Saudi Arabia’s oil princes must feel like spectators at their own funeral when they watch the United States wage war against a global terrorism ignited by their own strict brand of Islam of Wahhabism, which is striking sparks at home and spreading like a prairie fire across the Muslim world.
The rulers of Riyadh find themselves trapped by domestic and external religious, social and political pressures that threaten to force open the cracks in the plinth supporting the royal edifice and bring their palaces crashing down over their heads.
Wahhabism, a fundamentalist branch of Islam – that former CIA director James Woolsey recently compared to the virulent German nationalism that brought Adolf Hitler to power – has historically lent religious legitimacy to the rule of the Saudi royal family and its custodianship over Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. It has also blessed the source of Saudi Arabia’s great wealth, its oil fields, as Allah’s boon to the faithful.
But like a bolt from the blue, Wahhabism and the Islamic radicals it has inspired have suddenly reared up and struck terror in the heart of the West. Its suicidal zealots toppled the World Trade Center in New York, crashed into the Pentagon in Washington and torpedoed the traditional friendship binding US and Saudi governments.
Some of the Islamic experts consulted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly see a superficial parallel between the newfound aspiration of Saudi Wahhabism to export its teachings in militant form, and Khomeini’s drive to export his extremist Shiite revolution after overthrowing the Shah, grabbing Iran’s oilfields and booting American influence out of the country.
At the time, Khomeini’s ambitions inspired extreme trepidation – especially in the United States. As it turned out, revolutionary Shiite doctrine never took root outside Iran, except among the Shiites of south Lebanon. No other co-religionist community, whether in Africa, Central Asia, Pakistan, Iraq or Afghanistan joined the revolution. Tehran has succeeded at best in planting Iranian intelligence posts and agents in some of those world communities.
Today, experts on Islam have come to regard Wahhabism as far more dangerous than Khomeinism. Though still a fledgling militant movement overseas, it is already spreading much faster than radical Shiism ever did, inflaming Arab and Muslim masses in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North and South America, China, India and Pakistan, with religious fervor.
The rapid spread of this puritanical brand of Islam is stoked by four prime assets:
1. It is a simplified form of Sunni orthodoxy, instructing believers only to strictly abide by the teachings of the Koran. Since the late 19th century, followers of the creed – first established in the mid-18th century by the puritanical Muslim reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al- Wahhab and the founder of the House of Saud – have interpreted their holy scripture as ordering them to hate foreigners because they are infidels and therefore impure or depraved.
That pact was endorsed by Saud’s descendant, King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud (Ibn Saud), who founded the modern-day Saudi kingdom, with the descendants of al-Wahab, imposing on the oil kingdom this fundamentalist form of Sunni orthodoxy.
2. More than 80 percent of the roughly 1 billion Muslims in the world are Sunnis. This majority provides the Sunni Wahhabist fundamentalists with a much larger potential reservoir of adherents than the Shiites control, in which to plant their philosophy.
3. Established and private Saudi institutions are all instrumental in their different ways in spreading Wahhabism. Of high importance is the Dawa, which draws pious donations from Saudi Arabia’s rich and poor to support the propagation of Islam; the Ulama, the kingdom’s ruling clergy which keeps its finger on the country’s pulse and is in close rapport with every part of the country’s population of 22.5 million; and the Saudi General Intelligence Service, which runs overt and covert Wahhabi activists as agents, couriers and informants.
4. Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network whose leaders, claiming to be the true messengers of the Wahhabi faith, invite fellow-believers to enlist to their cause. The large majority of Saudi Wahhabi adherents are not active in al Qaeda but accept its ideological message. The minority, whose number is unknown, join up to form terror cells and serve in its intelligence and logistical branches.
Faced with the spread of militant Wahhabism, the US government can no longer afford to use shared interests to grease its corroding relations with Riyadh – especially since after September 11, 2001, many Americans began to regard their former Saudi allies as enemies.
But in recent months, American officials past and present have tried to reverse the adverse Saudi image in America, arguing that US-Saudi relations have always had their ups and downs, but differences were always ironed out to the mutual benefit. This was the sense of a comment from former secretary of state Henry Kissinger when he was asked about an explosive briefing delivered by a Rand Corp. analyst last August to the US Council on Foreign Relations. Depicting Saudi Arabia as America’s enemy, the analyst said, “The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain… Saudi Arabia is the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent” in the Middle East.”
The briefing advised US officials to give Riyadh an ultimatum to stop backing terrorism “or face seizure of its oil fields and financial assets invested in America.”
This is not the tenor in Washington today. Mid-echelon US officials now say that cooperation with the Saudi leadership is good, an opinion echoed by US commanders and officers in daily contact in the field with Saudi counterparts and by operational elements in the Central Intelligence Agency.
Clearly, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi sources, the government in Riyadh is striving to be forthcoming on American requests regarding Iraq and preparations for military action. Clearly too, the Saudis are anxious to show Washington how hard they are trying to rein in the extremists in the face of internal strife and power struggles at court. The Saudis have launched a calculated charm offensive towards the American people. Washington public relations wizards are reinforced by American apologists and Saudi princes who are usually shy of the media, all of whom are working hard to repair the kingdom’s negative image in the United States.
Saud al-Faisal Speaks out
The most recent case in point was the interview that Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal gave to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on November 4. His comments, reflecting the consensual view in the royal family, touched on Saudi and US positions on Iraq. But what Prince Saud had to say about 9/11 was the most revealing, as will be seen from some quotes:
“Saudi Arabia did not suddenly emerge from a friend and ally to the kernel of all evil in the Middle East because of anything that Saudi Arabia did. It is because of what [Osama] bin Laden planned and his plan [of] diabolically including 15 Saudis in his attack on the United States.”
“He knew full well that he had other foot soldiers to use in [the September 11 attacks], but he chose Saudis and he chose Saudis for an intent and the intent — a self-professed intent — is to get the United States out of here … [to] make a gulf between the United States and Saudi Arabia that is unbridgeable.”
The prince stressed that Saudi Arabia stripped bin Laden of his Saudi citizenship in 1994 and froze all assets he had in the country. He went on to say:
“Saudis were just as distraught as Americans when they learned that their fellow countrymen were responsible for hijacking the four airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a rural Pennsylvania field. That fourth plane was most likely intended to hit another target in Washington, D.C.
“The trauma of the act, the reaction of the American people, I can sympathize with. There was no less a traumatic experience for the Saudis after what happened on 9/11.
“It was such a shock, such an unbelievable circumstance, such an event that cannot enter the consciousness of the Saudi people that Saudis did this violence that we said it was impossible.” Speaking emotionally, Saud declared:
“We even denied that Saudis were involved. Until today, you will find people who will tell you that it is impossible that Saudis were there … but that has struck us deep. Never again,” he declared “are we going to let our young men and women be deluded by anybody in the way that we allowed our young men to be deluded when they went to Afghanistan for a jihad against an occupier and then be used for this horrendous, horrendous act of mass murder.”
The Saudi foreign minister’s comments were the first time any member of the royal family or official spokesman had ever acknowledged that 15 of the 10 suicide terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Saudis. At the same time, he cushioned the revelation by presenting Saudi involvement in the terrorist attacks as the result of a clever ruse by bin Laden to drive a wedge between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi foreign minister expressed his sympathy for the suffering of the American people and emphasized that the attacks had been traumatic for his fellow countrymen too. Similar sentiments have been voiced over the past several months inside Saudi Arabia itself. In contrite tones, he promised the American people that his government would never again allow its young men to be led astray, as thousands were when they joined the jihad in Afghanistan, but rejected the claims that Riyadh was turning a blind eye to fund-raising for extremists.
Whether the Saudi foreign minister’s soft words were spin or represented actions is hard to determine. It has never been easy to plumb the Saudi government’s web-like domestic policies or their implementation. The House of Saud may well order tough restraints for young men joining radical groups – religious or political – as well as tightening controls on the charities and foundations that, while administering much of the kingdom’s social welfare needs, are useful for secretly bankrolling al Qaeda.