Saudi dragged to frontline of US led war against terrorism/Jamie Barton
By Jamie Barton
Dragged to the front line of the U.S led fight against Islamic terrorism on Monday night by a wave of three Al-Qaeda-linked suicide attacks against well-guarded residential compounds for ex-patriot workers in north Riyadh which left at least 29 dead and over 200 injured, Saudi Arabia has found itself in an increasingly ambivalent role: it is an indirect source of terror against the U.S but also a key American ally in the region and the main exporter of oil.
The ferocious attacks, the first since the Iraq war and timed to coincide with U.S secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Saudi Arabia, conveyed that it is no longer just U.S military facilities and personnel that are being targeted in that region by extremist groups, but Al-Qaeda have demonstrated that they are determined and able to kill and maim innocent Western civilians on a massive scale within the state which they have been unable to launch operations for nearly six years.
Al-Qaeda, though, is a movement funded by Saudis and predominantly manned at the highest level by Saudis. Its leader was born there, fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were recruited from the kingdom and it has sympathisers and fundraisers within the country and it’s establishment.
Potentially toppling internal disorder could be the result of any decision by the ruling Al Saud family to be seen to be further cooperating with the U.S now, after showing quiet approval, allowing the U.S to continue its military operations in the state, during the Afghanistan war. It is a delicate balancing act. The fact that the Saudis were willing to invite U.S forces into the kingdom when Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the family’s rule in 1990, risking a public-opinion backlash, shows how threatened they felt. Bin Laden though, as much the enemy of the Saudi government as he is of Washington, is considered isolated from Saudi society, and not the immediate threat to the regime’s security that Saddam once was.
The terrible attacks of September 11th did not change that view of the Al-Qaeda chief but those horrific events in Riyadh on Monday night just may force the Saudi rulers to think again.
Osama bin Laden is the product of the educational and cultural milieu of this country which is known for its official adherence to a particularly strict strain of Sunni Islam. Expelling American troops from a state which includes some of Islam’s holiest sites was the focus of his ideological agenda – radical Islamic revolution in Saudi Arabia and the expulsion of U.S influence in a government that, in hard-line Muslim eyes, welcomed the superpower as its brother with open arms during the first Gulf War. The Al-Qaeda leader’s deadly apathy towards the U.S and Saudi regimes is not only the result of radical Islamic indoctrination though – it is, ironically, the product of the two greatest foreign policy successes to emerge from U.S -Saudi cooperation: the Afghan battle against the Soviets and the first Gulf War.
The 1991 Gulf War led to a brief expansion of political freedom in Saudi Arabia, one of the most closed countries in the world. Islamic activists, discontented both with what they considered the governments drift away from strict Islamic principles and its ability to protect the country from Saddam Hussein’s marauding Iraqi army, which had steamrolled through Kuwait, without recourse to foreign (non-Muslim) help, took advantage of this new freedom to press for political change.
This rise in militant Islam came to a halt when Western media covered the public demonstrations against the rulers that broke out in September 1994 in Burayda, a town in central Saudi known for its religious conservatism. Such levels of dissent had not been seen in the kingdom for decades and it provoked a major crackdown from the Saudi authorities – Islamic activists were rounded up and arrested and the government established new committees to closely monitor religious bureaucracies and Islamic charities.
Rather than calming the country, the 1994 squelching of anti-government and anti-U.S violence made the Islamist opposition, bin Laden included, explode into more bloodshed. The Al-Qaeda chief, expelled by the ruling Saud family from his place of birth, accused the Saudi regime of declaring war on Islam and called on Saudi citizens to ‘liberate’ their homeland. He openly linked what he interpreted as the ruling family’s un-Islamic actions to pressure from the U.S and speculated that America hoped to force Saudi Arabia to make peace with Israel.
In November 1995, a car bomb exploded at the offices of a U.S military training mission in Riyadh, killing six Americans. The perpetrators admitted to being heavily influenced by bin Laden’s ideas in their televised confessions. Seven months later, a more powerful car bomb, again attributed to Al-Qaeda, exploded outside the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, killing 19 U.S soldiers who had been involved in air patrols over southern Iraq.
Since this attack in 1996, Wednesday’s suicide attacks in the capital were the first managed by Al-Qaeda against any Western interests due to the aggressive policy of breaking up networks of domestic opposition.
These vigorous internal security measures are a short-term fix: they cannot simply eradicate sympathy for, or sympathisers with, bin Laden within the kingdom, not while sores such as Iraq’s occupation, and the Palestinian plight continue to fester.
These latest attacks on residential compounds which house Western workers, along with the fact that bin Laden was able to recruit a number of Saudis into the 9/11 mission, strongly suggests that his message still resonates in some dark corners of the kingdom.
Monday night was further evidence of bin Laden’s continuing appeal in the country – and throughout the Islamic world.
A leading Al-Qaeda operative warned of the synchronised Riyadh attacks against the Saudi and U.S rulers in an e-mail to the London-based Al-majalla magazine, also singling out Egypt and Jordan as U.S allies where ‘assassinations and martyrdom squads will succeed’.
America cannot push the Saudis or any other Middle East countries to democratize though – the hope being that a more open political process would deflect opposition into institutionalised channels and dampen the appeal of terrorism is unfounded. Heavy U.S pressure in this way could have the opposite effect. The suicide bombings not only inflicted grievous harm on the ‘invading infidel’, but also may provoke Washington into the kind of reaction in the kingdom that would necessitate the participation and heightened co-operation of Riyadh, putting the regime under intense pressure both externally and internally. The regime would then cave in to be replaced by radical Islamic governments opposed to U.S influence; while were elections to be held today in Saudi Arabia they are more likely to be won by candidates whose worldview is closer to that of Osama bin Laden than Thomas Jefferson.
Washington can help Riyadh manage some of its vexing issues by carefully prodding the Saudis to take economic and political reforms to ensure more stability and less resentment. The U.S cannot afford not to do this as Saudi Arabia sits on 25% of the world’s oil reserves, in a region which contains over 60% of those reserves, making stability a key interest
The Saudi elite therefore should consider just what a role such a severe infused religious doctrine and the vast strict religious infrastructure they have built around it played in bin Laden's rise and appeal. The attacks in Riyadh raise the already high-profile of bin laden on the poorer Arab street. As long as he evades punishment, Al-Qaeda's popular support will grow, causing problems for those governments seemingly allied with the U.S.
Just as Monday night’s attacks have highlighted the Saudi relationship with the U.S and the West, so should it now force the Saudi rulers to confront the contradictions in the society they govern – contradictions so dangerous they have already produced a heavy number of people willing to kill themselves in order to annihilate innocent Americans and Westerners.
Jamie Barton is a UK-based journalist, specializing in foreign affairs, the Middle East and global terrorism. He currently contributes to several Middle-East online publications and UK newspapers.
© 2003 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)
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