“It is quite clear to me that al Qaeda wants to take down the royal family
and the government of Saudi Arabia.”
Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State, November 9, 2003
With Iraq’s future an open question and Iran’s regional influence likely to increase, the Bush administration is trying to forge a long-term strategy to secure American energy supplies by drawing Arab governments into an alliance to coordinate defenses of their oil-related infrastructures, combat terrorism, and thwart Tehran’s nuclear and regional ambitions. As a consequence, (and overlooking the Saudis’ enabling role in the Sept. 11th attacks), the U.S. recently announced that it is planning to sell Saudi Arabia $20 billion in advanced weapons systems over the next decade including satellite-guided bombs, upgrades to fighter aircraft, and new naval vessels. Among the armaments will be thousands of Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) – a low-cost guidance kit that converts existing unguided free-fall bombs into accurately guided “smart” weapons.
The Pentagon hopes that this sale will underpin its regional defense policy, but from a political and historical perspective, this arms deal is sheer folly. We seem to have forgotten that after the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the mujahadeen (who were trained and armed by the US) turned those weapons against us and later evolved into al Qaeda. During the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Tehran purchased large stocks of U.S. weapons, especially F-4s, F-14s and C-130s only to have them fall into the hands of the ayatollahs after the 1979 Islamic revolution. In the early 1980s (despite strenuous objections from Israel and within the US), the Reagan Administration agreed to sell AWACS airborne battle stations to the Saudis, as well as F-15s (over 150 of these advanced fighter-bombers are now in the Saudi inventory) and tactical missiles such as the Maverick and the Sidewinder. Later, the Saudis paid $3.5B for 50-60 Chinese CSS-2 missiles capable of reaching up to 2,500 miles. And since 1990, the US government, through the Pentagon’s arms export program has arranged for the delivery of an additional $39.6B in foreign military sales to Saudi Arabia, and a further $394M worth of arms through the State Department’s direct commercial sales program during that same period. These sales included the M-1A2 Abrams main battle tank, M-2A2 Bradley armored vehicles, F-15E Strike Eagle attack aircraft and Patriot surface-to-air missile which are top-of-the-line systems deployed with US forces. In addition, weapons purchased from France and Britain should not be overlooked nor should the oil-for-nuclear warheads deal that Riyadh concluded with Pakistan. In fact, from 1987-97 alone, Saudi Arabia is estimated to have spent $262B on its military, with its annual military expenditure consuming about 18% of Saudi Arabia’s GNP… so it’s fairly safe to assume that the Saudis have more than enough weaponry to defend themselves from external threats!
But external threats aren’t their problem. They’re buying these weapons not because they ever intend to use them, but to solidify British and American support for their real fear, an Islamic coup in Riyadh. The Saudi royals are more concerned with internal threats to their rule than with external ones. That’s why they’ve never developed a strong operational military force and have focused instead on flashy parades and slick uniforms, rather than military strategy, building an offensive military capability or having its military operate as a coherent fighting force. Rather, their greatest fear is that a competent, independent military would be capable of carrying out a coup against them in which case all the sophisticated weaponry in the world would not protect them. 1
This fact alone explains why, despite over $300B in military expenditures, Saudi Arabia remains a nation unable to defend itself militarily. The United States, or a coalition of Western nations, would inevitably have to be called upon again to provide protection or to repel aggression which would no doubt result in a backlash among many Saudis who fear domination by the West – one of Osama bin Laden’s original and most compelling rallying points. When Saddam Hussein invaded Saudi Arabia’s northern neighbor Kuwait in 1990 during the Gulf War, Saudi Arabia immediately requested the deployment of US troops within the country to deter further aggression. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s oil exports through the shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf are protected by the US Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain so it’s fair to conclude that all this advanced weaponry in Saudi stockpiles will amount to some of the most expensive dust-collectors in history – unless of course, a coup d’etat places them at the disposal of a new Saudi mullah, a distinct possibility.
In fact, their enormous military expenditures may be having the exact reverse effect. Today, between 13% and 25% of Saudi Arabia’s male population remains unemployed and these figures only get worse if women are taken into account given the segregated nature of Saudi society. This, combined with the fact that Saudi universities (especially Imam Mohammed University in Riyadh) are still emphasizing religious (Wahhabi) studies over technical and scientific endeavors and that the Saudi population has virtually tripled from 7.3 million in 1975 to 19.6 million (as of 1999) do not bode well for the future stability of the kingdom.
And the Saudis have other problems. They maintain an inherently undemocratic political system that bans political participation for their citizens and lack democratic institutions such as political parties, a parliament and open elections. Since their constitution is the Koran, its rigid interpretation and enforcement of Islamic law (Wahhabism) with extensive constraints on social activities and their denial of basic human rights such as freedom of speech and gender equality have created widespread dissatisfaction among their restive population. In fact, all of their constituent elements – from business and charity to religious instruction, law enforcement, and foreign relations are subject to their fundamentalist obsessions. Even the Saudi flag contains a Koranic verse. 2
The Saudis are also confronted with the need to bargain perpetually for the cooperation of local tribal, clan and clerical leaders in handing over al Qaeda suspects. The alienated tribes, long denied privileges and senior positions in the central government are now settling their scores with Riyadh by granting solidarity to the anti-royal resistance posed by al Qaeda. Saudi security officers in pursuit of terrorists dare not venture into a district before the local chieftains and imams have given prior approval. The alternative would be wholesale war against one or more of the tribes that are the backbone of the kingdom’s population. And strong indications exist that the Saudi royals are losing their influence with these tribal leaders. There is a widening rift between the throne in Riyadh and the local chieftains and clerics, especially the teachers at the local madrasses. The situation now is that local leaders often let security forces believe they are operating in friendly territory when those very leaders betray the presence of the Saudi security forces to al Qaeda and help them elude capture. 3
Worse are reports that al Qaeda training camps have been discovered in the desert near several major Saudi cities, camouflaged as seminaries, with the pseudo-clerics doubling as instructors for training in both weapons and insurgency attacks. Since internal security in Saudi Arabia is entirely in the hands of the princes of the House of Saud who control all the kingdom’s critical nerve centers, from air force squadrons to governors’ palaces, the horrifying conclusion is that certain princes sympathize with Bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda Penetration
For all the above reasons, the $20B arms deal is fraught with danger. There is a strong likelihood that this advanced American weaponry will fall into the hands of Islamic extremists (as has already occurred in Gaza and will no doubt happen again on the West Bank). It seems that the secret “deal” negotiated between Bin Laden and Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal in July 1998 (that the Saudis would pay $300M in “protection money” to al Qaeda in return for an agreement that al Qaeda would not attempt to overthrow the Saudi regime) is over. Numerous al Qaeda-sponsored attacks on Saudi soil over the past four years have shown that the royal family’s policy of spreading Wahhabism around the world, in the words of Napoleon’s foreign minister Charles-Maurice Talleyrand, was worse than a crime, it was a mistake that has now returned to haunt them.
Based on numerous intelligence reports and highlighted by the number of former police and military men on the Saudi Interior Ministry’s own list of the 26 most wanted terrorists, there is every reason to believe that al Qaeda has infiltrated Saudi Arabia’s military and security forces at the highest levels (including those entrusted with the protection of Western residential compounds) with the intent of overthrowing that regime and instituting an Islamic republic in Saudi Arabia. A classified DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) study notes there are as many as 10,000 al Qaeda sympathizers in the Saudi police, National Guard, and security forces. Saudi daily Al-Watan reported that documents recently discovered by Iraqi sources reveal the extent to which Iranian elements have infiltrated Iraq’s government institutions, parliament, and security apparatuses. The documents show that 108 activists from Iran’s Al-Quds Forces, which belong to the Revolutionary Guards, have managed to attain key positions in Iraq’s defense and interior ministries. 4
It is common knowledge that al Qaeda operatives in Riyadh have used stolen police vehicles (possibly with the help of sympathizers within the force) as part of their strategy to set up fake official roadblocks to abduct or kill Westerners and they have painted other vehicles to resemble official ones and replicated police uniforms. Compounding the threat, US intelligence believes that al Qaeda has started inserting its operatives into Saudi oil installations in preparation for a major attack. 5 As a result, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is increasing its oilfield security forces from 5,000 to 35,000.
On Monday, May 12, 2003, al Qaeda assailants shot their way into three housing compounds in well-coordinated and synchronized strikes in the Saudi capital and then set off multiple suicide car bombs killing 35 people including seven Americans. 6 Some of the terrorists were wearing Saudi National Guard uniforms. Others drove vehicles bearing the Saudi National Guard insignia. Eyewitnesses saw terrorists clearly in command positions using keys to open up sentry booths in some places. Others had keys ready to operate the barriers and gates from inside those booths. Subsequent investigations disclosed that Saudi authorities suspected illegal arms sales by members of the country’s own National Guard to al Qaeda operatives in the country. Some of these weapons were eventually traced back to Saudi National Guard stockpiles. In effect, the attack was an ‘inside job’ having been assisted by members of the Saudi National Guard whose purpose it was to protect the royal family. According to Mark Hollingsworth, writing in The Independent, an “exercise” organized by the National Guard removed 50 of 70 security staff on the day of the bombing, thus leaving the compound “defenseless.” 7
These events occurred less than a week after an earlier shootout between Saudi security forces and a large group of al Qaeda terrorists in the Saudi capital on May 7, 2003. Saudi intelligence sources admitted that this had been the fourth battle Saudi security forces had fought with terrorists in Riyadh in the preceding weeks, but information on the first three was never officially released. Subsequent leaks from Saudi sources showed the May 2003 incident to have been even more dangerous than first reported – an attempt by al Qaeda to assassinate the pro-American Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan (then third in the line of succession to the throne) and his brother, Interior Minister Prince Nayef (who was in command of internal security in the kingdom). These factors point to a very unusual terrorist strike – the attackers clearly had senior accomplices on the inside of the very security force whose responsibility it was to protect the Saudi regime. Moreover, an al Qaeda operative, who identified himself as Abu Mohammed al-Ablaj (Abu Bakr), wrote in an e-mail to the London-based, Saudi-owned Al-Majalla magazine that al Qaeda has stored arms and explosives in Saudi Arabia and set up “martyrdom” squads to launch what he described as a guerrilla war on Saudi leaders and the United States and the London Daily Telegraph reported that…. “The only area where there is no evidence of a significant al Qaeda presence is in the Saudi air force…… The police, army, navy and National Guard have all been infiltrated.”
Subsequent attacks on April 28, 2004 by al Qaeda operatives on the secured Saudi General Security headquarters in Riyadh have gone even further to suggest that the terrorist organization has penetrated the highest security levels of the Saudi government. There is no other way to account for how two cars filled with explosives were able to drive through the city, past roadblocks and security checks without being apprehended. The bombings blew up one of the most sensitive anti-terror facilities in the Saudi kingdom. The suicide bombers’ freedom to move through Riyadh without being challenged, and the readiness of the guards at a highly sensitive facility to reveal such information as working hours were only two anomalies that indicated high-level penetration of the Saudi security service – penetration that must have cleared the way for them to reach their target. 8
Saudi Arabia, incubator of many of the world’s most infamous terrorists, now also finds itself in the crosshairs of al Qaeda which makes it all the more foolish to further equip the regime with weapons they do not intend to use and that cannot be used without American assistance weapons that, in all probability, will end up in the hands of Islamic terrorists when the American gamble fails. Nevertheless, the US administration is plowing ahead with its proposed arms deal. It seems that we are incapable of learning from our past mistakes. The November 8, 2003 car bomb attack on an Arab housing complex in Riyadh, the April 2004 attack on a major, high-security Saudi government installation, and subsequent al Qaeda attacks in Yanbu’ al Bahr, Saudi Arabia (May 1, 2004) and the Saudi Aramco oil facility at Abqaiq on February 24, 2006 (al-Qaeda dubbed that attack “Operation Bin Laden Conquest”) confirm that the overthrow of the Saudi dynasty is now at the top of al Qaeda’s hit list. Attempts against Saudi oil facilities continue to worry the Saudi leadership, but apparently not enough to inhibit further arms sales by the US. 9 Following a siege and a raid against extremists in Dammam, Saudi security forces (September 6, 2005) discovered more than sixty hand grenades and pipe bombs, pistols, machine guns, RPGs, two barrels full of explosives, and video equipment.
Earlier, on December 29, 2004, al Qaeda made a failed attempt on the life of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, son of the Saudi interior minister, deputy minister and director of the ministry’s security unit which runs the war on terror. Just three weeks before, the Saudis investigated their own intelligence structures after the December 6, 2004 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Jeddah, when al Qaeda was seen to have penetrated not only the interior ministry’s intelligence department but also the religious police, the Mutaween. The main conclusion was that even minimal security and the most basic rules of secrecy are impossible to preserve in Saudi intelligence agencies given that 80% of their personnel continue to be educated at Saudi Islamic madrasses and universities. 10
In short, all the old reasons that prevented us from re-evaluating our relationship with Saudi Arabia are no longer compelling. Saudi foreign aid is based on building fundamentalist madrasses and mosques, supporting such fundamentalist groups as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and spreading Koranic instruction worldwide. Arab and Muslim expatriate workers who have lived and worked in Saudi Arabia – easily numbering 50 million over the last three decades – return imbued with a model of Wahabbism that duplicates a bin Laden-style path toward jihad against their home societies. 11 Furthermore, as each day passes, Saudi oil policy is neither pro-Western nor as crucial as it once was in determining world oil pricing. The present government has been an active abettor of terror, and perhaps the most virulently anti-Israel Arab country in the region. Al Qaeda and other terrorists have received bribe money from the Saudis without which they could not operate effectively. The fact that the monarchy has not been forthcoming in tracking those with ties to the September 11th murders and subsequent attacks on Americans in Saudi Arabia (especially Khobar Towers in 1996) reflects its real concern about where such investigations might lead. 12
In addition, Saudi cash has been a force for the expansion of Wahhabism/Salafism right here in the United States, casting into doubt the legitimacy and purpose of almost every Islamic “charity” now operating in America. Nor have the Saudis been shy about supplementing their considerable leverage in the U.S. by targeting expenditures to affect the debate over Middle East policy by funding think tanks, Middle East studies programs, advocacy groups, community centers and other institutions. Just last year Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal donated $20 million each to Harvard and Georgetown Universities for programs in Islamic studies.
Nor should we forget that no country in the world is more hostile to the American ideals of religious tolerance, free speech, constitutional government and sexual equality than Saudi Arabia. Stephen Schwartz, in a recent article the Weekly Standard noted: “(Saudi) religious militia members (mutaween) were brought into Saudi courts for the first time, charged with arbitrarily killing people taken into custody for morals offenses (including possession of alcohol, and an unchaperoned meeting between a man and an unrelated woman). 13
For these reasons, and contrary to the advice of American foreign policy analysts, Saudi Arabia can never be a stabilizing power in the Middle East or a counterforce to Iranian influence, or a friend of America as its Washington lobbyists would have us believe. Saudi F-15s will not be of much use against an Iranian bomb nor can the Saudi “military” do anything but put on a great show….and all the while, al Qaeda is testing Saudi defenses on the home front. According to Jihad Watch, in a Saudi poll taken between August 2003 and November of that year, almost half of all Saudis said that they held a favorable view of Osama Bin Laden. 14 Yet the Saudi royals continue to see Bin Laden and al Qaeda as criminal deviants. They do not, even now, perceive al Qaeda as being a natural by-product of their own medieval order.
Saudi Arabia is the ideological fountainhead of global jihadism. It is pouring millions of dollars into Iraqi Sunni opposition groups, allowing Saudis jihadists in unprecedented numbers to cross into Iraq to kill Americans and Iraqis* and has torpedoed any possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue by bankrolling Hamas. And separate and apart from funding Islamic ‘charities’ like the Al-Haramain Foundation, the International Islamic Relief Organization (which had two branches in Indonesia and the Philippines designated by the U.S. Treasury Department on August 3, 2006, as entities that were “bankrolling [the] al Qaeda network”) 15, the Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International that have all at some point supported global Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia has still failed to pursue wealthy individuals identified as sending millions of dollars to al-Qaeda.
Nor are the Saudis our strategic ally. Saudi King Abdullah has insulted his US benefactors by calling its military presence in Iraq an “illegitimate occupation”. Indeed, massive U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia are being proposed in Washington while the U.S. Treasury Department is complaining that the Saudis are “not holding people responsible for sending money abroad for jihad.” 16 With friends like this, who needs enemies?
If the US is placing its bets on the Saudis, they are building castles on quicksand. American interests would best be served by pressuring the Saudis to reform their educational system by de-emphasizing radical religious studies in their universities in favor of 21st century scientific pursuits, implementing a market-driven economy, empowering Saudi NGOs to operate independently, and free the intellectual power of their women from the chattel status they currently occupy in Saudi society. No society can achieve its true potential when 50% of its population (women) has been disenfranchised.
*Washington estimates that nearly half of the 60 to 80 foreign terrorists entering Iraq each month come from Saudi Arabia. (Helene Cooper, “Saudis’ Role in Iraq Frustrates U.S. Officials,” New York Times, July 27, 2007)
- Contrary to popular belief, the Saudi military is not the Saudi army, but the Saudi National Guard, made up of tribes loyal to the al-Sauds and, like most armies, its main purpose is to keep the current regime in power. See –http://www.fas.org/asmp/profiles/saudi_arabia.htm and William M. Arkin, “Early Warning,” Washington Post, July 30, 2007.
- Hooman Peimani, “Economic woes threaten Saudi stability”, Asia Times, October 2, 2002.
- DEBKAFile: Tribal Backing for Saudi Rulers Ebbs as al Qaeda Creeps Closer, November 11, 2003.
- Richard Sale, “Saudi Security Organs Infiltrated,” Washington Times, June 28, 2004; Dore Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism, (Regnery Publishing Inc., 2003); Stephen Ulph, “Al-Qaeda Leader Salih Al-Awfi Slips Through the Net, Global Terrorism analysis, Volume 1, Issue 1, August 6, 2004; Richard Beeston et al, “Al-Qaeda Support Foils Saudi Security Pledges,” Times of London July 5, 2004; see also: Robert Baer, “Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude,” Three Rivers Press, 2004; Inquiry & H.Varulkar, ‘Saudi Columnists Criticize Iran, Syria, Hizbullah,’ MEMRI – Analysis: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, September 18, 2007, No. 390.
- Keith Jones and Philip Sherwell, “Al Qaeda steals Saudi police cars for expat attacks,” The Telegraph, July 10, 2004; Khalid R. al-Rodhan, “The Impact of the Abqaiq Attack on Saudi Energy Security”, Saudi-US Relations Information Service, February 28, 2006.
- DEBKAfile, July 20, 2004.
- Mark Hollingsworth, Independent, May 17, 2004; Mark Hollingsworth, “US Bomb Victims Sue Saudi Royal Family for ‘Negligence’,” Independent on Sunday, May 8, 2005.
- DEBKA-Net-Weekly, “Al Qaeda Terror Ring Draws Closer to Israel,” #154, April 28, 2004.
- Peter Brookes, “Al Qaeda’s Saudi Agenda: Terror vs. Oil,” Heritage Foundation, June 21, 2004.
- “Riyadh Attack Was First Al Qaeda Attempt on Life of Saudi Royal – Prince Mohammed bin Nayef,” DEBKAfile Exclusive Report, December 30, 2004.
- Youssef Ibrahim, “Saudi Arabia: The Islamist Cage,” New York Sun, August 27, 2007.
- Victor Davis Hanson, ‘Our Enemies, the Saudis,’ Commentary, July-August 2002.
- Stephen Schwartz, “Saudi Arabia’s Koran Kops: The religious police run amok,” Weekly Standard, September 3, 2007, Volume 012, Issue 47.
- Steven Stalinsky, Middle East Media Research Institute – January 14, 2005 Saudi Terror Conference, Part III.
- “Treasury Designates Director, Branches of Charity Bankrolling Al Qaeda network,” Department of the Treasury, August 3, 2006. Seehttp://www.ustreas.gov/press/releases/hp45.htm.
- Glenn R. Simpson, “U.S. Tracks Saudi Bank Favored by Extremists,” Wall Street Journal, July 26, 2007.