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From the January 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 1)

Terrorists Within the Regime’s Opposition

The Saudi Connection

Ali Laïdi, Le Monde (liberal), Paris, France, Oct. 4, 2001

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 Saudis—WPR.] 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 there.

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 pillars”—the 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 kingdom’s 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 [France’s 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 independence.

“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 region’s 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 Laden’s 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.

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