Obaid, a consummate insider and a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Describing a “tectonic shift” in the Saudi-U.S. relationship, he complained of an “ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable” for its settlement-building in Palestinian territories. On the latter issue, he said the U.S. “had lost all credibility.”

Obaid also echoed some of the criticisms made last year by Prince Turki al Faisal, a former ambassador to the United States who said that “negligence, ignorance and arrogance” had cost America the “moral high ground” it held after 9/11.

Saudi alienation from Washington predates the Obama administration. Riyadh saw the invasion of Iraq as a disaster because it unleashed Shiite influence in a country traditionally dominated by its Sunni minority. Several Saudi officials have described Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki — who leads a Shia-dominated government — as an “Iranian agent.”

The Saudis also complained that the Bush administration had “dropped the ball” on the Israel-Palestinian peace process by not endorsing King Abdullah’s plan for a two-state solution, with east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. That, they argued, had only strengthened more radical forces in the region, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Above all, the Saudi establishment has long been anxious that the threat it perceives from Iran is not adequately acknowledged in Washington.

U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published last year showed growing Saudi impatience with U.S. caution toward Iran’s nuclear program, with King Abdullah quoted as urging Gen. David Petraeus to “cut off the head of the snake” during a meeting in April 2008. A year later, the King is quoted as telling President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, that he hoped the U.S. would review its Iran policy and “come to the right conclusion.”

So now, Obaid writes, “Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.”

One long-time observer of Saudi policy says the kingdom is preparing to use its wealth and economic growth (forecast at nearly 6% this year, thanks to the rising price of crude oil) to lead an expanded bloc as old certainties wither away.

The Saudis plan to spend $100 billion to modernize their armed forces, buy a new generation of combat aircraft and add 60,000 Interior Ministry troops. Like other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia also plans to expand its special forces.

Beyond its borders the kingdom wants to expand the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, until now a club of wealthy monarchies, by inviting Jordan and Morocco to join. They might not have much money, but they, too, are ruled by Sunni monarchs and have — by regional standards — cohesive and well-trained armies.

In return, Gulf largesse would help support their weak economies. Amid recriminations and confusion in the Arab League — whose planned Baghdad summit has just been postponed for a whole year — the Saudis see the GCC as the institutional antidote to the upheavals of the Arab Spring.

Saudi Arabia has already created a $20 billion fund to assist Bahrain and Oman. And the dispatch of some 1,000 troops to Bahrain in March served notice to Tehran that Saudi Arabia would not tolerate a Shiite-dominated state a few miles off its coast.

“Sending a force to Bahrain was a necessary evil for the GCC in order to protect the monarchy in Bahrain,” says Theodore Karasik of the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “If a monarchy falls in the region, this might create a domino effect.”

It was also a slap in the face to U.S. policy in the region, which was focused on coaxing dialogue in Bahrain. Just days before the Saudi intervention, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Bahrain urging King Hamad to take more than “baby steps” towards reform.

That followed alarm in Riyadh over the Obama administration’s desertion of long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, who had cultivated close ties with the Gulf states and who was regarded by the Saudis as another Arab bulwark against “Iranian expansionism.” The U.S. eventually told Mubarak it was time to go, but the Saudi royal family supported him to the end, even offering to make up for any cut in U.S. aid.

Bremmer of the Eurasia Group says the United States does hold important cards — through multi-billion-dollar arms contracts and long-established relationships in the oil industry. And regional analysts say that ultimately Saudi Arabia would likely appeal for and get U.S. help in any showdown with Iran.

Bremmer says that much in the Gulf revolves around personal relationships and loyalties, and he says the Obama administration needs to invest more in that, starting at the top. By contrast, senior executives in U.S. oil companies — by and large no fans of the president’s energy policy — do talk with the Saudis.

In the longer-term, a Saudi tilt to the East may simply reflect new economic realities. Some 55% of Saudi oil now flows to Asia, compared with about 10% that flows to the United States. The Saudi state oil firm has built refineries in China, and trade between the two countries was worth $40 billion in 2010.

As relations with the West fray, Bremmer concludes that “a far-reaching Saudi-China strategic partnership could well result alongside expanded Chinese contracts to buy long-term access to Saudi oil and Chinese investment in developing Saudi infrastructure.”

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Saudi Diplomat Shot Dead in Pakistan

Posted on 16 May 2011 by hashimilion

 

Motorcycle-riding assassins have gunned down a Saudi diplomat in the Pakistani city of Karachi, four days after a grenade attack on the Saudi consulate there.

The unusual spate of attacks raised questions about whether they were in reprisal for the death of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden or the consequence of regional Sunni-Shia tensions triggered by upheaval in Bahrain.

A senior police officer said the diplomat, named as Hassan al-Khatani and described as a security officer, was shot dead in his car on Monday morning by two men riding a motorbike who fired four shots from a 9mm pistol.

Television pictures showed a luxury sedan with gunshots through its windows. Police said a backup team of assailants rode alongside the killers, indicating a degree of professionalism in the hit.

On Thursday unidentified assailants threw two grenades at the front gate of the consulate, damaging the entrance but injuring nobody.

Attacks on diplomats from Saudi Arabia are rare in Pakistan, thanks to the country’s close relationship with the army and the widespread reverence towards the country as the home of Islam.

“We’ve always had sectarian tensions but rarely an attack on a Saudi diplomat like this,” said defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.

But decades-old Shia-Sunni tensions in Karachi have been reignited by turmoil across the Arabian sea in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia deployed troops last March to help quell an uprising by mostly Shia demonstrators.

Pakistani Shias became angry when it emerged that a private security firm was urgently recruiting hundreds of former soldiers to work for the Bahrain security forces and help with the crackdown.

Newspaper advertisements sought Pakistanis with experience in “security” and “riot control”.

A senior police officer in Karachi told the Guardian the Bahrain connection was considered the most likely motive for the two most recent attacks. But they were investigating whether they may have been in reprisal for the US special force raid that killed Bin Laden on 2 May.

Riyadh stripped Bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994 and has since co-operated closely with American efforts to crack down on al-Qaida, even though private Saudi citizens have been accused of sponsoring his network.

US intelligence is currently examining a trove of computer drives snatched from Bin Laden’s hideout, reportedly containing 2.7 terabytes of data, for further information about al-Qaida’s money pipeline.

A third possibility was that the attacks were linked to local criminal groups, the officer said. In recent years, he said, “some low-level officials at the consulate had been found to be involved in minor criminal activities with local mafias”.

The difficulty of investigating the killing is underscored by the general insecurity in the sprawling port city of 16 million people, where ethnic, political and Islamist militant groups hold sway in pockets of the city that are virtually out-of-bounds to the security services.

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U.S Saudi Counter-Terrorism Partnership

Posted on 14 May 2011 by hashimilion

VZCZCXRO5227
OO RUEHBC RUEHDBU RUEHDE RUEHDH RUEHDIR RUEHIHL RUEHKUK RUEHLH RUEHPW
RUEHROV
DE RUEHRH #0408/01 0691436
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 101436Z MAR 09
FM AMEMBASSY RIYADH
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 0356
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE
RUEHZM/GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE
RUCNIRA/IRAN COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE
RUCNRAQ/IRAQ COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE
RUCNISL/ISLAMIC COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE
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RUEHJI/AMCONSUL JEDDAH IMMEDIATE 0086
RHMFISS/COMUSAFCENT SHAW AFB SC IMMEDIATE
RHMFISS/HOMELAND SECURITY CENTER WASHINGTON DC IMMEDIATE 0271
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RHMFISS/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL IMMEDIATE
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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 RIYADH 000408
SIPDIS
DEPARTMENT FOR M U/S PKENNEDY, DOE FOR DAS WBRYAN, CENTCOM
FOR POLAD
E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/11/2014
TAGS: ECON ENRG EPET IR IZ MARR MCAP MOPS OVP PGOV
PK, PREL, PTER, SA, YM
SUBJECT: SAG-USG COUNTER-TERRORISM PARTNERSHIP
REF: A. A:07 RIYADH 1778
¶B. B: RIYADH 272
¶C. C: RIYADH 268
¶D. D: RIYADH 326
Classified By: Deputy Chief of Mission David Rundell
for reasons 1.4 (B) and (D)
¶1. (C) SUMMARY. The SAG’s MOI-hosted Security Conference in
Riyadh and the meeting between CENTCOM DCOM LtGen John Allen
with Asst. Minister for National Security Affairs Prince
Mohammed bin Naif (MbN) highlight the SAG’s commitment to
counter-terrorist activity in the Kingdom by partnering with
the USG in protecting its critical infrastructure, especially
its energy production sites. MbN reconfirmed the SAG’s
commitment to pay all critical infrastructure protection
costs of the Office of Program Management-Ministry of
Interior (OPM-MOI), including USG employee salaries. He
concurred any changes necessary in the Technical Cooperation
Agreement (TCA) be made to allow such payments, but remarked
hopefully the lawyers would not be problematic. Regarding
the Saudi deradicalization program, he considered it a
success in generating Saudi public anger at radical
extremists and was unconcerned by those who escaped the
program to rejoin Al Qaeda (AQ), noting they actually serve
the SAG’s purpose because they delegitimize extremism by
rebuffing the chance for rehabilitation and a new life,
further alienating violent radicals from the populace. MbN
did express concern that some ARAMCO employees posed a threat
of internal sabotage to oil facilities due to extremist
sympathies. END SUMMARY.
OPM-MOI NOW OPERATIONAL
———————–
¶2. (SBU) OPM-MOI, a DOS-led interagency security assistance
organization including DOE and DOD, established by the formal
TCA signed by the Secretary and Minister of Interior HRH
Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in May 2008 to partner with
the Saudi MOI in protecting the Kingdom’s critical
infrastructure with full SAG funding (Reftel A), is now
operational in Saudi Arabia. In the March 9 meeting between
LtGen Allen and MbN, LtGen Allen introduced the senior U.S.
military officer assigned to assist the MOI in training its
Facilities Security Force (FSF). Likewise, we informed MbN
of the arrival of the senior DOS officer in Riyadh on March
10 to serve as OPM-MOI’s Program Manager and overall leader.
These officers, along with the senior DOE Liaison and
associated CENTCOM and Embassy Riyadh personnel, now serve as
the core of OPM-MOI who will begin assisting the Saudis in
enhancing the protection of their critical infrastructure,
with initial focus on Saudi oil facilities.
¶3. (C) LtGen Allen reaffirmed to MbN the USG’s full
commitment to the protection of Saudi critical
infrastructure, emphasizing that CENTCOM Commander GEN David
Petraeus guarantees CENTCOM’s full support to this program.
Both concurred on the importance to the global economy of
preventing terrorists from attacking Saudi oil facilities.
MbN asserted the goal is to prevent attacks from ever being
carried out, recommending OPM-MOI include intelligence links
in its operational plans. LtGen Allen commended MOI’s
success in dealing with internal terrorist threats in the
Kingdom, and its successful rehabilitation program with Saudi
Guantanamo returnees and extremists captured in Saudi Arabia.
RIYADH 00000408 002 OF 003
¶4. (SBU) MbN was informed that the initial OPM-MOI work
contracts, consisting of the DOE Project Specific Agreement
(PSA) to conduct vulnerability assessments of oil sites and
the DOD Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) to implement
urgent needs training of FSF troops, have been submitted to
MOI staff for approval and signature. MbN was grateful for
USG efforts and assured us full funding would soon follow the
signing of these documents, and reconfirmed the SAG’s
commitment to pay all OPM-MOI costs. He also agreed to fund
all USG employee costs, concurring with any necessary TCA
changes to allow such payments, commenting that “hopefully
the lawyers will not cause us any problems.”
¶5. (SBU) MbN had previously acknowledged to the Ambassador
the MOI’s lack of technical capacity in effectively working
with OPM-MOI. To rectify this problem, OPM-MOI has begun
coordination with the Saudis for SAG-funded English language
and management training in the U.S. for mid-level MOI
officers who will be our future interlocutors. In the
interim, OPM-MOI is drafting a plan for MOI to contract and
fund bilingual Americans experienced in USG contracting and
Foreign Military Sales to work in MOI assisting in PSA, LOA,
and related OPM-MOI projects.
DEFUSING THE INTERNAL SAUDI THREAT
———————————-
¶6. (SBU) MOI sponsored the second annual Riyadh Security
Conference from March 2-5, which included such notables as
FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General Edwin
Meese. Other participants were U.S., British and Saudi
security officials, academics, and the U.S. and U.K
Ambassadors to the Kingdom. The theme of this well-received
conference was how to deradicalize extremists. This topic
was noteworthy as several Saudi Guantanamo returnees had
recently disappeared, with two resurfacing in Yemen as AQ
members (Reftels B, C and D).
¶7. (C) In private discussions with us, MbN observed it was
unfortunate these individuals had escaped and some had
rejoined AQ, but stated the Saudi deradicalization
rehabilitation program was nonetheless a success and was
unconcerned by these individuals. He explained while these
Guantanamo returnees rejoining AQ in Yemen was embarrassing
to the SAG, the program itself was achieving the true goal of
turning the Saudi populace against extremist radicals. These
individuals were being denounced by the Saudi public, and
even by their immediate families. The SAG was offering these
individuals employment and marriage opportunities to allow
new, peaceful and productive lives. MbN shared that if the
Saudi people saw that the SAG had offered these extremists a
helping hand which they slapped away, instead of a clenched
fist used against them, then their families, tribes and the
Saudi nation as a whole would view the SAG as “the
benefactor” and these unrepentant extremists as “deviants.”
According to MbN, in Arab culture this is an extremely
powerful and advantageous position for the SAG as it cuts off
the necessary public support extremists need to operate.
THREATS – YEMEN, IRAN AND FROM WITHIN
————————————-
¶8. (C) In response to his views on the current threat, MbN
listed three:
— Yemen was “a dangerous, failed state” similar to
Afghanistan by allowing AQ to regroup and become its
RIYADH 00000408 003 OF 003
operational base. He mentioned the SAG was using its funds
to gain Yemeni tribal cooperation through public works
programs, especially as a way to curb the lawlessness along
the Saudi-Yemeni border. MbN offered that while Yemeni
President Saleh was not the best leader, after 30 years in
power, his removal, either through natural causes or
rebellion, would leave a vacuum that would further weaken
Yemen. He opined that overtures to the Taliban in
Afghanistan were useful, as it would make Al Qaeda leaders
there nervous and unsure if they would be betrayed, but this
would also make them more likely to seek “safe haven” in
Yemen. LtGen Allen informed that U.S. Special Forces and
U.S. Navy trainers were stepping cooperation with Yemeni
forces to counter border and maritime threats.
— Iran, according to MbN, was a greater threat from its
destabilizing actions than from its nuclear program. He
added Iran currently has many weaknesses due to its
deteriorating economy. USG overtures for talks with Iran
would exploit those weaknesses and further undermine the
mullahs.

— Regarding the internal Saudi threat, MbN stated AQ was
beaten down in the Kingdom, but he was concerned of “insiders
in ARAMCO” and that ARAMCO employees with full access to its
facilities were extremists or extremist/Hezbollah
sympathizers, using their authorized access and/or technical
knowledge to commit sabotage. Again, he then emphasized the
importance of OPM-MOI to provide rapid training of the FSF
and detailed assessments of the vulnerabilities of Saudi oil
facilities.
¶9. (C) COMMENT. The SAG has worked to counter terrorism
within the Kingdom, achieving significant success. Both
through its kinetic operations against AQ, to its soft power
deradicalization rehabilitation program where it has turned
the Saudi public against AQ and violent extremism. Bilateral
cooperation on the protection of Saudi critical
infrastructure, as previously reported, is of immense
importance to ensure adequate energy supplies are available
to the global economy. OPM-MOI offers a tremendous venue to
strengthen the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship which then
allows a broadening of Saudi support on a host of issues.
END COMMENT.
FRAKER

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Two Grenades Thrown at Saudi Consulate in Karachi

Posted on 11 May 2011 by hashimilion

Leaked Photo of Bin Laden

 

Drive-by attackers lobbed two grenades at the Saudi consulate in Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi on Wednesday, in a first possible violent reaction to the US killing of Osama bin Laden.

Officials reported no damage and no casualties after two men on a motorcycle threw the explosives at the heavily fortified building in Clifton, the smartest neighbourhood of Karachi, nine days after bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.

“This was an attack on the Saudi consulate. Two motorcycle riders threw two grenades and fled,” provincial government official Sharfuddin Memon told AFP.

“One exploded and hit the outer wall. The second landed inside and fortunately didn’t explode. It was later defused by bomb disposal,” he said.

“There were no casualties. We are seeing this incident in the present context. It could be a reaction of the Osama incident.” Pakistan has been in the grip of domestic and international crisis since US Navy SEALS flew in, seemingly undetected, from Afghanistan to identify and kill the Saudi-born Al-Qaeda terror mastermind at a suburban compound on May 2.

Pakistanis have expressed horror at the perceived impunity of the raid, furiously asking if their military was too incompetent to know he was living in a garrison city near the capital, or, even worse, conspired to protect him.

But while the killing has not ignited mass protests in the Muslim country, where more than 4,240 people have died in bomb attacks blamed on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the last four years, small gatherings have vowed revenge.

“We fear that desperate elements are planning to launch a big attack. We are taking precautionary measures in this regard,” Memon said.

Saudi Arabia expelled bin Laden in 1991 and later revoked his nationality. The government in Riyadh, which is allied to the authorities in Islamabad, last week welcomed his killing as a boost to international anti-terror efforts.

An AFP photographer said ambulances, police and paramilitary Rangers swarmed outside the Saudi consulate after the attack, where small shrapnel marks could be seen on the outer wall of the building.

Mohammed Safdar, a police official at the scene, said security guards at the diplomatic mission had opened fire on the attackers but they escaped.

“Two security men at the gate opened fire on them, but they managed to flee,” he told AFP.

“The security guards informed us and we reached the spot immediately. The bomb disposal squad are here. Other police and Rangers have surrounded the area,” he added.

Pakistan is holding in protective custody three of bin Laden’s widows, who come from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and 13 of their children.

The foreign ministry says it has yet to receive a formal request from the United States for access to the relatives or requests from their home countries for their repatriation.

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Former Terrorist Says Al-Qaeda Lacks Financing

Posted on 11 May 2011 by hashimilion

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 RIYADH 001166

SIPDIS

NSC FOR BROWN, TREASURY FOR GLASER, DHS FOR WARRICK,
CENTCOM FOR POLAD GFOELLER

E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/08/2019
TAGS: PREL PGOV PTER KTFN EFIN SA PK
SUBJECT: FORMER TERRORIST SAYS AL-QAEDA LACKS FINANCING
REF: A. RIYADH 1110 B. RIYADH 1121 C. RIYADH 1151

Classified By: CDA Ambassador Richard Erdman for reasons 1.4 (B) and (D )

SUMMARY
——-

¶1. (C) In a September 6 interview with liberal daily Al-Watan, former Al-Qaeda fighter Fawaz Al-Otaibi, whose surrender to Saudi authorities was announced on September 2, said that Al-Qaeda was in a “”catastrophic financial situation”” — thanks in part to strict measures aimed at cutting off the flow of terrorist financing — and was now directing its efforts towards recruiting Arab youths to perform suicide operations in their home countries. Commenting on Otaibi and the concept of Jihad in general, Al-Watan editor and former Osama bin Laden confidant, Jamal Kashoggi, told us the concept of jihadism is a key tenet of Islam; it will not go away, but we should work to channel the concept into a state context, where decisions concerning the duty to wage jihad must rest with the state rather than the individual. In related news, the Ministry of Social Affairs announced plans to institute quarterly reviews of charities to prevent “”financial misconduct,”” including direction of charitable fund to terrorist activities. END SUMMARY.

AL-OTAIBI’S SURRENDER MADE PUBLIC
———————————

¶2. (U) On September 2, the MOI announced that Fawaz Al-Otaibi, a Saudi on the 85 most wanted list, had surrendered to authorities. The announcement came less than a week after the failed suicide attack on Assistant Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif (reftels), and gave no indication of how long Otaibi had been in custody. The report said he had been reunited with his family and allowed to perform Umrah. Prior to his surrender, Al-Otaibi reportedly called his parents and told them he wanted to return to Saudi Arabia and hand himself in. He had left the Kingdom approximately 1 year ago for the UAE, and his last known location prior to surrendering was reportedly Iran.

¶3. (U) In a Saudi Gazette interview published September 6, Otaibi’s mother claimed her son had been dreaming of Jihad since his teens. He told his family he was being transferred to a national guard post in Tabuk, said farewell, and later called his brothers, telling them “”he was in Pakistan for Jihad,”” she added. She claimed to have noticed no change in his behavior; that he had finished secondary school and married; and that prior to his sudden departure she had assumed he led “”a normal life.”” In his final phone calls to family members prior to his surrender, he said he “”regretted leaving the Kingdom”” and “”didn’t find the jihad he had hoped for.”” Otaibi surrendered to the Saudi Embassy in Pakistan and has been held at the Al-Haier prison in Riyadh since his capture.

AL-QAEDA FRUSTRATED, LACKS FUNDS
——————————–

¶4. (U) On September 6, Otaibi spoke out about his experiences in an interview with influential daily Al-Watan. The main points of the interview follow:

¶5. (U) FINANCIAL RESOURCES DRYING UP: Measures aimed at cutting off the flow of money to Al-Qaeda, including efforts to control money channeled through suspicious charitable organizations, had forced Al-Qaeda into a “”catastrophic financial situation.”” As a result, Al-Qaeda was reducing its fighters abroad and relying on experienced local veterans. Individual cell leaders were beginning to turn interested recruits away, citing insufficient resources.

¶6. (U) REHABILITATION PROGRAMS IRK AL-QAEDA: The Al-Qaeda camp in Waziristan, which Otaibi joined in September of last year, had been populated by many frustrated young Arabs– especially Saudis, Egyptians, Libyans and Yemenis. However, many decided to return to their home countries when they endorsed policies that invited them to return and repent. Otaibi suggested Al-Qaeda was annoyed by countries that adopted these policies successfully, most notably Saudi Arabia.
RIYADH 00001166 002 OF 002

¶7. (U) TARGETED RECRUITING FOR HOME COUNTRY OPERATIONS: Otaibi said the recruitment process targeted very few people, for both psychological and moral reasons. Some Afghan fighters believe fighting beside Arabs gives them God’s blessing, but Al-Qaeda leaders preferred to limit the numbers of Arab fighters. Current efforts were focused on recruiting youths to carry out terrorist operations in their home countries. In fact, newly recruited foreign fighters were not allowed to participate on the front in Afghanistan, but were instead asked to join suicide bombing groups targeting Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries, and elsewhere.

AL-WATAN’S EDITOR ON AL-OTAIBI, EXTREMISM
—————————————–

¶8. (C) Jamal Kashoggi, editor of the influential daily Al-Watan, told Charge at a September 3 Iftar dinner that he had had an opportunity to interview Al-Otaibi in his home before the arranged time for turning himself in. The interview, he said, had been relatively short and he was hoping to have another opportunity to meet with Otaibi for a longer interview. Kashoggi, self-described as coming from a very fundamentalist family once but no longer associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was a friend of Osama bin Laden in his younger days, as he was beginning his ideological journey into violent jihadism. (Kashoggi is frequently quoted in “”The Looming Tower”” as a source on Osama bin Laden, his character, and personality.) At the September 3 dinner, Kashoggi said we needed to come to grips with the fact that jihadism IS part and parcel of Islam. Pretending that it isn’t is a delusion. The way to reconcile this reality with the need for a peaceful social order and stability was to make clear to the Muslim community that the decision to wage jihad resided not with individuals, but with the leader of the State– in this case, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

NEW QUARTERLY REVIEWS OF SAUDI CHARITIES
—————————————-

¶9. (U) In related news, Deputy Minister of Social Affairs Abdullah Al-Yousef announced on September 4 plans to conduct quarterly reviews of the financial accounts of charities across the Kingdom. Auditors will be expected to inform the ministry of any financial misconduct, and “”the ministry will act according to the violation of charity regulations.”” These new measures indicate, in part, continuing Saudi efforts to stem the flow of terrorist financing.

ERDMAN “

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Bin Laden’s Ghost

Posted on 09 May 2011 by hashimilion

Osama bin Laden’s death in his Pakistani hiding place is like the removal of a tumor from the Muslim world. But aggressive follow-up therapy will be required to prevent the remaining Al Qaeda cells from metastasizing by acquiring more adherents who believe in violence to achieve the ‘purification’ and empowerment of Islam.

Fortunately, Bin Laden’s death comes at the very moment when much of the Islamic world is being convulsed by the treatment that Bin Laden’s brand of fanaticism requires: the Arab Spring, with its demands for democratic empowerment (and the absence of demands, at least so far, for the type of Islamic rule that Al Qaeda sought to impose).

But can the nascent democracies being built in Egypt and Tunisia, and sought in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, see off the threats posed by Islamic extremists? In particular, can it defeat the Salafi/Wahhabi thought that has long nurtured Osama bin Laden and his ilk, and which remains the professed and protected ideology of Saudi Arabia?

The fact is that before the US operation to kill Bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s symbolic head, the emerging democratic Arab revolutions had already, in just a few short months, done as much to marginalize and weaken his terrorist movement in the Islamic world as the war on terror had achieved in a decade. Those revolutions, whatever their ultimate outcome, have exposed the philosophy and behavior of Bin Laden and his followers as not only illegitimate and inhumane, but actually inept at achieving better conditions for ordinary Muslims.

What millions of Arabs were saying as they stood united in peaceful protest was that their way of achieving Arab and Islamic dignity is far less costly in human terms. More importantly, their way will ultimately achieve the type of dignity that people really want, as opposed to the unending wars of terror to rebuild the caliphate that Bin Laden promised.

After all, the protesters of the Arab Spring did not need to use – and abuse – Islam to achieve their ends. They did not wait for God to change their condition, but took the initiative by peacefully confronting their oppressors. The Arab revolutions mark the emergence of a pluralist, post-Islamist banner for the faithful. Indeed, the only people to introduce religion into the protests have been rulers, such as those in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, who have tried to use fear of the Shia or Sunni “other” to continue to divide and misrule their societies.

Now that the US has eradicated Bin Laden’s physical presence, it needs to stop delaying the rest of the therapeutic process. For the US has been selectively – and short-sightedly – irradiating only parts of the cancer that Al Qaeda represents, while leaving the malignant growth of Saudi Wahabism and Salafism untouched. Indeed, despite the decade of the West’s war on terror, and Saudi Arabia’s longer-term alliance with the US, the Kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment has continued to bankroll Islamic extremist ideologies around the world.

Bin Laden, born, raised, and educated in Saudi Arabia, is a product of this pervasive ideology. He was no religious innovator; he was a product of Wahhabism, and later was exported by the Wahhabi regime as a jihadist.

During the 1980’s, Saudi Arabia spent $75 billion for the propagation of Wahhabism, funding schools, mosques, and charities throughout the Islamic world, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Yemen, Algeria, and beyond. The Saudis continued such programs after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and even after they discovered that “the Call” is uncontrollable, owing to the technologies of globalization. Not surprisingly, the creation of a transnational Islamic political movement, boosted by thousands of underground jihadi Web sites, has blown back into the Kingdom.

Like the hijackers of 9/11, who were also Saudi/Wahhabi ideological exports (15 of the 19 men who carried out those terror attacks were chosen by Bin Laden because they shared the same Saudi descent and education as he), Saudi Arabia’s reserve army of potential terrorists remains, because the Wahhabi factory of fanatical ideas remains intact.

So the real battle has not been with Bin Laden, but with that Saudi state-supported ideology factory. Bin Laden merely reflected the entrenched violence of the Kingdom’s official ideology.

Bin Laden’s eradication may strip some dictators, from Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi to Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh, of the main justification they have used for their decades of repression. But the US knows perfectly well that Al Qaeda is an enemy of convenience for Saleh and other American allies in the region, and that in many cases, terrorism has been used as a pretext to repress reform. Indeed, now the US is encouraging repression of the Arab Spring in Yemen and Bahrain, where official security forces routinely kill peaceful protesters calling for democracy and human rights.

Al Qaeda and democracy cannot coexist. Indeed, Bin Laden’s death should open the international community’s eyes to the source of his movement: repressive Arab regimes and their extremist ideologies. Otherwise, his example will continue to haunt the world.

Leaked Picture of Bin Laden

By Mai Yamani

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U.S. Backing Enables Saudi Arabia to Crush Dissent in Bahrain

Posted on 09 May 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia, the oil rich kingdom that is the birthplace and former home of Osama bin Laden, has staved off the widespread popular protests that have swept across the region since January. The country’s oil-rich Eastern Province, bordering Bahrain, has witnessed protests from the minority Shia Muslim population. In March, Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to support its royal family after a month of protests. We speak with Toby Jones, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, on the role of Saudi Arabia in suppressing the Bahrain uprising, as well as its own. “We shouldn’t assume that there is a lack of interest on the part of Saudi citizens in achieving some sort of democratic or political reform. There are deep frustrations in Saudi society,” says Jones.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich kingdom that is the birthplace and former home of Osama bin Laden. On Thursday, a senior extremist linked to al-Qaeda surrendered to Saudi authorities. Khaled Hathal al-Qahtani is thought to be the first operative to turn himself in after U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday in Pakistan.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has staved off the widespread popular protests that have swept across the region since January. The country’s oil-rich Eastern Province, bordering Bahrain, has witnessed some protests from the minority Shia Muslim population. In March, Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to support its royal family after a month of protests.

Seventy percent of Saudi Arabia’s almost 19 million people are under the age of 30, and last year unemployment was at 10 percent. In a bid to pacify Saudi citizens, King Abdullah, the 87-year-old head of state, has distributed over $100 billion in social handouts since February.
Municipal elections are planned for September. Women will not be able to run for seats or vote in the elections, and there have been some protests organized by women to end the Kingdom’s discriminatory laws. Saudi Arabia has no political parties.

To discuss the situation there, we’re joined by Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University. He was previously Persian Gulf analyst for the International Crisis Group. He’s the author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia and is working on a new book project, America’s Oil Wars.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

TOBY JONES: Thanks for having me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, why has Saudi Arabia escaped the widespread popular movements that have swept through the Middle East and the Arab world?

TOBY JONES: Well, for a number of reasons. The first is that it possesses the incredible ability to police its own population, which is not dissimilar from other autocratic regimes in the region. But it also has oil wealth and an almost unlimited ability to pay out, and to co-opt potential dissidence, which we saw the King and the royal family attempt to do in early and mid-March by passing out, as you noted, over $100 billion in inducements to encourage people not to take to the streets.

But we shouldn’t assume that there is a lack of interest on the part of Saudi citizens in achieving some sort of democratic or political reform, that there is absent in Saudi Arabia the political will for precisely the kind of thing that happened in Egypt or Tunisia, Yemen, Syria or Bahrain. There are deep frustrations in Saudi society. There are anxieties about the ailing nature of the political system, corruption within the royal family, and a deep desire to see fundamental change.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how Saudi Arabia has repressed its own protests as well as moved into Bahrain to support the government in the fierce repression of the pro-democracy movement there?

TOBY JONES: Well, in addition to using financial and other kinds of social inducements to convince its citizens not to take to the streets, at least not for now, the Saudis have also rolled out a series of other measures, some security-based, initially responding to the possibility of a popular uprising in mid-March. The Kingdom blanketed its streets with heavy security presence, discouraging people from gathering publicly.

But they’ve also done another thing, which is very important and has not totally escaped notice but is important to keep in mind, particularly in light of the demise of Osama bin Laden and the continuing concern about the global war on terror: Saudi Arabia has also renewed a set of relationships with the religious establishment, empowering Islamists, as part of this wave of responding to popular mobilization, using the religious clergy and religious scholars to attempt to delegitimize popular protest and also to basically encourage citizens to remain quiescent. The reestablishment or the re-empowerment of the religious clergy is a new thing under King Abdullah. When he came to power in 2005, he actually took fairly serious measures to roll back the authority of the religious establishment, which he saw both as a source of embarrassment but also as a potential threat to Saudi power, to the power of the royal family. So the fact that some of his early efforts or some of his most recent efforts are being systematically undone and that the clergy are enjoying a kind renaissance, if you will, should be a source of concern.

The decision to intervene in Bahrain is linked directly to anxieties on the part of the Saudis about the potential for a democratic demonstration effect. They worry that if there were popular uprisings or if there was a successful regime change in Bahrain, that that might somehow sweep across the Saudi borders and encourage Saudi citizens to pursue a similar path. But there’s also another element, and that is something that is perhaps particular to the Saudis and the Bahrainis. There is a deep sense of anti-Shiism and sectarianism in the Kingdom. So, the specter of Shia political power in Bahrain, so soon after Iraqi Shias came to enjoy predominance and power in Saudi Arabia’s most powerful northern neighbor, was too much for the Saudis to bear. And so, they preemptively intervened, militarily occupied Bahrain, in order to stamp out the possibility of Shia empowerment there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the issue of the U.S. relations, especially in view of the fact that the continuing total lack of rights for women in Saudi Arabia, that our government never mentions a word about or talks about that—how is the Kingdom able in this age, with all the modern communications that we have, to continue to suppress the rights of women and yet receive virtually no condemnation anywhere in the rest of the world?

TOBY JONES: Well, they certainly don’t receive political condemnation from the powers that be here in the United States or elsewhere. And it has to do with the Kingdom’s ability to supply the quintessential industrial resource—right, its role—and not only just providing oil, but in being the most important global producer of oil on the planet. It has the ability to shape markets, to make up for shortfalls, to exceed capacity, everywhere, makes it more vital than lots of other places. And this has long been most important and the single most important political priority for American policymakers, and for Western policymakers more broadly. Women’s rights, in the grand scheme of things, then, from the perspective of the State Department or the White House, they almost hardly matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Osama bin Laden and Saudi Arabia? You were talking about the empowerment of the clergy. Talk about his history. He is from Saudi Arabia.

TOBY JONES: Right. Well, his citizenship is contested by the Saudis, who claim that he’s actually Yemeni in origin. But his father was an important contractor in Saudi Arabia, ran a major construction business. He first came of age working for Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, in Saudi Arabia, but then became a main contractor to the Saudi state. And bin Laden was one of his many children and sort of came of age in the Saudi political system and education system, grew up in the 1970s and in the 1980s, in a moment when Saudi Arabia was renewing its Islamic credentials, partly in response to a crisis in late ’70s, re-empowering the religious establishment and encouraging a certain interpretation of Islam, a particularly kind of virulent one. Bin Laden took note, traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to participate in the anti-Soviet jihad there, or at least to provide services, and was radicalized in the context of the Afghan jihad, returned to Saudi Arabia shortly after the conclusion of that war. In 1990 and 1991, actually offered his services and the services of the Mujahideen to the Saudi royal family to defend the Kingdom from Saddam Hussein, who had just invaded Kuwait. He was politely rebuffed, and then left the Kingdom and went to Sudan, eventually on his way to Afghanistan, where he formed al-Qaeda and began fighting the global crusade against—the global war against the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the U.S. support for the Mujahideen and Osama bin Laden, when they were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then, of course, they set their sights back on the United States.

TOBY JONES: That’s right. I mean, al-Qaeda, bin Laden and the phenomenon of global terrorism and global jihad is the direct outgrowth of the Afghan jihad. So the United States made a strategic decision in the late 1970s under the Carter administration, and then a set of policies that was accelerated under Reagan, to equip and aid the Mujahideen in rolling back the Soviets and pushing them back out of Central Asia, for lots of reasons, but most importantly, as Carter articulated in 1980, because they were too close to the Persian Gulf. That was the site of our vital interests, and we were willing to do whatever necessary to protect them. So the decision to support the jihad and the Arab Afghans, as well as the Afghani Mujahideen, is the context from which al-Qaeda and bin Laden emerged, along with a whole host of other folks.

That first generation of al-Qaeda jihadis, beyond 9/11, who began carrying out attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco and elsewhere, were trained on the battlefields in Afghanistan and in the camps there. It would be—it’s not entirely right that the United States directly armed bin Laden. They armed lots of other bad guys who had relationships with bin Laden. It is entirely appropriate to see bin Laden—to understand both his credibility, his legitimacy and the sources of his radicalization as being a product of American policy in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to go back to Saudi Arabia for one moment to talk about this whole issue of the government’s attempt to rehabilitate former fighters. Basically, it provides enormous leniency to those who turn in their weapons and agree to reintegrate into Saudi society. Could you talk about that, especially the numbers who have come from—those who have been released from Guantánamo that Saudi Arabia has accepted back and put into these reeducation programs?

TOBY JONES: Well, it’s remarkable. The Saudis, on the one hand, do in fact have—they fear the power of al-Qaeda to do harm, and they were confronted with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2003, 2004 and 2005, began a campaign inside Saudi Arabia. AQAP now continues to exist in Yemen and would like very much to do harm to the Saudis. So the Saudis are nervous about the power of terrorists to continue to do damage inside the Kingdom, both to threaten the royal family but also to potentially undermine its economy.

But it’s taken the path of dealing with these forces and these individuals by—precisely by rehabilitating them, by putting them in facilities that attempt to indoctrinate them. They bring in established clergy to essentially reeducate these folks, rehabilitate them. They’re provided with various subsidies and services, and then they’re reintegrated into family life, and into social life more broadly. So it’s a kind of catch-and-release program for suspected or for real terrorists.

One of the interesting paradoxes here is that when the Saudi state arrests liberals—not terrorists, but folks who demand things like constitutional monarchy, the creation of a constitutional monarchy, women’s rights, an end to corruption—those folks are imprisoned, and they’re left to stay there.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what Saudi Arabia is doing now? In the piece you wrote, “Counterrevolution in the Gulf,” you talk about it pursuing policies that could destabilize the whole Persian Gulf.

TOBY JONES: Right. Well, the intervention in Bahrain has got to be one of the most deeply troubling things that the Saudis—and they’ve done a lot of troubling things, right? But the decision to intervene, to militarily occupy Bahrain, has been justified. Although there are lots of different motives, it’s been justified as a response to what the Saudis claim is Iranian meddling. Much of the assumption—many Gulf Arabs assume, as do many American policymakers, that there are preternatural connections between Shias in the Arab world, whether they’re in Iraq, Bahrain or Iran, that because they’re co-religionists, they share a single political objective, and because we view Iran as the single most important bogeyman in the region, this matters. The Saudis have used this precisely to frame their intervention in Bahrain, that we’re taking out—we’re checking the possibility of Iran to establish either a fifth column or a front line so close to Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing region in the Eastern Province. So, by framing things both in sectarian terms and as a response to Iranian power, for which there is no evidence, the Saudis are in fact escalating and provoking a potential regional crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, I want to thank you for being with us, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, previously with the International Crisis Group, a political analyst of the Persian Gulf, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.

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Saudi is Spreading Poison Throughout the World. Can Reform Save it?

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

At the end of last month, Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, son of the founder of Saudi Arabia and half-brother to its present king, made an astonishing call for reform. “We cannot use the same tools we have been using to rule the country [from] a century ago,” he told the Financial Times. “This region is roiling with turmoil and radicalism and the aspirations of a young population, and I’m afraid we are not prepared for that.”

The prince has long been a dissonant voice in a family that frowns on public dissidence, and has no decision-making power. But his words speak to a fundamental battle taking place behind the guarded walls of the kingdom’s palaces. Will King Abdullah’s tentative steps towards reform, attempting to take back control of the judiciary, education and the religious police (the notorious mutawa) from reactionary clerics, continue? Or will the king’s recent appointment of Prince Nayef, the arch-conservative interior minister, as deputy prime minister and third in line to the throne, bring them to a halt?

For the problem facing this absolutist monarchy, which has managed to function both as the custodian of the birthplace of Islam and as a US ally sitting on a quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves, is not its immediate overthrow. (It has already seen off a proto-insurgency by al-Qaeda followers.) It is that the very basis of the House of Saud’s legitimacy, the fusion of temporal and religious power which forms the bedrock of the Saudi state, rests on its alliance with the House of Ibn Abdul Wahhab. And Wahhabism, the puritan faith formulated by this 18th-century religious reformer, is, in its essentials, the totalitarian creed espoused by Osama Bin Laden to justify his murderous jihad.

For many years the Saudi ruling family, which is also dependent for survival on its 64-year-old alliance with the US, managed to keep any difficulties caused by its reliance on these two radically opposed sources of support concealed behind a brittle facade of modernity. All this began to change, however, after 11 September 2001.

At first the al-Saud were in denial that 15 of the 19 hijackers were their countrymen, and that the attackers had been inspired by Bin Laden, a member of one of the kingdom’s leading merchant families. A year later, Prince Nayef was still insisting to a Kuwaiti newspaper that the attacks were a Zionist plot. When five western oil executives were killed at Yanbu, the Red Sea port, on 1 May 2004, then Crown Prince Abdullah said he was “95 per cent certain” that Zionists were behind it. Such attacks turned international opinion against Muslims: so, what other explanation could there be?

Once the jihadis turned their gunsights on the heart of the kingdom, however, the al-Saud began to accept the possibility of there being other culprits. The turning point came with the 29 May 2004 attack at al-Khobar in the Eastern Province. This is the region that contains the largest oil deposits in the world and is, in addition, the homeland of Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shia minority. Islamist gunmen attacked two foreign oil company office blocks and an expatriate enclave, killing three Saudi and 19 foreign civilians as well as nine Saudi policemen. They sought out Christian, Hindu and Buddhist “infidels” to murder, while setting Muslim hostages free. As in Yanbu that same month, they were able to mount the spectacle of dragging the body of a westerner for more than a mile, spitting slogans as they went. Even though the attack turned into a siege, with Saudi security forces ringing the compound and commandos landing on the roof of a building where the gunmen were holding more than 40 hostages, three of the attackers were able to, or allowed to, escape.

The authorities finally had to acknowledge that al-Qaeda, incubated in good part by the fanatical Wahhabism the al-Saud imposed as the kingdom’s sole creed, was their problem, too. As the slaughter at al-Khobar was continuing, the then crown prince, now King Abdullah, vowed to crush “this corrupt and deviant group” in Saudi society. “Those who keep silent about the terrorists will be regarded as belonging to them,” he warned. The implication was that nothing less than a seismic reformation of the House of Saud’s relationship with the Wahhabi clerical establishment was required–a reforging of the historic agreement that is the foundation stone of the Saudi state.

This is, in fact, the third time the House of Saud has set up a state in peninsular Arabia. The epic begins in the mid-18th century, when an emir from the Nejd in central Arabia, Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Saud, took in an itinerant preacher by the name of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. In 1744, the compact between the two houses was sealed by the marriage of al-Saud’s son and Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s daughter. This combination of Islam and the al-Saud has formed the basis of the Saudi kingdom ever since. Its essential promise is to banish chaos and darkness–an echo of the pre-Islamic jahiliyya, or epoch of ignorance, that God sought to end through his revelation to the Prophet Muhammad–and substitute order, both human and divine.

By this time, the al-Saud had become oasis settlers. Increasingly populous and “detribalised”, they were obliged to find an alternative formula to build up their political and military strength, both to resist the predatory tribes and to press their ambitions. The alliance with Ibn Abdul Wahhab gave them just that: the magic ingredients of religious reform and jihad -a holy war to reclaim the peninsula of the Prophet Muhammad and the birthplace of Islam for true believers.

Abdul Wahhab espoused probably the most literalist, rigorous, antique and exclusivist interpretation of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy ever attempted as a form of governance. The Wahhab-Saud forces came to be known as Wahhabis, but often refer to themselves as the Ahl al-Tawhid, people of the oneness (of God). They regard any apparent deviation from monotheism–particularly evident to them in the practices of the Christians and the “idolatrous” and “rejection-ist” (Rafadah) Shia Muslims, for whom they reserved the lowest circle of hell–as infidel or apostate. This (in the strict sense of the word) totalitarian creed anathematised all other beliefs as illicit. It defined everyone else as “the Other”, drawing up as broad a definition of “non-believers” as has ever been devised. Wahhabism thus provides limitless sanction for jihad (making it hard for jihadis or their victims to understand how al-Qaeda, as the al-Saud insist, is in any way “deviant” from this orthodoxy).

The Wahhabi claim is to have found Arabia in a tribal stew of idolatry and chaos, war and pillage, ignorance and vice. In effect, the Wahhab-Saud forces claim to have ended the second Arabian jahiliyya or age of ignorance. If true, that would put them on a par with the Prophet himself- a heady boast indeed. In fact, Saudi-Wahhabi propaganda is a mirror image of the orientalist discourse about the Hobbesian fate from which the west saved the east. It is a self-serving myth to justify the hegemony of the al-Saud and the Nejd over a regionally and religiously diverse nation, which was unified by force only after King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud fought 52 battles across a 30-year war of conquest, ending in 1932. Tawhid came to mean not just the “oneness” of God but the oneness of Arabia under Saudi hegemony.

In return for this religious cover, the Wahhabi clerical establishment was given decisive social control, not only over religion and public comportment, but also over education and justice. Above all, it derived power from conferring legitimacy on the Saudi rulers, who had now named the land of the Prophet after themselves. The politico-religious symbiosis of the House of Ibn Saud and the House of al-Sheikh, as it is now known, built the world’s first modern Muslim fundamentalist state.

The state created by Ibn Saud has remained essentially static, while its subjects have been dragged into a modernity that rests on the shakiest foundations, imported like the air-conditioners that cool the gleaming malls and gated residential compounds. Within loudspeaker distance of a fire-and-brimstone mosque in Riyadh, close to the hotels where I have stayed many times, a shimmering mall houses a Harvey Nichols emporium with an outlet for La Senza, the lingerie chain. It is identical, in all respects except the gaudier range, to a similar shop anywhere else. But there is one fundamental difference. Because women may not mix with men outside their family and are kept in a mixture of seclusion and segregation, it follows that they cannot work in a lingerie boutique–which is therefore staffed entirely by men.

Saudi businesswomen, who operate with signal success but in a more or less separate environment from men, have increasingly been calling for a boycott of these kinds of arrangements, which are beyond satire.

A similar absurdity arises from the ban on women driving, which in practice has required the importation of more than a million foreigners to serve as drivers. In other words, a prohibition supposedly intended to keep women from temptation by denying them any independence leads to them being thrown into. daily contact with male strangers. Only a society that has living memory of the social conventions of slavery could be capable of countenancing such a paradox.

But it is probably in the field of education that this schizophrenia is most vividly and wrenchingly lived out. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia has an educated middle class, almost one million of whom have studied abroad. The kingdom has schooled its girls for nearly two generations. Saudis often have an intellectual depth to them that is less readily encountered in many Arab countries, where political and commercial pressures have debased and ground down the currency of ideas to convenient and remunerative cliche and myth. “There is something curiously uncalloused about the Saudis,” says a veteran diplomat to the kingdom.

But then turn to school textbooks, drawn up under the authority of the Wahhabi establishment. These drill into impressionable young Saudi minds the religious duty to hate all Christians and Jews as infidels, and to combat all Shias as heretics. A theology text for 14-year-olds, for instance, states that “it is the duty of a Muslim to be loyal to the believers and be the enemy of the infidels. One of the duties of proclaiming the oneness of God is to have nothing to do with his idolatrous and polytheist enemies.” The history textbooks typically emphasise the al-Saud hegemonic myth, burying any attempt to weave regional specificity or religious breadth into national identity under a suffocating narrative of Nejdi supremacy and Saudi redemption.

“It is really not very difficult to understand how we got to where we are,” says one reformist intellectual, asking rhetorically if there was any difference between the sectarian bigotry of Osama Bin Laden and the intolerant outpourings of the Wahhabi establishment. Saudi Arabia is a laboratory for jihad–that is its strategic dilemma.

While mosques and classrooms continue to spew out this fanaticism, Saudi Arabia has also been exporting these ideas for decades. Just during the reign of the late King Fahd, Riyadh claimed to have established 1,359 mosques abroad, along with 202 colleges, 210 Islamic centres and more than 2,000 schools. In addition, it episodically supported pan-Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and sponsored jihad abroad from Afghanistan to Bosnia. Jihadis were able to establish a base in Iraq partly because Wahhabi proselytisers had established bridgeheads in cities such as Mosul in the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

As king, Abdullah has introduced some incremental change. He has started rewriting textbooks, changing teaching methods and vetting teachers. He demanded the active co-operation of the clerical establishment in curtailing the flow of Saudi volunteers to Iraq. He has instituted de-radicalisation programmes for groups of jihadi prisoners who are willing to reintegrate into Saudi society. The king has also built tentative bridges to the Shias, and tried to foster a more pluralist conception of Islam.

In 2003, he launched a “national dialogue”, which held out the prospect of more open government, tighter financial controls on the royal family’s share of national wealth, greater rights for women, even the gradual introduction of elections. The king at least appeared to recognise the need for a more open society. But his brothers (the succession has always passed along the line of King Abdul Aziz’s elderly sons) did not share this view at all. No sooner was the national dialogue under way than Prince Nayef summoned dissidents to his office where, according to one reformer present, they were told: “What we won by the sword, we will keep by the sword.” Crown Prince Sultan said publicly, in March 2004, that the kingdom was not ready for an elected parliament, because voters might choose “illiterates”. Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, then minister of Islamic affairs, rejected even the term “reform” as being pregnant with liberalism and licentiousness.

It is inescapable, however, that the al-Saud need to curb the corrosive power of the religious establishment and lead the kingdom towards a form of modernity that its religious heritage can sustain. And the most feasible way forward is to enlist Islamist progressives.

This loosely connected group of Islahiyyun or “reformers” has rediscovered the thinking of Islamic revivalists and reformers of more than a century ago, and turned it into a devastating critique of Ibn Abdul Wahhab.

Encouraged by Abdullah, the newspaper al-Watan (the nation, or homeland) became a forum for this debate, as did internet discussion groups, such as Muntada al-Wasatiyya, set up by the dissident Islamist Mohsen al-Awajy.

This still embryonic force has already achieved three major changes. First, the groups have presented their demands collectively, instead of petitioning individually at the majlis or court of the prince. The turning point was a 2003 petition signed by leading Islamist reformers and liberals. Second, the document proposed allowing diversity in matters of faith and politics–in a country where uniformity on both has long been imposed. And third, it broke the taboo about speaking against Wahhabism, and implied that it was this distorted form of Islam that was preventing Saudi Arabia from becoming a successful modern state all its citizens could easily support.

It is important to realise that the petition, titled “A vision for the present and future of the homeland”, draws on sources of renewal that are and will remain Islamic and, in important ways, Islamist. However alien this fusion of religion and politics may seem to secular westerners, it is key to any possibility of change, because it provides reformers with an authenticity and a legitimacy that deflects charges of foreign influence and intrusion. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Qassim, a former Saudi judge and reformer, is an authority on this. “Al-Qaeda and the clergy are essentially doing the same thing in different ways–putting pressure on the House of Saud for being less devout than it should be. This paralyses reform,” he tells me. “The only way out is to dilute the link with Wahhabi fanaticism.

“The only way forward is to win the legitimacy of society itself- through political reform that does not depend on the approval of the clergy. If you make society part of reform you can overcome the clergy. It is the only way.”

The demands of the Islamist reformers include free elections, freedom of expression and association, an independent judiciary, a fairer distribution of wealth, and a clearer foreign policy arrived at through open debate–in short, a constitutional monarchy, if nowhere near a bicycling monarchy. “We are limiting our demands to very specific issues, and reiterating the al-Saud’s right to stay at the top of the tree,” says Mohsen al-Awajy. “They think it’s for tactical reasons, but the fact is there is no real alternative.”

Just how fundamental it is that liberals and Islamists take on Wahhabism cannot be overstated. But the liberals are an infinitesimal minority, tainted in the eyes of the masses with corruption and decadence. As one senior prince puts it, with a certain melancholy: “We liberals sit around a bottle of scotch and complain to each other, and then, the next morning, do nothing. Yet if we don’t get real progress, economically, socially and politically, we are going to be in a terrible mess in five to ten years.”

He, at least, shows an awareness alien to much of a bloated royal family that affects not to understand where a privy purse ends and a public budget begins, and continues to squander fabulous public wealth. Military spending, for example, is about three times the average for a developing country and is used as a mechanism for distributing power and wealth within the top ranks of the House of Saud–which is more than 5,000 princes strong.

No wonder that it is the Islamist reformers, numerically and ideologically, who are the real force for change. They can credibly argue that they intend no separation between mosque and state, but a redefinition of the relationship between the al-Saud and the al-Sheikh.

“Saudi Arabia has to be an Islamic state; it is the birthplace of Islam. The question is which Islam?” says Jamal Khashoggi, editor of al-Watan and adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington and London. “The alliance should be between the state and Islam, not between the House of Saud and the House of al-Sheikh.”

Awajy, whose candour lost him his job as a university professor, argues: “The contract between the two houses is no longer in the interests of the Saudi people; if we tolerated it in the past it does not mean we will in the future. Real reform cannot take place within the Wahhabi doctrine.”

The Wahhabi establishment has pumped the poison of bigotry into the Saudi mainstream throughout the existence of the kingdom. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, it became impossible to ignore that its ideas and al-Qaeda’s were pretty much the same. It is hard to imagine how the House of Saud will survive unless it breaks decisively with these ideas. Or, as one Saudi reformer put it: “If this clerical establishment is incapable of imagining the solutions we need to modern problems, then the answer is clear-we have to find another establishment.”

By David Gardner

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