Al Jazeera is Pulled into Saudi Royal Squabble
Whether because of the proximity of Osama bin Laden in the Empty Quarter desert that fringes Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and the UAR, or because of the debilitating squabbles besetting royal authority, debkafile‘s Gulf sources report that al Qaeda’s followers in the oil kingdom are becoming increasingly brazen. Of late, they have been seen in the streets of Riyadh in armed gangs.
Last Saturday, November 16, Saudi security forces clashed with a group in the al Shafaa quarter to the south of the capital. Both sides suffered casualties. Since the sounds of battle, automatic gunfire and exploding grenades were too loud for concealment, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who is responsible for internal security, came out with an unusual statement Monday, November 18. He said a man, identified by the official Saudi Press Agency as Mohammed al-Saheem, was arrested on Saturday in a coffee shop in Riyadh after firing at police. He was injured in the right leg and captured, Nayef told the Associated Press, explaining he was wanted in connection with terrorism and would be interrogated to determine whether he was linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. The findings would be announced. End of official statement.
A spokesman for the opposition Islamic movement for reforms had a different version of the incident. He described it as involving a group of 50 armed young al Qaeda partisans meeting in a house in Riyadh. They resisted arrest, leaving eight Saudi security men and one of their own wounded. The injured man was captured. The Saudi contingents were forced to retreat.
Washington, like Riyadh, publicly ignores the return of bin Laden to the Saudi-Yemeni desert with family, his top lieutenant Ayman Zuwahri and a following, although the Pentagon is believed to have sent out a search party in the form of several hundred US special troops and surveillance aircraft helped by a spy satellite. They were thrown off the scent by the Saudi-born terrorist’s camouflage and electronic techniques of deception.
Public acknowledgement of this presence by Washington would act as an irritant to its relations with Riyadh as well as pointing attention to the shaky security situation in the Saudi capital. However, on Tuesday, November 12, the Arab satellite TV channel al Jazeera, stepped hard on this delicate diplomatic maneuvering when it aired the third bin Laden recorded message in six week. His praise of recent terrorist attacks and his threats to the United States and its allies if they went through with their war on Iraq served as proof that the fundamentalist arch terrorist is still alive and active.
In issue No. 85, published on November 15, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources reported picking up a persistent rumor going round the Gulf region whereby bin Laden and Zuwahri were planning, as soon as the Americans launched their offensive against Saddam Hussein, to send a freshly recorded message to al Jazeera, urging the Arab Muslim masses to rise up against the Arab regimes quietly backing the American attack.
The nearer the potential attack, the more Arab station attracts tense interest – or rather, anxious attention on the part of Saudi, Egyptian and other Arab rulers. Most Arab regimes have come to believe that the Iraqi ruler’s downfall will presage their own – whether at the hands of al Qaeda, whose leaders are now breathing down their necks, or the United States – with al Jazeera actively employed in fomenting popular turbulence.
An unrelated episode uncovered by our sources has acted as an accelerant for these jitters:
It came out of an investigation into another rumor floating round the Middle East last month alleging that Saudi and Yemeni officers serving in the Qatari army had led a coup against the liberal emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Gulf sources also reported that US special forces troops, some in civilian clothes, had helped the emir subdue the revolt.
This rumor touched a sensitive nerve – not only in Qatar but also in the United States, which has been allowed to establish its biggest and most important air base in the Gulf at Al Udeid, near the capital of Doha. The facility is situated 700 miles (1,100 km) from Baghdad. Elements of the US war command center, led by General Tommy Franks, have been transferred from its main headquarters in Tampa, Florida, to al Udeid. Some observers interpreted the reference to Saudi and Yemeni officers in the alleged coup plot as proof of al Qaeda sympathies among Gulf military circles
However, a DEBKA-Net-Weekly investigation found no evidence of a plot to overthrow the Qatari ruler, but something quite different and unexpected: the secret purchase of a 20-25 percent stake in al Jazeera by none other than the veteran Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. This coup is the hottest item of news in the ruling circles of Riyadh and Cairo. The Saudi crown prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Bandar’s uncle, is reported to have hit the ceiling. So extreme is his loathing for Al Jazeera that he has recalled the Saudi ambassador from Doha and severed ties with Emir Hamad. No sooner had he expressed his ire, when he discovered that his nephew had invested in the satellite channel. He decided Bandar’s move was not merely provocative per se but a blow on behalf of his father, defense minister Sultan bin Abdulaziz, in their contest over the succession, a powerful platform to break their standoff.
Bandar had a different purpose in buying a piece of the station. Despite its multi-million Arab audience across the world, al Jazeera was in trouble financially because of an advertising boycott enforced by Saudi and Egyptian state-supported institutions and firms in disapproval of its free-wheeling broadcasting policies. The Washington-based Saudi ambassador thought the channel was worth rescuing.
The Egyptian president resents Al Jazeera on more than one count. Bringing the Palestinian Intifada live into Arab living rooms has the potential of triggering stormy demonstrations from Morocco to the Gulf, causing unrest in Cairo and Saudi cities. Egyptian officials have brought pressure to bear on the station to discontinue this coverage, but have been ignored.
Another bone of contention is the starring role assigned by the Qatari channel to the Egyptian fundamentalist sheikh Yousef Qaradawi on one of its most popular programs – “The Sharia (Muslim ritual law) and Life” – a two-hour show broadcast every Sunday. Qaradawi’s message is regarded as the most blatant exposure enjoyed by Bin Laden’s fundamentalist Wahhabi brand of Islam on any Arab platform. Qaradawi openly calls for a global jihad against the morally bankrupt, degenerate and corrupt West, which is moreover accused of waging a crusade against Islam.
Egypt’s security services have been keeping a close eye on the radical sheikh for more than three decades. The Egyptian Jamaa, to which he belongs, was behind the Anwar Sadat assassination in 1981. Therefore, Qaradawi’s television performance is seen in Cairo as motivated by Qatar’s aspiration to destabilize the Egyptian regime by disseminating the Jamaa philosophy and justifying the murder of an Egyptian president.
After failing to influence al Jazeera’s producers, Egypt invited Riyadh to organize an advertising boycott of the station. Al Jazeera’s advertising revenues plummeted, leaving it unable to cover its overheads. While the Qatari emir provides a generous allocation, both he and the station’s management prefer it to stand on its own feet. This was made possible by Bandar’s investment and influence.