Vol. 2, No. 28 May 13, 2003
The suicide bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that left dozens dead – including 7-10 U.S. citizens – should not have come as a surprise. There has been increasing evidence that al-Qaeda, which took credit for the attack, has viewed the Saudi kingdom as one of its main areas of refuge since the U.S. victory against the Taliban in Afghanistan, for a number of reasons:
Historically, al-Qaeda grew from Saudi roots. Its founder, Osama bin Laden, used Saudi charities as one of the primary conduits for its initial funding. A captured document from the Saudi-run International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), dated in 1989 and possessed by Bosnian Intelligence, documents how this funding route was established during meetings between IIRO and representatives of bin Laden. The IIRO office in the Philippines was run by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law from 1986 to 1994 and funneled funds to the Abu Sayyaf organization;1 while the brother of bin Laden’s deputy, al-Zawahiri, worked for IIRO in Albania.
This relationship lasted well into the late 1990s and beyond. A CIA document dated in 1996 noted that more than one-third of the Islamic non-governmental organizations then existing were involved in terrorist funding; the report, in fact, implicated officially-backed Saudi Arabian charities. The CIA report tied IIRO to al-Qaeda and to Hamas, as well as to radical groups in Algeria and Egypt.2 A CIA interrogation of a captured al-Qaeda operative as recently as 2002 demonstrated that another huge official Saudi charity, al-Haramain, was the primary conduit for funding al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia.3 The State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism’s outgoing director, Dick Gannon, claimed in late 1998: “We’ve got information about who’s backing bin Laden and in a lot of cases it goes back to the [Saudi] royal family.”4 Some radical Saudi princes backed al-Qaeda out of identification with its anti-Western ideology, while other support came in the form of protection money to keep al-Qaeda from attacking the royal family.
Parts of Saudi Arabia, particularly the mountainous southwestern area near the Yemeni border, are ideal hideouts for al-Qaeda. These areas, similar to other al-Qaeda sanctuaries along the Afghan-Pakistan border and the Iraq-Iran border (e.g., home of the Kurdish Ansar al-Islam), are extremely difficult to access. Nevertheless, a U.S. Predator unmanned aircraft took out a private vehicle with Saudi license plates driven by a key al-Qaeda operative in this area in November 2002. In fact, Yemeni authorities have reiterated in the Arab press that Saudi Arabia was emerging in 2002-2003 as a new al-Qaeda center. In October 2000, al-Qaeda sent a bomb-laden skiff from the Saudi port of Jizan that tore into the USS Cole in Aden. A number of significant al-Qaeda suspects wanted by authorities in Germany and the U.S. are known to have fled to Saudi Arabia to seek sanctuary.
Given years of anti-Western incitement in the Saudi religious educational system, Saudi Arabia is probably the most sympathetic location for al-Qaeda members to hide. Indeed, in the 1990s Saudis had already become the largest national grouping in al-Qaeda. Major figures in the Wahhabi clergy, such as Sheikh al-Ulwan or Sheikh al-Shuaibi, backed bin Laden. In October 2001, Saudi Arabia’s internal intelligence agency ordered a confidential poll of Saudi men between the ages of 25 and 41, that demonstrated that 95 percent of respondents approved of Osama bin Laden’s cause.5
For months after the September 11 attacks, Saudi Arabia denied the existence of any al-Qaeda cells in the kingdom. Saudi officials reported in June 2002 that some limited arrests and interrogations of al-Qaeda members were made. The Saudis were more successful in finding a large cache of weapons and explosives in early May 2003, but those associated with the weapons were able to escape, and the organizational infrastructure of al-Qaeda has not been dismantled. Given the sympathy for al-Qaeda in some official circles and among members of the Saudi population, it is understandable that Saudi Arabia has been unable to implement a full-scale crackdown.
The U.S. announcement in the aftermath of the Iraq War that U.S. forces would be withdrawing from Saudi Arabia should have removed one of al-Qaeda’s primary grievances against Washington: the presence of American troops in the Islamic Holy Land. Nonetheless, the multiple bombing attack against Westerners in the kingdom took place. It could be that al-Qaeda recognized that the U.S. withdrawal would undercut their movement and weaken support for their cause. By appearing to force the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia, under fire, al-Qaeda could claim victory and build up support in the Middle East. In any case, al-Qaeda is committed to war against the West and to its collapse as its primary objective, and not to a U.S. pullout from Saudi Arabia alone.
Through successful diplomacy, and public relations, Saudi Arabia has managed to divert attention away from its role in harboring al-Qaeda, presenting itself as a moderate force backing Middle East peace. For that reason, the war on terrorism, while addressing the threats emanating from Afghanistan and Iraq, has not been sufficiently focused on neutralizing the Saudi role.
It is imperative that the U.S. and its Western allies prioritize their diplomatic efforts to demand that the Saudi Arabian government halt its financial support for terrorism – both direct and indirect – once and for all, whether to al-Qaeda or to Hamas and other groups. (The U.S. roadmap for Middle East peace, in fact, requires in the first phase that all Arab states discontinue support for Palestinian groups backing terrorism.) Moreover, Saudi security forces must dismantle the operational infrastructure of al-Qaeda, as the Pakistanis and the Kurds have attempted to do in their own regions. For the war on terrorism to be won, the Saudi front can no longer be ignored.
* * *
1. Robert Baer, “The Fall of the House of Saud,” Atlantic Monthly, May 2003.
2. Glenn Simpson, “U.S. Knew of Terrorist, Charity Ties,” Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2003, p. A2.
3. Jeff Gerth and Judith Miller, “Saudis Called Slow to Help Stem Terror Finances,” New York Times, December 1, 2002.
4. Bruce B. Auster and David E. Kaplan, “Saudi Royalty Gives Money to bin Laden,” U.S. News & World Report, October 19, 1998.
5. Christopher Dicky and Rod Nordland, “The Fire That Won’t Die Out,” Newsweek, July 22, 2002.
* * *
Dore Gold is the President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is the author of Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Regnery, 2003).