To get a clear fix on the degree of Saudi involvement with transnational terrorism one has to understand that Osama bin Laden, the world’s most-wanted terrorist, became a hero in the kingdom 20 years ago. In his mid-20s, he was raising money and recruits to join the mujahedin in their guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The scion of one of the country’s most-successful, non-royal business families, bin Laden had easy access to people of great wealth. His late father, Mohammed, had exclusive rights as the contractor for all royal palaces and buildings. In those days, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were splitting the $1 billion-a-year tab of the anti-Soviet war. Bin Laden was also collecting donations from the hard-line, anti-communist royals who dipped into their numbered accounts abroad. This helped bankroll the transfer of thousands of volunteers from all over the Arab world — and the Muslim world beyond.
When the last Soviet unit left Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989, bin Laden came home to much adulation. It was, after all, the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire — and bin Laden, as his countrymen read the embroidered saga, had starred in the denouement.
While bin Laden, hardened by his experiences with the “Afghan Arabs” in Afghanistan, did not approve of the extravagant excesses of the House of Saud, he held his fire. That is, until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, 1990.
Talk of U.S. intervention to drive the Iraqis out prompted bin Laden to ask for an appointment with an old friend who was a key Saudi official — Prince Turki al-Faisal, the man who had been head of intelligence for 25 years and oversaw the Afghan war effort.
As Turki, now the Saudi ambassador in London, recalled the encounter to this reporter, bin Laden said there was no need to call in the U.S. cavalry because his own Afghan-Arabs could do the job, just as the mujahedin had defeated the mighty Soviet Union. Turki thought the idea was so preposterous he laughed and told bin Laden there was no way lightly armed guerrillas could defeat the Iraqi army.
That turned out to be an expensive chuckle. Because bin Laden there and then decided the House of Saud was capitulating to the United States and that Washington would now use the pretext of Kuwait to occupy the Gulf and control its oil resources.
After the Gulf War, bin Laden sought solace in the company of Wahhabi imams who, like him, were in high dudgeon over the invasion of the American “heathens.” His denunciations of the royal puppets and their American puppet-masters began in mosques — and quickly ended when King Fahd expelled him from the kingdom, and in 1994 stripped him of his citizenship.
The royal family is not a monolith. There are 7,000 princes (all on generous stipends from birth) plus their wives (many still have three or four) and sisters and daughters, for a total of 24,000 members of the House of Saud. Male princes get $500,000 a year for expenses. The Saud family budget is about $3 billion a year though the kingdom is now in hock to foreign banks to the tune of $225 billion.
Many of these princes still think of bin Laden as a larger-than-life hero who defeated the mighty Soviet Union and gave the world’s only superpower its biggest blow since Pearl Harbor. Even Prince Naef, one of the Sudeiri Seven (sons of King Abdul Aziz, also known as Ibn Saud, the founder of the dynasty, and the same mother), has said publicly that bin Laden was not involved in 9/11. Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad did it, he said, regurgitating an old chestnut first peddled by a former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Hamid Gul, who is also a fundamentalist extremist.
Bin Laden remains an immensely popular figure in Saudi Arabia. Many Wahhabi clerics revere him as some sort of miracle man.
As recently as July 27, Prince Amr Muhammad al-Faisal encouraged today’s enemies of the United States to study the strategies employed by America’s enemies during the Vietnam War. Writing in Arab News, a Saudi newspaper, this prince of the royal blood, who frequently escorts high-ranking foreign visitors, said the U.S. Army “is so weak that Americans should fear an invasion by the Mexican army.”
Amr poured out his venom on the U.S. military operation that killed Saddam’s two sons, Uday and Qusay. “I was appalled,” he wrote, “it took a 50:1 ratio (and I’m ignoring helicopters etcetera) of crack (at least that’s what the Americans call them) troops five hours to kill three men and boy who were hiding, not in a heavily fortified bunker, but in a simple villa. What a disgrace! … Had these been Saudi troops I would have urged that they be court-martialed for sheer colossal incompetence and cowardice … U.S. strategy, doctrine, tactics, and whatever else you can think of, have reached the point of total bankruptcy.”
A month ago, Amr vented his spleen on Paul Bremer, denouncing the U.S. administrator in Iraq, for “breathtakingly brazen arrogance … the awesome white man is no longer held in awe.”
In yet another of his regular anti-American diatribes, he questioned The New York Times’ judgment that Colin Powell should be held responsible for the failure of U.S. foreign policy. “How did Powell become an easy victim of the Bush administration? It’s simple. In American cowboy movies, the black characters die before the end of the film.”
Nor does this prince charming spare the Jews who have led “U.S. foreign policy into a blind alley,” and who will become “the scapegoat…for the failure of these policies.”
Crown Prince Abdullah, who is de facto ruler due to the king’s long illness, and most of his royal and non-royal Cabinet colleagues are firmly opposed to bin Laden and his evil terrorist enterprise. They know they are first on al-Qaida’s hit list. But Abdullah doesn’t speak for 24,000 royals. He doesn’t even speak for Prince Naef bin Abdul Aziz, the interior minister who gives bin Laden a pass on 9/11. And who, as one of the seven Sudeiri brothers, is in line to inherit the throne. After Abdullah, Defense Minister Prince Sultan is next in line. Prince Salman, the popular governor of Riyadh, has made clear he will jump Naef when the time comes.
The 27 pages excised from a 900-page-long Congressional report on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks do not shed any light on the kingdom’s split personality and the love/hate relationship its people have, both with bin Laden and the United States.
Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.