Politics & Policy

Rattled in Riyadh

Testing time for the House of Saud.

The Saudi government and Secretary of State Colin Powell were quick to say that the Monday-night bombings in Riyadh looked like the work of al Qaeda. But the attacks — which killed more than 20, including at least seven Americans — were perpetrated in much the same way as many attacks by Hezbollah and other terror groups have been. Whether these attacks were the work of one terrorist group or another is less important than the effect they are having on the Saudi regime. As much as they shook the Al-Hamra, Cordoval, and Gedawal compounds where many Americans and Europeans live, they also shook the House of Saud down to its Wahabbi foundations.

The Monday attack comes at a critical point in the evolution of our relationship with the Saudis. The Wahabbis — as radical a sect as Islam offers, of which the Saudi upper class is almost entirely comprised — have always hated the American presence in Saudi Arabia. One of Osama bin Laden’s goals has been to drive us out. Last month, we announced that American troops would be pulled out of Saudi Arabia. We did this because of the constraints the Saudis placed on our forces based there. Before the Iraq campaign began, the Saudis played with us for months, hinting at cooperation, and then withdrawing it. Prince Sultan Air Base — about 60 miles from Riyadh — could have been a tremendous asset to our air campaign in Iraq, as it was in the 1991 Gulf War. But the Saudis refused to let us launch air strikes or even refueling operations from there. Now, as we move our forces to friendlier nations in the Middle East, this attack makes the House of Saud far less secure.

Though the Saudis have been a most dispensable ally for more than a decade, the radical Islamists see them as the opposite: true supporters of the West, unfaithful to their religion. Having American soldiers stationed on the same soil that Mecca and Medina sit on was a great affront to them. But the Saudis are weaker because of the American withdrawal, not stronger. Our troops provided the regime with some guarantee of stability, a guarantee against an uprising such as the one that took the Shah’s throne in 1979. Despite that vulnerability, the Saudis still follow the radicals’ dogma. The Saudis see the newly free and still unstable Iraq as a terrible threat to them. The Saudis — as well as the Iranians — want a radical Islamic theocracy in Iraq, and are working hard to create one. Saudi money, people, and other resources are being used to thwart the prospect of democracy in their neighborhood.

The State Department will be eager to use the Monday night attacks to counsel a softening of our demands on our Saudi “friends.” We will hear long, hard, and continuously — from the Saudis’ amen chorus — that it’s time for us to stand by our long-time ally. They will tell us over and over that the Saudis are our partner in the war on terror — which couldn’t be further from the truth. But we should make this incident a test of the Saudis willingness to oppose terrorism. Graded fairly, they will fail the test.

The last time a major terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia took American lives — the Khobar Towers bombing on June 25, 1996 — 19 American servicemen were killed in a truck bombing of an apartment building that was serving as a barracks. FBI agents sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate the murders were stiff-armed by the Saudis who would not allow them access to the evidence or to the suspects the Saudis arrested. The Saudis were quick to absolve Iran, which our intelligence sources all believed had financed and helped plan the attack.

Five years after the Khobar Towers killings, 13 Saudis and a Lebanese were indicted by a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia for the murders. The Saudis were members of the so-called “Saudi Hezbollah” terrorist group — supported by Iran and operated by Imad Mugniyah, one of the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists. The indictments prompted Prince Sultan, Saudi deputy prime minister, to say that, “…the Americans have no right to take any (legal) steps that come under Saudi jurisdiction,” and that “The (U.S.) indictments should be passed to the kingdom for further investigation.” Now, seven years later, we have another bombing in Saudi Arabia. Again, FBI agents are on the way to investigate, and again they will meet the same Saudi stonewall.

Monday’s attackers — many of whom were sought openly by Saudi authorities for weeks before the bombings — were able to obtain small arms, explosives, and vehicles, conceal them, move them and conduct the attacks in a nation that limits severely the movements of all non-Saudis, and follows many more. The Saudis’ intelligence services will have much information to share. If the Saudis cooperate, they will provide the intelligence information that formed the basis for the interior ministry saying last week that it was hunting “19 terrorists, 17 of them Saudis” “who intend to carry out acts of terrorism.” They should allow access to other evidence as well as victims and suspects.

With such cooperation, the Saudis would pass the test and the FBI would have a good chance of determining who was involved in these attacks, how they were financed, and how they were planned. You can take this to the bank: our investigators will not be given the cooperation they need. The Saudis will fail this test. And while they do this, they will prove — redundantly — that they are no ally in the war against terror. Under the president’s formulation, because they are not with us, we must conclude — at long last — that they are against us.

While this is going on, we should greatly increase the pressure on the Saudis to stop interfering in Iraq. This should be done in two ways. First, the president should call Crown Prince Abdullah directly, and tell him that the Saudis’ conduct in Iraq is unacceptable, and will be taken as an act of enmity toward America. Later, when the test has been failed — slowly, quietly, and subtly — some of the American generals, admirals, and intelligence-service leaders who have longstanding ties to their Saudi counterparts should begin speaking to them about what comes after the House of Saud.

— Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is the author of the novel, Legacy of Valor>. He often appears as a defense commentator on the Fox News Channel and MSNBC.


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