I get asked all the time, “You wrote a book, we seem to remember, about Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the rise of global terrorism after 9/11. Yet you are now associated with the effort of the State of Israel and others to bring Saudi Arabia into the tent and to create a kind of new relationship – perhaps a reconciliation – between the Jewish state and the Saudi Kingdom. How do you explain that? Isn’t that an inconsistency.”
It’s important to know that back in 2003 when I wrote my book on Saudi Arabia, there were three factors affecting my writing. First of all, we were at the high point of what was then called the Second Intifada or second Palestinian uprising, and buses were blowing up in the heart of Israeli cities – in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, in Haifa, and elsewhere. Upwards of a thousand Israelis lost their lives as a result of that Palestinian escalation. These attacks were the work of organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who worked in coordination with the Fatah movement.
The Israeli security establishment at the time estimated that between 50 and 70% of the Hamas budget came from Saudi Arabia. When Israel was forced to move into Palestinian cities during that period and entered into the headquarters of many of these organizations, it discovered Saudi documents in Hamas files. In those file drawers were canceled checks, from even Chase Manhattan Bank and from other financial institutions, which linked Saudi Arabia to these various terror organizations through certain financial arms. Saudi Arabia had large international charities like the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), and the Charitable Foundations of al-Haramain that are involved in terrorist financing from Bosnia to Indonesia.
But something happened since then that changed this picture. In May 2003, Riyadh was struck by a triple suicide bombing attack – 18 people were killed and Saudi Arabia shifted from being on the side of those who were launching these terrorist attacks to those who were victims of terrorism. Basically, Saudi Arabia from that point onward was on the same side as the United States, Israel, and those countries of Western Europe that were being affected by the escalating wave of suicide bombing attacks that was striking all of us.
We also got a clearer picture of where the ideology for these attacks was emanating from. While it was true that Wahhabi Islam – that entered the world stage in the 1700s – was associated with the revival of jihad in the Arabian Peninsula, the ones who were really behind the ideological push towards a renewed terrorism were organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, which had sought and received sanctuary in Saudi Arabia when it was attacked by Ba’athist Syria or Nasserist Egypt.
Two cases are notable. There was Muhammed Qutb, the famous Egyptian member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was the brother of Sayyid Qutb, one of the most important ideological fathers of jihadism for the Muslim Brotherhood. Then there was the case of Abdullah Azzam, who was born in the West Bank but spent much of his time with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and in Syria. Both of these individuals ran away from the countries they lived in and got jobs at the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Among the students they shared was an individual named Osama bin Laden, who received the ideology and inspiration of the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, both bin Laden and Azam left Saudi Arabia and together went to Peshawar in Pakistan, where they became involved in the great jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.
So what is the situation today? What draws Israel and Saudi Arabia to the same side of the fence?
- First, there are the Sunni extremist organizations. There was al-Qaeda in the past, and in recent years there has been ISIS, and both have mounted a threat to both our countries.
Second, clearly Iran looms large in the regional problems that both Israel and Saudi Arabia face. There’s the Iranian nuclear program, which is likely to lead to an operational nuclear weapon in the not-too-distant future.
Just a few years back, the head of Israeli military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, revealed that analysis of Iranian missile tests indicated that there were two cities on the Iranian target list: one was Riyadh and the other one was Tel Aviv. So both of us are affected by Iran’s growing nuclear and missile program.
There’s a third common thread tying Israel and Saudi Arabia together. Both countries are facing Iranian efforts to destabilize our strategic environment. The Iranians have been seeking to encircle Israel by supporting terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip to our south, in Lebanon to our north, and now in Syria and possibly even the West Bank in the period ahead. Today, it is the Islamic Republic of Iran that is providing the bulk of funding to the Hamas budget.
For Saudi Arabia, it’s clear that Iran has entered into Yemen through the Houthis to the south, they are trying to take over Bahrain which they regard as a province of Iran, and they have these huge Shiite militias that have been active in Iraq as well.
Over the last number of years I have met with senior officials who in the past worked for the Saudi government. I am convinced that Israel and Saudi Arabia share common concerns. I think Israel should make every effort to try and bridge the gap with Saudi Arabia, even discretely, even though there are glitches that can occur as two countries with very different backgrounds try and find common ground.