Feb 24, 2005

Saudis and Terrorism

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen was in Saudi Arabia this month, back three weeks ago for first -- what is considered the first international conference on terrorism. Peter, good morning to you down there in D.C.


HEMMER: What can you tell us about how serious the kingdom is on cracking down with this arrest of Abu Ali?

BERGEN: Well, I think it's part of a larger pattern where they have got pretty serious. Since May 2003, you may remember, there were the first major terrorist attack in Riyadh. There have been 22 attacks since then, 52 attacks have been averted. Something like 130 people have been killed. So the Saudi government, which I think had its sort of head in the sand for many years on this problem, has really done a 180 on this one.

They have arrested up to 800 people. They say that they are going to try about 120 of them. They're in a very different posture and you see these security people -- when is I was in Riyadh, security is very intense. You see glass barriers everywhere. It's -- they really feel under siege and they're trying to go after the people responsible.

HEMMER: One thing you noticed there was this public opinion campaign. What did you see in your travels there?

BERGEN: Well, you know, they're very aggressive now. Suddenly when you go to an ATM, it will print out-- when you get your money, you also get an anti-terrorism message. When you drive down the streets, every street pole has some sort of picture with a terrorist attack. There are PSAs on television showing the people who have been wounded in these attacks.

And there's really an effort to bring public opinion around. Most importantly, they've got the clerics to say that you know, that terrorism is bad. Even condemning the World Trade Center attack, which at the time, they didn't really say much about. So it's really a comprehensive public opinion campaign, which I think is to some degree working.

HEMMER: The point you make about the World Trade Center attacks, prosecutors going back, this Abu Ali case say he quote, "obtained a religious blessing to conduct the assassination of President Bush from a Saudi cleric." Are some clerics stepping up against terrorism, as you referred to?

BERGEN: I mean, yes, definitely. I mean, the Saudi government says that there were 100,000 clerics in the kingdom, that they have basically fired 2,000 of them, retrained some of those guys. Clearly there are still some clerics who are going to be anti-semitic or be anti-American. This is not going to change overnight. But I think the government has really tried to make an effort to get them to condemn terrorism and get them to condemn also acts of terrorism against Westerners.

HEMMER: Well, 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia. Is there any evidence that this campaign is working or is the evidence more indicative of a show of public opinion campaign?

BERGEN: Well, I think that the evidence will be -- in the next year or so, -- I mean, we've had a lot of attacks in the Saudi kingdom. If those attacks start really dissipating, then I think that you'll see the problem is sort of under control. They've certainly damaged the al Qaeda organization in the kingdom pretty heavily, I think.

HEMMER: Peter, thanks. Peter Bergen down there in D.C. Good to chat with you, as always. All right. Here's Soledad.