CAN A STATE BE BOTH TERRORIST enabler and terror victim? In Saudi Arabia's case, the answer is yes. And for now, the Bush administration is willing to give the Saudi government a pass despite mounting evidence that its leaders have been involved more-not less-in terror than previously suspected.
In a congressional report made public on July 24 that covers intelligence community activity before and after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, one of the most notable features is what's not there: a lengthy section on Saudi Arabia's role in the attacks. The executive branch arm-twisted congressional leaders to black out the section before the report's release, even though 15 of the 19 hijackers who took control of four commercial airliners that day were Saudi citizens.
Blacked-out portions of the report include an entire section on whether there was Saudi support for the hijackers and 26 pages on overseas financing for the terrorists.
The omission is glaring because the report reveals that both the CIA and the FBI had information on the terror connection of at least two Saudi hijackers nearly two years before the attack but did not begin to put the information together until August 2001. Those hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq al-Hazmi, boarded American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.
The two hijackers are key figures in the assessment of the congressional joint inquiry, a seven-month study by a combined House and Senate panel that runs 900 pages. If the Saudi government gave support to the hijackers -knowingly or not-that's not revealed in the declassified report. What is clear, however, is that the long-standing friendship between U.S. administrations and the kingdom made it easy for those with Saudi passports to enter the United States and plot the 9/11 attacks.
The State Department enacted a "visa express" program in Riyadh in May 2001. Five of the hijackers applied for visas in June successfully, even though they gave false information on their applications. According to the report, the State Department ended the visa express program in July 2002 "because news reports suggested that the program allowed Saudi applicants to skirt the normal process."
Congressional leaders have wanted more said about the Saudi-terror connection, even as the Bush administration has struggled to remain friends with the house of Saud. "They could have declassified a lot more of this report and let the American people see it," said former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a member of the panel. He told reporters he agreed with Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), his counterpart on the panel, who called the censored pages "unnecessarily blanked out."
After the report's release, Shelby spokesman Andrea Andrews confirmed, "There are sections in the report dealing with foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia, but they remain classified." She told WORLD the CIA coordinated the declassification process and "any information that was not declassified was at the decision of the intelligence agencies."
Saudi funds have been flowing into terrorist coffers for decades, going back to the late 1970s and early 1980s when the ruling House of Saud crowned the Wahhabi religious sect the only acceptable brand of Islam. The Wahhabi radicals, who now control all religious activity in Saudi Arabia, call for a return to seventh-century Islam.
Wahhabi dictums-for toothpicks, against toothbrushes; for Arabic, against English-would be laughable apart from Saudi government support. And the Wahhabis' deadly sincerity: Wahhabi sheikhs regularly call for waging war not only on "infidels," but also on other forms of Islam. The Wahhabi creed, given sanction by the world's largest oil exporter, spawned the radical violence of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Eventually the royal family realized it had made a deal with the devil. In 1994 officials stripped Saudi citizenship from Osama bin Laden, son of a prominent Medina family, because of his terrorist buildup in Sudan. The Saudis tried to extradite him but failed.
However, many suspect that even as the government was demanding justice, it was also funneling money to al-Qaeda to buy peace with radical elements inside the kingdom. The royal family controls 80 percent of Saudi oil business and has near total control of the banking system-making it practically impossible for Saudi oil money to finance terrorism without Saudi royals knowing about it.
Saudi officials traveled to Afghanistan to buy off the Taliban and al-Qaeda when they realized Mr. bin Laden had targeted the kingdom for its ostentatious display of wealth and for hosting U.S. troops. A compromise of convenience-royal endorsement of radical Islam in exchange for the religious establishment vowing loyalty to the ruling family-had turned into a blackmail arrangement.
The overtures did not keep Saudi soil from becoming a terrorist venue, with American and other foreign workers the main victims. Five Americans were killed in 1995 when a Saudi National Guard facility in Riyadh was bombed. That attack was traced to Mr. bin Laden. Iranian terrorists, however, were responsible for the next year's attack on the Khobar Towers, which killed 19 and wounded 400 American servicemen outside Dhahran. The latest attack occurred last May, a bombing in foreign-worker housing in Riyadh that killed 25 plus nine suicide bombers.
The latest bombing, U.S. and Saudi officials confirm, was the work of al-Qaeda. Residents say it is proving to be a wakeup call to the Saudis. They opposed the U.S. war on Iraq and they shed the presence of U.S. air forces, yet they remain in the crosshairs of al-Qaeda.
Residents say that a year ago the Saudi regime concealed its problem with terror but now publicizes arrests and raids on suspected terror enclaves. News reports of dragnets yielding a dozen or more al-Qaeda suspects are legitimate. "Now they seem to be catching on," said John Sardar, an American lawyer working in Riyadh with the U.S. firm Bryan Cave.
On July 22 Saudi authorities hauled in 16 militants they said were members of the al-Qaeda network. Prior to that, officials say they had arrested over 120 people linked to Mr. bin Laden, including a raid on a terror cell Saudi authorities allege was planning attacks in Mecca.
The May 14 bombing, according to Mr. Sardar, remains a leading topic of discussion. He lives in a Riyadh compound similar to the one bombed, where 150 homes for expatriate workers are cordoned off as a way to separate (and protect) Westerners in strict Islamic society. Since the attack, his compound "looks like a maximum-security federal penitentiary. Razor wire surrounds the compound and armed Saudi military stand guard," he said.
Does this bother foreign workers? "It shows the intention of the Saudi government to make sure nothing of that sort happens again," said Mr. Sardar. "But it feels odd driving into your home and seeing men with machine guns."
The crackdown hasn't stopped the spread of Wahhabi violence outside Saudi Arabia. Violence and attacks on U.S. soldiers in the Iraqi town of Mosul, where U.S. forces trapped and killed Saddam Hussein's two sons last month, has been traced to Wahhabi militants. In Sudan, 19 al-Qaeda suspects with Wahhabi roots were captured and deported to Saudi Arabia in June. Rebels fighting Sudan's Islamic regime say they have evidence the suspects were trying to set up new training camps in Sudan's Nuba Mountains region. And still, 14 Saudi-born members of Hezbollah, with support from Iran, have been indicted but remain on the loose seven years after the Khobar bombing.
With ample evidence that Saudi Arabia's religious establishment is behind terrorism, Washington's political establishment is reluctant to act openly. Recent testimony to Congress by State Department counterterrorism chief Cofer Black contained no mention of Wahhabi threats pouring from the hundreds of mosques and madrassas funded worldwide by the royal family. Secretary of State Colin Powell, too, refused to act on a recommendation in May from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In its annual report the commission called on the State Department to designate Saudi Arabia a "country of particular concern" for "ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom."
The commission filed with the State Department a separate report on Saudi violations in order to emphasize their gravity. Saudi officials, it said, have financed and supported Wahhabi activities outside Saudi Arabia that "have raised some troubling questions about that government's role in promoting religious intolerance in other countries toward both Muslims and non-Muslims." It also cited testimony from foreign workers "who had been arrested, imprisoned, deported, and reportedly beaten on account of their religious activities."
U.S. officials may favor quiet diplomacy to deal with the Saudi threat, but there's nothing quiet about the Wahhabi reply. Saudi clerics, according to Sunni terrorism expert Wael Al-Abrashi, continue to issue fatwas against the United States and to use compulsory charitable contributions to help terrorists. Just after the May bombing in Riyadh, one sheikh warned young Saudis not to speak or study English. "This is the language of the infidels," he screamed in a May sermon.
Mr. Al-Abrashi, writing in an Egyptian weekly, said, "The ideas of the Wahhabi sheikhs and the funds of the charities turned into rifle bullets in the breasts of the innocent."