Terrorism and Saudi Arabia (An Ex-pat View)
By John Cory
TO correspondent in Saudi Arabia
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday 30 July 2003
The release of the Congressional Report on 9/11 has sent tongues wagging and fingers pointing in all directions, from the communication failures of US intelligence agencies to the redacted pages on Saudi Arabia. On the Internet and in newspapers there are numerous headlines and articles about the evil kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its connection to 9/11 and Al Qaeda and bin Laden and terrorism support of all kinds.
One of my Saudi counterparts stopped me to ask, Mr. Cory why does America need to make us an enemy? His question reminded me of an email I received recently that began: So what is it like working where you are surrounded by terrorists?
Those questions got me thinking about how little Americans know about Saudi Arabia or most other places here in the Middle East. It also gave me pause that so much of the media coverage of this area of the world is strongly negative with little balance.
I am no journalist or political insider, and I certainly don t have any powerful contacts here or anywhere else in this world. I m just a guy with a job that happens to be in Saudi Arabia. All of my daily contact is with regular folk, average Saudi citizens, and so my views are pretty ordinary and I hope, somewhat objective.
Of course I have to say up front that I have my own love-hate relationship with daily Saudi life. I don t do well in prohibitive environments and despite the good things I experience here there is always the undercurrent of restriction. This is a closed society in many respects and that has a price on views from the outside as well as inside the Kingdom.
Since the May 12th bombings in Riyadh, the Saudi government has stepped up its campaign against terrorism. I don t know how much if any of this has been covered in the American media, but the efforts have been intense, as has the loss of life.
Just a few weeks prior to the May bombings, local police forces raided an apartment complex where they seized documents and weapons and arrested several people allegedly involved in planning attacks throughout the Kingdom and elsewhere.
About three weeks ago a military helicopter crashed in the Asir region while pursuing a band of known terrorists heading for the Yemen border. The security mission was so important that the aircraft and crew flew in severely inclement weather in order to capture the suspects. When the aircraft crashed, 10 Saudi security forces personnel were injured. This was one of several such missions lately of which I have personal knowledge.
A month ago Saudi police caught up with several alleged Al Qaeda suspects in the Makkah region and a gunfight ensued, killing two police officers and five terrorists. The terrorist cell consisted of seven Saudis, three Chadians, and one Egyptian. This was the third such violent confrontation resulting in police officers being shot and wounded or killed while cracking down on terrorist suspects.
Around the same time as the incident in Makkah, another shootout and series of arrests was made in the Madinah area.
Over a three-day period between July 19th thru the 22nd, authorities waged a large-scale operation in Jeddah, Al Qasim, Riyadh, and the Eastern Province. The result was the arrest of 19 people, the seizure of 538 kilograms (1,183 pounds) of plastic explosives, 131 grenades, dozens of weapons, and 20 tons of chemicals used to make explosives, that were buried underground. All intended to make a big boom here in the Kingdom.
The government has instituted and advertised a toll free 800 number for citizens to call should they have information or suspicions about terrorist support.
Crown Prince Abdullah has advised mosques not to preach hatred or encourage hatred toward Western ex-pats or their countries. He has removed Imams at mosques who advocate violence or terrorism and demonizing of other religions or foreigners. (If only American televangelists would also refrain from their bigotry eh?)
On Friday morning (24 July) at one of the hundreds of roadblocks set up around Riyadh, police captured three men in Al-Ka akia district found to be in possession of a fatwa or religious edict advocating support of terrorist acts against Western targets both here and abroad. This trio was comprised of one Saudi, one Algerian, and one Moroccan.
I point all of this out for two reasons. First I think it is important to let folks know that the Kingdom is making a serious effort to find and prevent terrorists from using Saudi Arabia as a base. Secondly, notice the outside foreign participants in these arrests. The Kingdom, like America, has many foreign citizens who use the country for their own purposes. And despite being a closed and scrutinizing government, the terrorists still manage to get in and find support.
Within days after the Riyadh bombings, the local police contacted us about our living compound, which is quite small. They outlined a security plan and recommended implementation. When we said that we were a small group and felt comfortable with our neighbors, the police insisted that under the government directive, security for Western ex-pats was a mandate of wisdom and care. Within days we had new security, which included the Saudi National Guard. No one wanted to take a chance and none of the local authorities were willing to leave any Westerner in their district exposed to possible harm.
What I have shared with you is only a small part of the action that has been going on here since the May bombings and since 9/11.
I know, there is always the reminder that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. But let s be careful with the use of those statistics. Not all Saudis are terrorists, and not all terrorists are Saudis.
During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Saudi Arabia was one of the biggest supporters of the US and the international coalition of Desert Storm.
While the American media points fingers at Saudi Arabia, they forget the history of US-Saudi relations. The alliance between Saudi Arabia and America has always been a complex relationship with many ups and downs. There is the factor of American resentment of its own oil dependence on Saudi Arabia. The 1970s oil embargo and resulting gas shortages still riles many US citizens. But at the same time, many Saudis resent American dictation of internal politics and of the role and profit Saudi should make in the energy marketplace.
The Saudi economy began suffering deficits in the mid-80s. Yet despite the growing budget deficits and struggling economy, when Desert Storm began, the Saudi government pledged and provided a huge amount of support to America.
According to various reports I found while doing a Google search, the Department of Defense final report to Congress estimated the cost of the Persian Gulf War to be $61 billion of which $54 billion was paid by members of the Coalition. You remember that term Bush tossed around about the coalition of the willing as he pushed for the invasion of Iraq? This was a real coalition.
And of that $54 billion from the Coalition, $36 billion was paid by Arab Gulf States and approximately $15 billion was provided by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Germany and Japan provided about $16 billion. (Yes, Germany one of the current international personae non grata with the Bushies)
The US? Well it paid about $7 billion or less than half of what Saudi Arabia and Kuwait paid in cash and in-kind support meaning food and water, fuel, housing, transportation and logistical support. And that $7 billion is just a tad under twelve percent of the total cost of the Persian Gulf War.
Think about that the next time the administration offers estimates on what the Iraq invasion is costing and going to cost American taxpayers.
During the current drive to invade Iraq, many nations balked at joining America s new pre-emptive war policy. Saudi Arabia tried to broker deals within the Arab world to avoid the tragedy of war. In the end, the Saudi government allowed certain military bases to be used by the US despite the threat this held for internal turmoil and instability.
A Conversation At The Airport
One afternoon at the Dammam Airport I shared a table with a 33-year old Saudi gentleman. The place was crowded and as we were both waiting for arriving flights we fell into some far ranging conversation. It was an enlightening and enjoyable experience, and at moments quite passionate and energetic. This is my re-creation of that conversation based on my notes at the time and my memory. I think it is worth sharing.
You speak very good English. I said to my new friend Ahmed.
Yes, I went to FSU in Tallahassee America.
Do you go back and visit?
Ahmed gave me a glum shake of his head. Not these days. It is not advisable.
Because of 9/11? I asked.
It seems that in America these days, Arabs are considered potential terrorists even if they have American friends and ties to the community. Not like it used to be.
Ahmed was a handsome young man, angular and symmetrical. His bearing was that of an educated man with a certain background of wealth and self-assurance. But his eyes flashed with sadness and anger as he spoke.
In America they do not understand that not all Saudis are terrorists and not all terrorists are Saudis, he said. But that is what everyone sees when they look at me or my friends.
Surely you understand that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. That is a strong image in the American mind when they view that tragic day.
This is true, Ahmed said. But to paint with such a broad brush? That is like saying that violent crime is committed by Americans with guns therefore all American gun owners are violent criminals.
But newspaper and intelligence reports all show that Saudi charity organizations are used to funnel money to Al Qaeda and that even members of the royal family covertly provide financial support, I said. How can that be overlooked?
Ah, the royal family, he smiled. Our government is the royal family and the royal family is the government. But do they represent the people? That is the question. If they choose to pay baksheesh (bribe) to keep terrorists out of Saudi Arabia, is that a bad thing? Some people will tell you that is good at least for Saudis.
But at what cost to other nations? And laundering money through charities is not right.
Tell me my friend, Ahmed said. If it is wrong then why has your government not cracked down on those American charities that pour money into Zionist causes against the Palestinian people? How many Jewish charities and so-called brotherly support organizations help fund the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory? Or fund Israeli businesses in order to prevent economic development and independence for our Palestinian brothers?
I can t answer that my friend, I said. That is something I know very little about.
Of course not, your government and media will not look too closely at that. It does not fit with their support of the state of Israel and could jeopardize the $3 billion per year of military aid the US sends to Israel.
. But if Saudi Arabia continues its clandestine financial support of terrorist networks, it will jeopardize other governments that these organizations want to overthrow. That is not an acceptable practice in today s world. I pressed my point.
Let me ask you this, how much charity money from the US goes to Cuba every year? And how much of that is marked for the purpose of overthrowing Fidel Castro? Ahmed shook his head with the cheerless reality of double standards used by so many governments. And over the years and decades, where was American indignation with charity funds that supported the Irish Republican Army? What about the American government involvement in the Iran-Contra affair or the CIA funded coups all over Central America? Your government wishes to be selective and determine when and how it justifies such secrets while accusing others of the very same practices.
But surely the Saudi government should crack down on these financial transactions? I pushed for some acknowledgement.
Did not your president offer millions of dollars to the Taliban prior to the war on Afghanistan? If he was willing to buy off the Taliban why cannot Saudi Arabia buy off the threats against its national interests?
Ahmed, what of Osama bin Laden? I asked. I keep hearing or reading that Saudis have supported him and his causes, evening allowing him to remain on the run when they could very well help capture him or provide information about his whereabouts.
Does one man represent an entire culture? That is indeed a great burden for anyone. But bin Laden is not a true Saudi. He works against Islam and against the royal family. He wants to see the world hate Saudi Arabia. Is he any different than this man I read about recently, who was responsible for bombing the Olympic Park in Atlanta and several medical clinics? He has been on the run for five years if I understand correctly. How is that possible if he did not have help and support from people who believe as he does? Everyone in these days seems to have distasteful causes and supporters.
But what about the claims that Saudi Arabia could find Osama if they really wanted to? I said.
Ahmed gave a mischievous grin. I read a great deal about America. Has your government or the FBI or your CIA found the man responsible for mailing anthrax to your government leaders? And I recall that it took over 15 years to catch the man called the Uni-bomber, did it not?
I studied my young friend looking for signs of hostility or superiority. There were none. He spoke in honest belief and from his own knowledge and awareness of the world that surrounded him.
And as I recall it took the Saudi government several years to find the Khobar Tower bombing suspects and bring them to trial. And even then, they did not get them all.
All governments are doomed to fail their people many times more than they ever succeed.
So what do we, as men of the world, do to resolve such issues? I asked Ahmed.
We are all brothers, believers and non-believers, are we not? We can only relate and communicate with each other regardless of what our governments preach. How else can we learn and understand each other? Ahmed searched for his conclusion. What we can do is no more than you and I have done today. And perhaps the next Arab you meet will remind you of myself. And the next American I meet will remind me of yourself. And we will see each other as people and not politics.
Questions and Facts
In the coverage of the 9/11 Congressional Report Dana Priest of the Washington Post wrote on 25 July:
On the issue of Saudi Arabia, the report cited a CIA memorandum that said connections between some hijackers and some Saudis living in the United States amounted to incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists" from Saudi officials.
This section of the report refers only to "foreign support." Officials from various branches of the U.S. government said those two words refer to Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, the report said, further investigation of these allegations "could reveal legitimate, and innocent, explanations for these associations."
The report makes no accusation that it was ever the policy of the Saudi government to support terrorism. Rather, the questionable activity involved Saudi citizens, some of whom worked for the Saudi government.
On 26 July under the headline Why Would We Support Our Enemy? Barbara Ferguson of the Arab News wrote:
The Congressional report states the Sept. 11 hijackers received foreign government support, a veiled reference to Saudi Arabia, while they were in the US plotting the attacks on New York and Washington. The report also focuses on Omar Al-Bayoumi, who some in the FBI believed to be a Saudi intelligence agent.
The Saudi government has angrily denied these allegations . Any notion that the Saudi government funded, organized, or even knew about Sept. 11 is malicious and blatantly false, said Prince Bandar. Al-Qaeda is a cult seeking to destroy Saudi Arabia as well as the United States. By what logic would we support a cult that is trying to kill us?
On the editorial page of the Arab News the same day under the title Defamation was this:
There was no assistance to the hijackers. There were just the normal contacts, the normal provision of facilities and assistance that any Saudi studying and staying in the US could expect. At no point prior to Sept. 11 was there reason to believe that they were anything other than ordinary people doing ordinary things
The hijackers were allowed into the US; they attended courses at US institutions. Does that make those institutions or the people who approved their stay in the US guilty? Does it make them complicit in what happened? Of course not No so Saudis. Different standards are applied
What has been produced is nothing less than a charter for Saudi-bashing, all the more so because of the 28 pages blocked on White House orders It would be far better if the section were published
I don t know the facts of all this. I don t think anyone else does, at least not yet. It seems to me that publishing those 28 pages would clear up a great deal. Perhaps the royal families of Saud and Bush should agree to do so. And maybe a truly independent investigation should be conducted with everything on the table so the people know the truth. Let the chips fall where they may.
The truth is, I don t know what the truth is. I can tell you that millions of Saudis have felt the pain of America for the 9/11 attacks. Many Saudis truly do like Americans while disliking American governmental policies. No different than several other places I have lived around this world.
I do know that Osama bin Laden is equal parts creation of the House of Saud and the American CIA and everyone is now paying the price.
Like I said at the beginning, I m no expert, just a guy with a job. But I know that Saudi Arabia is as complex as any other place in this world, including America. There is good and there is bad, but it is never as black and white as some folks would have us believe.