an area of the map for world news.
January 2002 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 1)
Within the Regime’s Opposition
The Saudi Connection
Laïdi, Le Monde (liberal), Paris, France, Oct. 4,
The Saudi identity
of several of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks
leaves room to believe that Saudi Arabia might be harboring
terrorists poised to strike the United States. [In late October,
the FBI confirmed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were SaudisWPR.]
Why Saudi Arabia? Because of the presence of U.S. soldiers in
the land sacred to Muslims, something that has enraged Arab
public opinion for more than 10 years.
When he called together the ulemas to lend a religious backdrop
to the presence of the Western forces in Saudi Arabia at the
time of the Gulf War, King Fahd made the commitment to get them
to leave the country soon after the last shot was fired. Ten
years later, American troops are still there. Their presence
is all the more resented because Arab public opinion disapproves
of the Americans slant in favor of the Israelis in the
new Intifada. Also, there is increasingly more vocal criticism
of the embargo against Iraq and the Anglo-American bombings
To explain the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia,
we must go back to the events of 1979. The arrival of the Ayatollah
Khomeini to power in Tehran that year shook up the issue of
security in the region. With the shah in Iran and the Saud regime
in Riyadh, the Americans had set up at that time the bases for
their foreign policy in the Gulf, known as the theory
of the two pillarsthe political pillar in Iran and
the financial pillar in Saudi Arabia.
The collapse of the first pillar with the establishment of an
Islamic republic in Tehran forced the Americans to increase
their aid to the Saud kingdom. The region was declared a strategic
zone with the highest priority for Washington.
The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1991 only served to confirm
the kingdoms inability to ensure its security alone. A
first alarm had been raised as early as 1979. At that time Saudi
Arabia had to call in the gendarmes of the GIGN [Frances
elite counterterrorist unit] to retake control of the Great
Mosque in Mecca, occupied by armed terrorists.
The result was that the thousands of American soldiers and civilians
who had moved into the kingdom now appeared to be the only guarantee
for bringing security to the region, both in the eyes of the
Saudi authorities and their allies in Washington. Riyadh has
ordered more than US$30 billion in military hardware from the
United States since the Gulf War, even though no defense agreement
links the two countries.
Yet as soon as the Gulf War came to an end, many demonstrations
were held in Saudi Arabia against the American military umbrella.
Some opponents went so far as to ask the government in Riyadh
to institute obligatory military service and to raise an army
of 500,000 men. In May 1991, Saudi Islamic groups, in a first
petition addressed to the king, called for about a dozen legislative,
legal, and military reforms. In their demands, the signatories
criticized the highest Saudi religious authority, Sheik Abdelaziz
ibn Baz, for having authorized the presence of non-Muslim troops
in the holy land of Islam. The following year, in 1992, the
sheik was the subject of a second petition signed by 107 religious
representatives. Among other things, the text denounced the
support he was lending the king and called for true national
There is real irritation, even within the government itself,
over the American presence, noted one well-informed observer
of the Saudi scene. As for the people, only a tiny minority
see Bin Laden as the big bad wolf.
In the early 1990s, two young ulemas particularly stood out
in their criticism of the present government: Safar al-Hawali
and Salman al-Awdah created the Movement for Islamic Resurgence.
Their sermons on the absence of democracy in the kingdom and
the presence of the infidels landed them in prison
in September 1994. After their arrest, a mysterious battalion
of the faithful threatened the current regime and also
Western institutions throughout the world. Salman al-Awdah even
recorded a cassette that is circulating underground in Europe
and in the United States. His sermon on death calls
on the Saudi intellectual elite to prepare for sacrifice and
martyrdom in order to attack the Westerners and the Saud regime,
accused of serving the crusaders.
The text of this famous fatwa is particularly striking. Here
is one excerpt: The opposition must be brought to the
forefront by a group of people from the elite, who would be
willing to sacrifice everything for the cause. This small group
of people must prepare itself to face arrest, torture, and even
death. It must be solidly determined and must strike with precision
so that the rest of the support will crumble.
Preliminary details from the investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorists
show that one group of the terrorists lived in or passed through
Great Britain and Germany. These two countries were home to
a delegation of the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate
Rights, an association of Saudis opposed to the regime. Some
police investigators, specialists in Islamist networks, suspect
this committee of taking up the theses of Salman al-Awdah.
The opposition in Saudi Arabia has frequently spilled over into
violence. Two attacks against American interests were carried
out in recent years. On Nov. 13, 1995, a bombing of a building
housing American advisers of the national guard caused seven
deaths. On June 26, 1996, a truck packed with explosives took
a toll of 19 dead at the U.S. base of El Khobar, near Dhahran.
The first reflex of the Saudis was to accuse Iran. But the investigation
of the 1995 attack led to the arrest of four Saudis. With their
eyes and faces bearing the marks of torture, these men acknowledged
their guilt in front of television cameras. After they were
beheaded, the four terrorists were described by Saudi intelligence
services as being close to Bin Laden and Mohammad al-Masaari,
another opponent of the regime. Still, even the Americans, who
were not authorized to interrogate these suspects, called into
question the credibility of their confessions. Did the Saudis
have something to hide that would lead them to keep their ally
away from the investigation?
As for the 1996 attack, the Legion of the Martyr Abdullah
al-Huzaifi claimed responsibility and also Hezbollah-Gulf,
considered to be the branch of Jihad on the Arabian peninsula.
This latter group had issued an ultimatum to Western forces
at the end of April 1995 to leave Saudi Arabia.
Since the mid-1990s, a full-scale opposition to the American
presence has been organized. A generation of Saudis has been
molded in the criticism against the Western forces. There can
be no doubt that the young Saudis suspected in the Sept. 11
attacks were nurtured by this debate that has been raging in
the kingdom for 10 years.
The patronymics Alghamdi and Alshehri, borne by six of the presumed
terrorists, have drawn particular attention. These names are
connected to the Assir region in southern Saudi Arabia, and
come from two Arabian clans, the Hamedi and the Sharahni. The
populations of Assir have never really accepted the dominance
of the Sauds. To understand the reasons for their opposition,
we need to recall certain historical facts. When the present
royal family unified the country, their conquest, which started
out from Kuwait in 1902, ended in the Assir region, the last
stronghold of the kingdom, taken in 1929.
This regions tribes have never been truly integrated into
the country. All the prestigious posts in the government and
the riches of the country have been divided up among the clans
of the north. This has led to a degree of frustration among
the southern tribes, who oppose the central authority and are
easily recruited into armed opposition movements. It should
be noted that one of the two religious radicals actively opposing
the Riyadh government, Safar al-Hawali, who founded the Movement
for Islamic Resurgence along with Salman al-Awdah, is likewise
originally from this same region.
Might these men have been in contact with Bin Laden? It is possible,
but it must be emphasized that very few Saudis went to fight
alongside Bin Laden in Afghanistan or anywhere else. Also, Bin
Laden, who was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994, has
been repudiated by the regime, which forced his own family to
do likewise. In other words, being in contact with Bin Laden
anytime after 1994 was considered by the Saudi government as
a hostile gesture, or even an act of high treason. Any Saudi
who approached Bin Laden was quickly put on file by the Saudi
intelligence services. These agencies kept close watch over
the comings and goings of visitors to Bin Laden in Afghanistan.
We should add that the average age of the 19 suspects of about
30 years old indicates that they could not have fought in Afghanistan
at the time of the Soviet presence. In 1994, when Bin Laden
was stripped of his citizenship, some of the terrorists were
just 18 years old. That was the case for Satam Al Suqami and
Ahmed Al Haznawi. Their interest in Bin Ladens ideas was
therefore certainly awakened in Saudi Arabia. However, notes
the Saudi press, six of the 19 suicide terrorists allegedly
fought in Chechnya, according to their families, who claim that
they have not been in contact with them since they left Saudi
Arabia two years ago.
The fact that the 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudis might
explain why the CIA and the FBI did not see the attacks coming.
Saudi Arabia has always been considered as one of the United
States most trusted allies in the Arab world. As for the
U.S. intelligence community, most observers concur regarding
their lack of familiarity with the internal political situation
in Saudi Arabia and the motivations of its Islamist opposition.