Politics & Policy

Kingdom’s Killers

Americans in the line of fire.

Paul Marshall Johnson and Kenneth Scroggs are the latest American victims in the spring terror offensive being orchestrated by Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin (a.k.a. Abu Hajar), head of al Qaeda on the Arabian peninsula. Scroggs, a contractor, was gunned down in his garage last Saturday, the same day Johnson was kidnapped. Muqrin, appearing masked on video (you at least have to give Osama and his team credit for showing their faces, these second stringers are seriously lacking in fortitude) threatened to kill Johnson in three days unless the Saudi regime released hundreds of imprisoned terrorists.

The same day the terrorist video appeared, Saudi Arabia released a statement from six radical clerics apparently denouncing terrorist violence. Two of them, the brothers Salman al-Awdah and Safar Al-Hawaly, have preached anti-Americanism for a decade or more, and have openly called for moving the Saudi state towards a more rigorous application of sharia. They have also spent time in Saudi jails, so they have excellent extremist credentials. Yet the mujahedeen are not buying it. They think the statement is the product of coercion, and believe that were the six radicals free to speak their minds, they would condone the attacks, or at least the sentiment behind them.

The Saudi clerics’ party line on terrorism has evolved over the years. They preached the virtues of political violence for years, their comments aimed primarily at Israel, and lessons were learned that had application elsewhere, such as in the United States. But Saudi preachers refused to renounce terrorism for two years after 9/11. The Grand Mufti finally came around in the fall of 2003 when attacks began to hit home, literally. But even then the denunciations had a conditional feeling, decrying attacks in the holy places, or in the Arabian peninsula, or against Muslims–never quite saying terrorism is evil per se. At first glance the most recent statement looks like a big leap forward: “The nation’s theologians are in consensus that it is a sin to kill a life without a right, be it Moslem or non-Moslem.” Finally, it is a sin to kill a non-Muslim! That is progress. But–is that what the statement really says? Note the escape clause–the phrase “without a right” reduces the edict to a tautology. That it is a sin to kill without a right has never been in doubt. All this statement does is shift the debate to the question, By what right do the terrorists kill? If they have a good reason, the sin will be expiated.

Al Qaeda has consistently claimed that their war is a defensive struggle against Western aggression. All aggressors claim to be victims. Even Hitler claimed that Poland constituted an imminent threat to Germany. (Lucky for him he had the Wehrmacht massed on the border, ready to go.) The terrorists never lack for explanations why their victims are actually aggressors. Take the case of Paul Johnson. In their video statement, the terrorists note that Johnson “works as an engineer for the Apache AH-64 helicopter and who is one of the foremost important engineers with respect to this within the whole Arab world.” This makes him an aggressor because “everyone knows that this aircraft is used by the U.S. and their Zionist friends and the apostates in killing Muslims in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq.” As for their tactics, of kidnapping and imprisonment, it is simply a matter of sauce for the gander: “the Mujahedin have the legitimate right to act in same ways as the Americans did to our brothers in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.” The analogy is at best imprecise; none of the detainees are being offered for exchanges, nor threatened with death should the enemy not comply with our demands. And I seriously doubt that Johnson’s accommodations would measure up to Camp Delta standards.

So the conditional denunciations of violence from the Saudi clerics still leave something to be desired. But Saudi Arabia is on a diplomatic offensive to convince the world that their country is safe and they are full partners in the war. Nail Al-Jubeir of the Saudi embassy, speaking to the Houston World Affairs Council, said on Tuesday, “We are 100 percent with you on this war on terrorism.” A Saudi editorial last week declared, “extremism must not be allowed to maintain a stronghold in our midst.” It makes you wonder if they think their society is an example of moderation. Nevertheless, we can believe that they feel the heat at least from people like Muqrin. Osama bin Laden has always said that bringing down the House of Saud was his long-term objective, and al Qaeda has finally stumbled on a sensible strategy–attack the pressure points of the kingdom. September 11 was a foolish move on their part, it put the United States on the warpath in ways they could not imagine or cope with. But now they are targeting the petroleum industry, one of the least-loved institutions in the U.S., and the dominant commercial sector in Saudi Arabia. Attacks on oil targets may inflate prices and inconvenience us, but in Saudi Arabia they constitute a threat to national survival. Removing American troops to Qatar had only symbolic value to the terrorists, if even that. Driving out the Western engineers and oilmen who keep the Saudi petroleum industry running could bring the whole country down.

The Saudis are downplaying the threat to Westerners, but the danger is great enough for the U.S. embassy to urge that all Americans leave the country. Twenty-nine foreigners have been killed in terror attacks in Saudi Arabia since May 1. There are six million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, so you might think the odds of survival are good. But most of the workers are Asians employed at menial labor, and are not in the target group. There are only 35,000 Americans. For a point of comparison, ninety-five Americans in uniform were killed in Iraq over the same period, out of a force of 135,000. If the Saudi terrorists can manage to kill one American per day, that will be about twice the death rate facing our combat forces in Iraq. Still like the odds?


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