Since the May 12, 2003, al Qaeda bombing in Riyadh that killed 23 people, the Saudi government has launched an all-out offensive against terrorists who are targeting the kingdom, arresting hundreds of suspected operatives in dozens of raids throughout the country. The Saudis have also increased cooperation with the United States, extraditing captured terrorists, establishing a joint task force against global terrorist financing, and taking steps to control the flow of funds out of the country. Yet despite the Saudis’ vigorous pursuit of terrorists within the kingdom’s borders and the increased cooperation with the U.S., Saudi counterterrorism policy remains fundamentally insufficient and requires extensive reform. Most notably, the Saudi government continues to propound the extremist brand of Islam at the heart of al Qaeda terror, obstructs the 9/11 investigation, and provides significant support to organizations with proven terrorist connections.
Recently, these problems with Saudi counterterrorism policy have been overshadowed by praise for the Saudis’ domestic crackdown following the Riyadh bombing. For example, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage declared that Saudi “…cooperation on things…internal to Saudi Arabia has been magnificent.”
The Saudis have handed several terrorist suspects captured in the kingdom over to the U.S. In June 2003, Ali Abd al Rahman al Faqasi al Ghamdi, a key al Qaeda figure in the kingdom, surrendered to Saudi police; he is now being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Saudis also extradited three people who had been indicted in northern Virginia for their involvement with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
In addition, following the May 2003 Riyadh bombing, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia established a cooperative team drawing members from law-enforcement and intelligence agencies “to share ‘real time’ intelligence and conduct joint operations.” The joint U.S./Saudi team conducted over 400 interviews as part of the May 12th investigation, and by November 2003, the Saudis had arrested more than 200 people in connection with the probe.
Furthermore, in an effort to curtail terror funding from within the kingdom, the Saudis promised in 2003 to prohibit mosques, schools, and commercial centers from collecting cash contributions, prevent Saudi charities from transferring cash overseas, and ban Saudi charities from operating offices outside Saudi Arabia.
And in August 2003, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. established a task force to interdict terrorist financing. Overall, the Saudis have frozen $5.7 million. With the Treasury Department, the Saudis jointly designated Wael Julaidan as an al Qaeda financier and blocked select accounts of a front organization, Al-Haramain, in Somalia, Bosnia, Kenya, Tanzania, Pakistan and Indonesia.
However, a few half-hearted Saudi concessions are simply not enough. The Saudi government’s protection of Al-Haramain is typical of the kingdom’s treatment of organizations linked to terrorism. As one U.S. official told Time in September 2003, “…the Saudis still appear to be protecting charities associated with the royal family and its friends.”
In a seemingly momentous announcement, on June 12, 2003, Saudi-embassy spokesman Adel Al-Jubeir declared that Al-Haramain would “be shutting down all of its foreign offices,” and that all Saudi organizations were banned from operating outside the kingdom.
Five months later, in November 2003, Aqeel Al-Aqeel, the head of Al-Haramain at the time, stated that the organization was not only still active in 74 countries, but that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah had recently sent Al-Haramain a letter accompanied by a check for an unreported sum of money. Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Saleh Al-Shaikh is chairman of Al-Haramain’s board of directors.
The Al-Haramain fiasco also speaks to the Saudis’ failure to pursue counterterrorism of their own volition. Al-Haramain was first linked to terrorism in 1998, following the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Kenyan authorities investigating the attacks banned Al-Haramain because it “had been found to be working against the interests of Kenyans in terms of security…” The Saudis did not ban Al-Haramain’s Kenyan branch until January 2004, more than five years after Kenyan authorities linked the office to the embassy attacks.
In addition to the troubling case of Al-Haramain, the Saudis have repeatedly ignored U.S. requests to shut down three other high-profile organizations with documented ties to terrorism: The Muslim World League (MWL), The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), and the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO).
The September 26, 2003, New York Times reported that “American intelligence and law enforcement officials recently gave Saudi officials a detailed document outlining terrorism links to…the International Islamic Relief Organization [IIRO]. American officials have asked that the Saudi government close all of that group’s overseas offices and that members of the Saudi royal family…step down from its board.” IIRO is the “humanitarian assistance” arm of the MWL, a quasi-official missionary and propaganda arm of the Saudi kingdom. In March 1997, MWL Secretary General Abdullah Al-Obaid thanked King Fahd for his continued support, noting that the Saudi government had officially provided more than $1.33 billion in financial aid to MWL since 1962.
The Washington Post wrote on October 2, 2003, that “Bush administration officials have pressed the Saudi government to clamp down on the Muslim World League and WAMY.” Saleh Al-Shaikh, the same man who is chairman of Al-Harmain’s board of directors, is president of WAMY. Given the government’s deep ties to IIRO, MWL, and WAMY, it is little surprise that the Saudi government has taken no visible steps against these organizations.
Even more galling is the lack of Saudi cooperation with the global investigation into the September 11 attacks. In the immediate aftermath, the Saudis stalled when U.S. officials asked for passport photos, fingerprints, and other information about the 9/11 hijackers. Later, they refused to permit American investigators to interview the hijackers’ families in Saudi Arabia. As late as November 2002, more then a year after the attacks, Saudi Minister of the Interior Prince Nayef continued to deny that the hijackers were Saudi, saying, “Who benefited from events of 9/11? I think [the Zionists] are behind these events.”
The Saudi authorities also hindered the German investigation into links between the hijackers and a Saudi government agent. Evidence has surfaced that Muhammad Jaber Fakihi, who was head of the Islamic Affairs Department at the Saudi embassy in Berlin, had extensive ties to militants and had met with Mounir el-Motassedeq, who was later convicted for his role in the 9/11 conspiracy. The Saudi embassy in Berlin has not cooperated in the probe, and a German police official told the Wall Street Journal in December 2003 that “nothing has changed” since the Riyadh bombings. The same Journal article stated, “European police and intelligence officials…say cooperation has been spotty. Although Saudi Arabia has won high marks in Washington recently for its willingness to cooperate in fighting terrorism, European law-enforcement officials say that they have found teamwork to be minimal.”
The Saudis’ halting cooperation stems from a deep rift within the kingdom. Although there is a desire to maintain contact with the modern world for the sake of material wealth, many Saudis believe that all Westerners and non-Muslims are heretics. Adel Al-Jubeir tacitly acknowledged the problem in a May 2003 interview on Fox News, saying the kingdom “…need[s] to eliminate the environment in which they [terrorist organizations] can recruit our young people.” The environment in Saudi Arabia has produced at least 160 of the 650 detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Nonetheless, the Saudi government continues to use an elaborate network of mosques, schools, “charitable” and “humanitarian” organizations, and official diplomatic facilities to aggressively propagate Wahabbism, the extreme brand of Islam that Sen. Jon Kyl said “…presents a clear and present danger to our Constitution and the principles of freedom enshrined by our Founding Fathers.”
Michael Young, chairman of the State Department’s Commission on International Religious Freedom, succinctly described Wahabbism as “an ideology that is incompatible with the war on terrorism.”
Despite the Saudi government’s claim that it has “reformed” several thousand imams, sermons and statements by the kingdom’s religious leadership remain deeply radical. This month, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Sheik, said, “Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe.” In November 2003, in a sermon broadcast on official Saudi television, an imam ended his sermon by saying, “O God, strengthen Islam and Muslims, humiliate infidelity and infidels, destroy the enemies of Islam, and…help our mujahadeen brothers in Palestine defeat the tyrannical Jewish occupiers.”
One senior Saudi provincial official told Time that, even when imams have tempered their language, “What we are hearing is only a façade. You can smell the disgust they feel in mouthing their new rhetoric.”
Saudi Arabia is itself presenting a façade to the world. The Saudi government claims that it is fully combating terrorism, but it is historically linked to a brand of Islam that promotes violence and intolerance toward the West. Until the Saud family makes a firm commitment to divorce itself from this radical ideology, Saudi Arabia will continue to be a hotbed of terrorist activity.
–Josh Lefkowitz & Jonathan Levin are senior analysts with the Investigative Project. For more on al Qaeda and Saudi Arabia, see Evan Kohlmann’s “A Saudi Home.”