May 14, 2003

saudis and terrorism, special to the site

For the Saudis it?s finally time to put up or shut up. This week?s suicide attacks in Riyadh demonstrate that al Qaeda is alive and well in Saudi Arabia. Indeed al Qaeda is to a large extent a Saudi organization: Saudi charities and individuals have been the most important funders of al Qaeda; fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudis; Saudis reportedly constitute the largest category of prisoners held at Guantanamo and the founder of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, is a scion of one the Saudi kingdom?s most prominent families. (Do the interesting thought experiment where the word Iraqi is substituted for the word Saudi in the previous sentence.)
Yet Saudi authorities seem to be in a state of willful denial about the deep roots of al Qaeda in the kingdom. It took them months to acknowledge that their citizens played a critical role in the 9/11 plots. Then around the time of the first anniversary of 9/11 the powerful Saudi minister of the Interior Prince Nayef made the appalling suggestion that the attacks on Washington and New York were in fact a Zionist plot. Just last week Prince Nayef further embarrassed himself by declaring that al Qaeda was ?weak and almost nonexistent? in Saudi Arabia. Publicly Saudi authorities have said that they have arrested hundreds of terrorist suspects in the past year and a half, have questioned many more and have instituted safeguards to ensure that money donated to Saudi charities does not end up in the hands of terrorists. However, US investigators privately use words like "useless," and "obstructionist" to describe the Saudi attitude towards their 9/11 inquiries. It defies common sense that none of the fifteen
Saudi hijackers had confederates, friends or mentors in Saudi Arabia with some knowledge of the 9/11 plot, yet while allies like Pakistan and Germany have either turned over 9/11 suspects to American custody or put them on trial there is no record of the Saudis taking such actions.
This should not be surprising. The Saudis have a long history of stonewalling US inquiries into investigations of terrorist attacks directed at Americans. In 1995 a bomb went off outside a military facility in Riyadh killing five American servicemen. The Saudis accused of the attack confessed that they were influenced by bin Laden?s ideas and had trained in Afghanistan, yet American investigators were never able to question the suspects before they were summarily executed. Case very much closed. In 1996 a massive bomb went off outside a US military base in Dhahran killing nineteen US soldiers and injuring hundreds of others. Mike Brooks, a former US counter-terrorism official involved in that investigation, characterizes the cooperation his investigative team received in that inquiry as ?very poor.?
Compounding this lack of cooperation on the law enforcement front, Saudi citizens have played a pivotal role in several of the most important al Qaeda attacks directed at US citizens. Many Americans are familiar with the fact that a majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, but less well known is the fact that the suicide bomber in the 1998 attack on the US embassy in Kenya which killed some two hundred people was a Saudi and that two key leaders of the plot to blow up the USS Cole in Yemen three years ago are Saudi. Indeed, the boat that was used by al Qaeda for the Cole mission was purchased in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore in the past two years there have been a string of bombing and shootings directed at westerners living in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities have generally characterized these attacks as disputes over the illegal alcohol traffic in the kingdom. Investigators should now take a hard look at those cases to determine if in fact these attacks were al Qaeda-related.
It?s now time for Saudi authorities to fully cooperate with US investigators looking into both the 9/11 plots and Monday?s tragic attacks in Riyadh. The Saudis will have some legitimate concerns about issues of their national sovereignty in a wide-ranging American inquiry. However, those concerns should be trumped not only by the necessity of bringing the terrorists expeditiously to justice, but also by self-interest. Westerners working in the kingdom play a critical role in providing technical expertise for the Saudi economy. If westerners depart the county in droves because of security concerns the already battered Saudi economy will go into free fall.