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"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." - George Orwell

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Worried about Saudi Arabia 

The more I learn about the situation in Saudi Arabia the more worried I get.

A summary of the Khobar attack was posted by me on June 2. New information paints a far worse picture of what occurred.

In the initial attack, which occurred May 29 and 30, four terrorists raided an upscale housing complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. They killed 22 people and injured many more. Saudi security forces stormed the complex the next morning, but three of the terrorists had already escaped.

The terrorists were deliberately singling out those who look like westerners. A BBC crew was shot and killed in Riyadh on June 6. During an interview, the public relations chief for the Saudi Interior Ministry admitted that "...they were shot because of the way they appear, as Westerners."

As if this isn't bad enough, the BBC reports that the escaped terrorists (which, like many news outlets, insist on calling "militants") have published an account of their attack that makes the Saudis look like the Keystone Cops. They easily bypassed the Saudi guards and started their killing spree. Unbothered by the police, who they claim were outside but afraid to enter the compound, they took time out to east at the restaurant in the complex and rest up. Some reports say that the terrorists wandered around the complex for up to sixteen hours unchallenged. The morning of the second day they left and watched the Saudis storm the complex on TV from a safe location.

Another report says that the Saudis did in fact "cut a deal" with the terrorists, letting them go before their own forces moved in. The terrorists had threatened to explode a bomb and kill themselves and their remaining hostages.

The obvious conclusion is that the Saudis are either incompetent or corrupt. Rumors run rife that their security forces have been penetrated by Al Qaeda. And even if this is an exaggeration, it seems evident that many citizens in the kingdom are sympathetic to the terrorist organization's objectives.

One thing that makes it difficult to get information is that the Saudis have not conducted any public trials of captured terrorists. Indeed, it is reported that they all seem to be killed in a "hail of gunfire" from the security forces. While these strong measures win the praise of Washington, they lead one to suspect that the Saudis have ulterior motives; dead men don't tell tales.

Since the Khobar attack the terrorists have focused on killing individual Westerners. It is said that they killed so many people in the Khobar attack that they lost some sympathy. Their latest tactic is to kidnap Westerners. Earlier this week, an American, Paul Johnson, was seized by a group calling itself "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula". His kidnappers released a video in which they threatened to treat him in the same degrading manner as some of the Iraqi prisoners were at the Abu Ghraib prison.

The ultimate objective of Osama bin Laden is to overthrow the Saudi regime and install a seventh-century style Caliphate. The first step is to drive Westerners from the Kingdom. And indeed some governments, including the U.S. and U.K., have urged their citizens to leave.

It is possible that the Royal family has finally realized the extent of the threat. The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, recently wrote an article for the government daily newspaper in which he called for a "jihad" against the terrorists. Thomas W. Lippman writes in the Washington Post that " Saudi Arabia is beginning to look like a society under siege" with security checkpoints going up everywhere.

The Saudi response several years ago, when the terrorist wave hit their country, was to just deny that they have a terrorist problem. Initially they blamed Westerners, inventing a "booze / bootlegger" war. In 2001 they arrested five Britons, a Belgian and a Canadian, and forced confessions out of them through repeated torture. This horrific episode was summarized by me in an article posted on May 24 (see archives). Despite expert testimony by two sets of torture experts, the Saudi's have repeatedly denied the torture. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal told BBC correspondent John Sweeney: "I don't care what the so-called experts say. The experts are not just wrong, they are absolutely wrong".

None of this should be surprising, given that they refused to believe for months that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis.

Now at least they admit that the current wave of terrorism is caused by Al Qaeda, but saythat it is "controllable". Various levels of success have been claimed, with Muslim Affairs Minister Dr. Saleh bin Abdulaziz Al Al-shaikh claiming on June 12claiming that they have eliminated half of the terrorist cells in their country. However, Prince Turki Al Faisal, Saudi Ambassador to London, claimed on June 14 that "five out of six" terrorist cells have now been destroyed.

While such claims of success seem clearly oriented towards assuaging public opinion, my guess is that the royal family is in a near state of panic. Prince Bandar's article (noted earlier), along with an analysis in the Christian Science Monitor, lend credence to the view that at least at some levels in their government they are determined to crack down.

As I noted in my earlier piece much of the Al Qaeda activity is a result of a Faustian bargain that the Saudi royal family made many years ago. They decided to tolerate radical Wahhabist support of terrorist organizations in return for the clerics continued support of their regime. Much money for terrorist organizations has been raised in the kingdom over the years, including for Al Qaeda itself.

Even accepting this optimistic view to be accurate, the Saudis still have to overcome the result of decades of tacit support of radical groups. And these results are manifested in sympathy for these groups by many in the population. It will take years to root out the resulting corruption and incompetence.

It is unlikely that Al Qaeda will actually be able to overthrow the government directly. They simply do not have the power to confront well-armed security forces directly. But this is not their strategy. They aim to force a mass exodus of Westerners from the kingdom they can induce an economic crisis which will in turn induce instability. However, unlike in Iran in the late '70s, there is no Ayatollah Khomeini waiting in the wings to take over.

Even if the regime does not fall, if the terrorism continues the results will be detrimental for the west in general and the region in particular. A mass exodus of workers will likely result in lower oil production, which will in turn drive prices higher. Confidence in the regime will be undermined. The region will be destabilized. We have enough difficulties in Iraq, and with additional prospect of a nuclear Iran our plates are full as it is.

Some will say that all of this is the result of the invasion of Iraq. However, the terrorist problem in Saudi Arabia predates the invasion of Iraq and 9/11 itself by several years. The real problem is that western governments ignored the problems within Saudi Arabia until recently. We refused to confront them on their support for Palestinian groups in the '70s. We refused to denounce their radical Wahabbist clerics and the hate they spread. And we virtually ignored the fate of our own citizens when they were unjustly arrested and tortured.

I am not adopting the viewpoint of the "blame America first" crowd, who see everything that goes wrong as our fault. The fault lies squarely with the policies of the repressive Saudi regime. There are things that we could have done, however, which might have persuaded them to have changed their policies.

Unfortunately Iraq has become a breading ground for Al Qaeda terrorists, who are probably infiltrating into Saudi Arabia. Certainly this makes the job of the Saudi security forces more difficult. How well we do in Iraq will influence the outcome in Saudi Arabia.


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