The popular Arab satellite television channel, Al Jazeera, has earned a reputation for making – as well as breaking – news by airing events many an Arab ruler would rather never saw the light of day.
Now, the Qatar-based station finds it is a player in Saudi Arabia’s unending tug-of-war for the succession. It has also become the coveted object of a Saudi prince’s desire.
While pondering its changing fortunes, Al Jazeera scored another Bin Laden scoop this week. On Tuesday, November 12, it ran an audio tape, later confirmed as the authentic voice of the elusive al Qaeda leader, praising the recent terror attacks in Bali, Kuwait, Yemen and Moscow. He bluntly warned American’s allies and the United States against pressing ahead with the war on Iraq. “You will be killed just as we are killed, bombed as we are bombed. Expect more suffering.”
The threat was addressed specifically to the UK, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Australia. Germany was named as the target of the attack on the ancient synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, in which 14 of the 21 victims were German, while the Australians were warned to remember Bali.
The content fixes the date of the recording as recent, subsequent to the events referred to. It confirms that the Saudi-born terrorist is alive and active, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported on October 18, and raises a challenge to the official Washington claim that it has no notion of whether the two top terrorists are alive or dead. Moreover, the frequency of the tapes’ appearances in recent weeks suggests that Bin Laden and Zuwahri are hiding out not far from the station’s location in Doha, Qatar.
This also appears to be the conclusions reached by Washington. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report several hundred US special forces troops launched a hunt in the Rub al-Khali desert, the Empty Quarter straddling Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen, at around the same time that DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported their arrival there, along with families and operational staff. US surveillance aircraft made several passes over this vast desert area, spy satellites were positioned to pick up any movements by the terrorists and their parties, but the fugitives’ sophisticated camouflage and electronic counter-measures defeated the American watchers.
Washington, keen on diverting attention from Bin Laden’s presence in the oil kingdom, so as not to further upset relations with the royal family in Riyadh, did not take into account the terrorist chief’s intimate ties with Al Jazeera and his use of the station as a powerful weapon to extend his reach throughout the Arab world.
His physical proximity to the TV station enables him to respond more speedily and with more punch than ever before to international events. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism experts, rumors in the Gulf suggest that bin Laden and Zuwahri are planning to stage an emotional appearance over Al Jazeera immediately after the US attack on Iraq commences. In tapes made a few days prior to the event, they will exhort the Arab and Muslim masses to take to the streets against the Arab governments quietly backing the US offensive.
The role Al Jazeera is increasingly filling in Middle East dramas is not to Washington’s liking, while more than one Arab leader, led by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi princes, have their own scores to settle with the satellite station. Those leaders believe their turn will come after Saddam Hussein’s ouster and that al Jazeera will become an American instrument for stirring up the masses against them.
Ambassador Bandar Buys into al Jazeera
In the current climate of suspicion and conflict pervading the Middle East, a rumor spread fast 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, helped the emir subdue the revolt. There were no further details.
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 also the closest to Baghdad, 700 miles (1,100 km) to the north. The US war command center, led by General Tommy Franks, is being 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, an investigation by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources found no evidence of any 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 in the ruling circles of Riyadh and Cairo. His uncle, Saudi crown prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, is reported as having gone ballistic. His loathing for Al Jazeera is so extreme that he recalled the Saudi ambassador from Doha and severed ties with Emir Hamad, only to discover that his nephew had bought shares in the satellite channel. Abdullah decided Bandar’s move was not merely provocative but a blow on behalf of his father defense minister Sultan bin Abdulaziz in their contest over the succession. Their purpose, he suspects, is to use the station as a platform against him.
Bandar’s objective in buying a share in the station was quite different. 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. Bandar sought to help the channel out of a fix induced largely by Mubarak’s disapproval of its broadcasting policies.
The Egyptian president resents Al Jazeera on more than one count. Bringing the Palestinian Intifada live into Arab living rooms triggers stormy demonstrations from Morocco to the Gulf, causing unrest in Cairo and Saudi cities. Egyptian officials have been leaning hard on the station to stop these televised reports, but the management has turned the pressure aside.
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 Bin Laden’s fundamentalist Wahhabi brand of Islam enjoys 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 enlisted help from Riyadh in a campaign to pressure Arab advertising agencies to boycott the station. Al Jazeera’s advertising revenues dropped sharply leaving it unable to cover its overheads. While the Qatari emir provides a generous working fund, both he and the station’s management want it to stand on its own feet. This has been made possible by Bandar’s investment.
The Sheikh and the Spy Chief
Qatar has made itself unpopular with its neighbors by another of its policies. Last month, the emir secretly received Ephraim Halevy, who was then still director of the Israeli Mossad spy agency.
The Israeli spy chief’s mission was complicated.
He had just come back from accompanying the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, on a visit to Moscow to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his opposition to US military action against Iraq. Putin responded with a complaint: How did America’s global war against terrorism fit in with a Russian intelligence finding that Qatar, where the United States maintains a heavy military presence, has become the primary source of Arab funding for Chechen rebels fighting Russia. Putin ordered Russian intelligence chiefs to show Sharon the list of Qataris transferring money to the Chechens.
Since Qatar maintains excellent relations with Israel, Sharon sent Halevy to Doha with the roster and questions for the emir on the Russian allegations. The answers were to be collected and posted back to the Kremlin.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say Halevy’s secret visit to the emirate was immediately misinterpreted in Riyadh and Cairo, who jumped to the conclusion that Qatar and Israel had struck a deal on ways to use Al Jazeera for destabilizing Arab governments during the US war on Iraq. This suspicion evoked the leak from Saudi sources close to Abdullah alleging that Qatar would follow Libya in quitting the Arab League. The rumor was denied by Qatar who took it as emanating from the same cabal as the false coup report that was being propagated by its foes to put the emirate on the spot.