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 mujahideen in their guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The scion of one of the country’s most successful nonroyal business families, Osama 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 Feb. 15, 1989, Osama 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 Prince 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 mujahideen had defeated the mighty Soviet Union. Prince 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 U.S. 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 even 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 the September 11, 2001, attacks. 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 also is 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 Mohammed al Faisal encouraged today’s enemies of the U.S. to study the strategies employed by America’s enemies during the Vietnam War. Writing in Arab News, 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.”
Prince 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, etc.) of crack (at least that’s what the Americans call them) troops five hours to kill three men and a 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, Prince 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.”