Dual Loyalties

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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Saudi Connection by David Wurmser

The Saudi Connection: "The Saudi Connection
The Weekly Standard ^ | 10/29/2001 | David Wurmser

Osama bin Laden's a lot closer to the Saudi royal family than you think.

TWO QUESTIONS have been raised about Osama bin Laden. First, if bin Laden opposes the Saudi regime, why has he never struck Saudi targets? Second, if he threatens Saudi Arabia, why has the Saudi government taken the lead in recognizing and funding the Taliban government of Afghanistan, which is entwined with bin Laden's al Qaeda organization? The answer is: The bin Laden problem is deeply embedded both in Saudi religious and dynastic politics and in an effort by Iraq and Syria to shift the balance of power in the Middle East.

To begin to unravel this murky business, it is necessary to go back to the mid 1990s, when a succession struggle was beginning in Saudi Arabia. This struggle pits the octogenarian king, Fahd bin Abdel-Aziz, and his full brothers in the Sudairi branch of the family (especially the defense minister, Prince Sultan) against their half-brother, Crown Prince Abdallah. King Fahd and the Sudairis favor close ties to the United States, while Crown Prince Abdallah prefers Syria and is generally more enamored of pan-Islamic and pan-Arab ideas. All of these contenders are old. Whoever succeeds in securing the crown after Fahd will anoint the next generation of royal heirs and determine Saudi Arabia's future course--either toward the West or toward Syria, Iraq, and others who challenge the position of the United States in the region.

Abdallah is closely allied with the puritanical Wahhabi religious establishment that has underpinned the Saudi government for over a century. The Wahhabis are strident and hostile to a continued American presence in the Middle East. They made this explicit in 1990 in a pronouncement known as the Muzkara an-Nasiha, originated by Osama bin Laden and signed by virtually every sheikh in the Wahhabi establishment. It condemned Saudi Arabia's decision to allow U.S. troops into the kingdom for the purpose of resisting Saddam.

Crown Prince Abdallah has long challenged the Sudairi branch by pushing an anti-Western agenda. In mid 1995, numerous Arab newspapers reported that the crown prince was working with Syria and Egypt to sabotage Jordanian-Saudi rapprochement. The same year, the Turkish weekly Nokta reported that Abdallah had blocked Turkish-Saudi ties by ordering the execution of some Turks, incarcerated for drug-dealing, after King Fahd had assured Turkish emissaries that they would be spared.

In late 1995, King Fahd became ill and feeble, passing power temporarily to Abdallah. When shortly afterwards Abdallah briefly visited a neighboring state, his Sudairi rival, Prince Sultan, asserted power in Riyadh. Abdallah returned to reclaim his dominance, but to do so he employed his wife's close family ties to the Assad clan and invited Syrian intelligence operatives into the kingdom. Then the problems began.

ABDALLAH'S QUEST to secure the succession--leading as it did to his strategic relationship with Syrian president Hafez Assad, and their joint willingness to cooperate with Iraq--is essential background to the major terrorist attacks of recent years, including Khobar Towers, the USS Cole, and September 11. When Abdallah invited Syrian intelligence into Saudi Arabia, he created an opportunity for Syria to foster a terror network on Saudi soil. Its handiwork surfaced first in a minor attack on an American bus in Jeddah in 1995, then in the major attack on Khobar in June 1996 in which 19 U.S. servicemen died. The Washington Post reported that the Khobar bomb had originated in Syrian-controlled Lebanon, and just this month, members of the Syrian-backed Hezbollah were indicted in a U.S. court for this attack.

Sober strategic considerations brought Abdallah, Syria, and Iraq together. The years 1995 and 1996 were watershed years in the Middle East. Before then, hopeful developments (from the American point of view) had seemed afoot in the region. Between 1992 and 1995, Israel had formed a strategic relationship with Turkey; Jordan and Israel had signed a peace treaty with strategic cooperation clauses; Saddam had faced a viable, advancing opposition movement; and Jordan had become the vanguard of an anti-Saddam grouping after the defection in Amman of Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal. Pro-Western elements of the Saudi royal family pushed to reestablish Jordanian-Saudi ties, solidify Saudi-Turkish ties, and anchor Saudi Arabia in this emerging, powerful, pro-Western regional bloc.

This was a time when the Palestine Liberation Organization averted near collapse only by the generosity of Israel. And the Iranian revolution was floundering. The memory of America's twin victories in the Gulf War and the Cold War was fresh, and Israel's image of invulnerability earned in half a dozen wars still loomed large. Syria, Iraq, and the PLO faced the prospect of a loose-knit pro-American coalition of Turkey, a post-Saddam Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. But tyrants like Saddam and Assad, and tyrannical regimes like Iran's and the PLO's, never accept defeat, which can mean only disgrace or death.

Survival demanded action. It took many forms but crystallized when Syria and Iraq turned from enemies to bedfellows against America; when the Palestinian Authority became sufficiently established to host a smorgasbord of terror groups; and when Abdallah invited Syria into the kingdom. The bin Laden network developed inside this Wahhabi/Abdallah-Syria-Iraq-PLO strategic bloc and became its terrorist skeleton, unifying hitherto separate, isolated, and strategically uncoordinated groups.

While al Qaeda from the start was rooted in the Wahhabi religious establishment, it sprouted and flourished parasitically wherever Iraqi intelligence felt secure: Sudan, then Yemen and Qatar. Bin Laden himself left Saudi Arabia in 1991 for Sudan, where he lived until his removal, via Yemen and Qatar, to Afghanistan in 1996.

For Syria, the new terrorist super-network had the virtue of absorbing and channeling Sunni fundamentalist fervor. Energies that might have been turned against the regime were directed instead against American targets and into Saudi politics. Within the terror network, Shiite and Sunni--who otherwise would never have countenanced working together--could join forces, as could secular Palestinians and Islamic extremists, all the while deflecting their attention from Damascus.

For Iraq, the network offered a way to defeat America. It would be a grave mistake to imagine that Saddam's animus against Saudi Arabia or his secular disposition would prevent him from working with the Wahhabi religious establishment or Abdallah if he found this could advance his designs against King Fahd, the Sudairis, or their American patrons. Sure enough, travelers from Iraq report that Saddam's regime has lately encouraged the rise, in Iraq's northern safe haven, of Salafism, a puritanical sect tied to Wahhabism that hitherto had been alien to Iraq. It is no surprise, then, that one of these Salafi movements inside Iraq, the Jund al-Islami, turns out to be a front for bin Laden.



AT ITS CORE, al Qaeda is a product of Saudi dynastic politics. Its purpose is to swing Saudi politics toward the Wahhabi establishment and Crown Prince Abdallah, but not necessarily to destroy the royal family, at least not at first. The most virulent of Saudi dissident groups, such as al-Masari's Committee for the Defense of Legal Rights, call for violence, but they pointedly direct their wrath against the Sudairis, the only targets they mention by name. Bin Laden seeks to destroy the Sudairis indirectly, by separating them from America.

In August 2001, King Fahd fired his director of intelligence, Prince Turki al Faisal. It was a blow to bin Laden. The bin Laden and Faisal families have longstanding ties: Osama's father helped install King Faisal, who reigned from 1964 to 1975. Since the mid 1990s, Turki had anchored the Abdallah faction, and under his leadership Saudi intelligence had become difficult to distinguish from al Qaeda. In particular, Saudi intelligence had served as bin Laden's nexus to the Wahhabi network of charities, foundations, and other funding sources.

Here too family ties are important. Thus, Turki's brother heads a key Saudi "philanthropic" organization (originally headed by Osama) that funds the Taliban and al Qaeda, according to the Lebanese weekly East-West Review. And the Central Asia operations officer in Saudi intelligence is the brother of bin Laden's chief case officer on Saudi Arabia, according to a former CIA official in Iraq. The same former official also reports that Turki was instrumental in arranging a meeting in Kandahar, Afghanistan, between the head of Iraq's terror network, Faruk Hejazi, and bin Laden in December 1998. More recently, Turki bin Faisal's full brother, Saudi foreign minister Saud bin Faisal, unleashed his diplomats to write shrill and caustic attacks on the United States, such as the article a few weeks ago by Saudi Arabia's ambassador in London, Ghazi al Qusaibi, calling President Bush mentally unstable.

But like Frankenstein's monster, bin Laden is becoming a problem for his creators. It is unclear whether Saudi royal factions now control al Qaeda, or bin Laden has become a kingmaker--or aspiring king. Many young princes who face bleak prospects in a gilded, top-heavy royal structure are enamored of bin Laden. This is true even of some Sudairis. Indeed, bin Laden's lieutenants, far from hailing from the margins of society, are products of its elite, with whom they maintain relations. The mastermind of Arab terrorism in the 1980s and '90s, Imad Mughniyeh, a godfather-like figure with links to the PLO, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda, comes from an illustrious family. His father was a cleric renowned among Shiites. And bin Laden's second in command, the Egyptian al-Zawahiri, is the grandson of the head of al-Azhar mosque in Egypt. Syria too, meanwhile, may be feeling the pressure of bin Laden's growing power. Damascus recently had to put down a Wahhabi-inspired revolt in Lebanon's Akkar mountains led by bin Laden associate Bassam Kanj.

It is impossible to avoid concluding, then, that the bin Laden phenomenon is about politics and conflicts within and among states. Some states in the region--such as Jordan and Kuwait--can truthfully deny employing and abetting terror. But many Arab states refuse to consent to America's expanding the war beyond Afghanistan because they know the trail of terror will eventually lead to them. They have trafficked in terror, believing they could harness it and use it to their advantage--none more than Saudi Arabia. This is why the Saudis blocked the American investigation into the Khobar attack, never investigated the December 2000 hijacking of a plane from Jeddah to Baghdad by two men from Abdallah's security forces, and now, according to press reports, lag in providing access to possible culprits and relevant documents.

Bin Laden emerged from a dangerous strategic shift underway since 1995 that was driven by dynastic rivalries. Now, al Qaeda must be dealt with not only in Afghanistan, but also at its source--in the strategic triangle of Syria, Iraq, and the Wahhabi/Abdallah alliance whose interests it serves and whose structures and politics brought it to life. To fail to strike at the roots of al Qaeda will only lengthen the war and make it more deadly.


David Wurmser is director of Middle East studies at the American Enterprise Institute."

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