- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

(First of two parts; the conclusion will appear on next Wednesday’s briefing page)

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — One humid evening in the lush garden of a villa belonging to one of Jidda’s oldest merchant families, a select gathering of Saudi men and women sipped orange juice and fanned themselves as they listened to a lecture attacking Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s austere brand of Islam.

The lecturer was Sami Angawi, self-proclaimed Sufi leader of the Hijaz, a Saudi region runs along the Red Sea and contains the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina.

For some time after the al-Saud family imposed its rule on the area in 1925, elections continued to be held for the town councils in Hijaz, but by the 1960s, they had been phased out.

Moreover, Wahhabi Islam — imported from Najd, the central region of Saudi Arabia — gradually had stamped out the non-Wahhabi thinking once taken for granted in the Hijaz.

Presenting a slide show during Ramadan, Mr. Angawi reminded his Saudi audience of how Wahhabism had eroded the historic Hijazi urban culture of tolerance and diversity.

Gasps of outrage were heard periodically as the images showed how Wahhabi domination had led to the destruction or neglect of almost all of the Islamic and pre-Islamic history of the Hijaz.

The private house in Medina of the Prophet Muhammad was shown in a state of advanced decay, the rubble reduced to dust under the giant wheels of yellow bulldozers.

“Most of the Islamic heritage in Hijaz has been destroyed by the Saudis,” said Ali al-Ahmed, head of the Washington-based Saudi Institute, a prominent Saudi opposition group.

“The Hijaz has witnessed the largest destruction of Islamic heritage ever, all at the hands of the Saudi government and their Wahhabi clan.”

Some in Mr. Angawi’s audience were old enough to recall the carnage of the 1920s, when the al-Saud family unleashed an army of Wahhabi zealots against what they called the “little infidels” of the Hijaz.

Their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters — wearing modest but colorful traditional Hijazi dresses, instead of the all-enveloping black gown of the Najd — have grown up with stories about Wahhabi massacres in the nearby mountain resort of Taif.

The climax of the slide show was a photograph of a beautiful Ottoman building in Medina, the roof of which just had been crushed by the arm of a crane.

On the left of the screen, an image appeared of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan, as they were being destroyed by the Taliban, whose numbers had been swollen in the 1980s by Saudi mujahideen.

Then, slowly, an image of the World Trade Center in flames came into focus between the first two photographs. Mr. Angawi’s message was clear: The roots of global Islamist terrorism can be traced back to the fanatical puritanism of the Bedouin zealots known as the Wahhabis.

American suspicions

The fact that 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers on September 11, 2001, were Saudis shook the historic oil-for-security deal, which had stood since Feb. 14, 1945, when the kingdom’s founder, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, met President Roosevelt on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. The meeting between Roosevelt and King Saud took place three days after the close of the Yalta Conference, where the American president, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin decided the shape of the world after World War II.

David Aufhauser, the Treasury Department’s general council and the senior U.S. official responsible for tracking terrorist financing, recently labeled Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi doctrine the epicenter of global terrorist funding.

Saudi Arabia’s multibillion-dollar global spending on Wahhabi propaganda, Mr. Aufhauser told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, “is a combustible compound when mixed with religious teachings in thousands of madrassas [Islamic religious schools] that condemn pluralism and mark nonbelievers as enemies.”

Sens. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, and Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, both members of the Judiciary Committee, accuse Saudi Arabia of deceiving its American allies.

“The House of Saud has for decades played a double game with the United States, on the one hand acting as our ally, on the other supporting a movement — Wahhabism — that seeks our society’s destruction,” they wrote in an opinion article published in The Washington Post in August.

This connection hardly was played down by the July report of the U.S. joint congressional committee on intelligence into security failures before September 11.

It laid out a web of connections among Saudi businessmen, the royal family, charities and banks that might have aided the suicide hijackers.

Those who have read the unpublished 28 classified pages say they even suggest a Saudi intelligence link to some of the hijackers.

Uneasy alliance

Wahhabism’s origins can be traced to the back-to-basics ideals of an 18th-century scholar, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, whose birthplace, Najd, also is the ancestral home of the al-Saud dynasty.

The followers of Abdul Wahhab, the “ikhwan,” or brotherhood, fought alongside the al-Saud dynasty to help it conquer the land that was unified as Saudi Arabia in 1932.

The al-Saud family and the descendants of Abdul Wahhab have ruled the kingdom in an uneasy partnership for the past seven decades, but it was a marriage of convenience from the start.

In Taif in the 1920s, for example, the Wahhabis carried out their slaughter despite protests from King Abdul Aziz.

In 1931, the king put down a rebellion in the eastern Hasa region by a group of ikhwan leaders.

The rebels considered the king insufficiently Islamic because he had allowed the Shi’ite minority to practice their rites in private and had signed security pacts with Britain, the main colonial power in the region.

The seeds of instability were sown, with the House of Saud allied with a jihad-inspired religious establishment needed to impose order at home and ties to Western colonial forces to guarantee its external security.

Having defeated the rebels among the ikhwan, and no longer in need of a conquering army because he already had thrown his lot with the British, King Abdul Aziz dissolved his army and used its remnants to establish a national guard.

The guard now is headed by the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Abdullah, one of the founding king’s 43 sons.

King Abdul Aziz proposed a pact to the less fanatical Wahhabis who still make up the religious establishment: Let the al-Saud dynasty run the government and take care of the budget, national security and foreign policy, and you can impose a strictly interpreted Islamic social order and run the education and judicial systems according to Wahhabi principles.

The king was using the Wahhabi doctrine to pacify a diverse and often rebellious people spread across a largely desert country the size of Western Europe.

Troubled tribe

Since September 11, the al-Saud family has faced calls for change, not just from reform-minded Saudis in the Hijaz, but also from the kingdom’s many other aggrieved constituents, not least the tribes from the south.

From 40 percent to 60 percent of the nearly 20 million Saudi subjects still identify strongly with a tribe. Allegiance to tribe and Islamic heritage loosened during the 1970s oil boom, as a new national identity emerged and tribal leaders began to receive benefits from state agencies.

“Tribe and family form the genetic map of Saudi society,” said Mamoun Fandy, a member of the U.S. Institute for Peace and a specialist on Saudi affairs.

“Everything else comes second. Whoever has the tribes in Saudi Arabia is the winner.”

The southern region of Asir, a remote mountainous land near Yemen, still is defined by its tribal culture more than any other region in Saudi Arabia, and it is from there that most of the Saudi hijackers came.

Formerly part of Yemen, Asir was a small theocracy under the descendants of a Sufi holy man, Ahmed Ibn Idris, who was revered as a saint.

But in 1922, King Abdul Aziz sent 6,000 men to punish the Asiris for their resistance to invading Saudi forces. Asir’s incorporation into the Saudi state was achieved mainly by buying off tribal sheiks and arranging marriages between the al-Saud clan and the women of various tribes.

Many of them have been eager recruits to Osama bin Laden because he shares their Yemeni-Saudi tribal roots and because, like him, they resent being ruled by a clan that they believe does not enforce its Islamic authority with sufficient rigor and, in many cases, lives by double standards.

One Asir tribe, the million-strong al-Ghamdi, had an especially central role in September 11 and subsequent al Qaeda operations in Saudi Arabia.

Four or five of the Saudi hijackers were al-Ghamdis. The cave in Afghanistan where the plan for September 11 was hatched was named “al-Ghamdi house.”

When bin Laden wrote a poem praising the tribes of Asir, he made special mention of al-Ghamdis. The man visiting bin Laden in the video in which he reflects on the “victory” of September 11 was called Sheik al-Ghamdi.

Three or four from the al-Qaeda cell that carried out the May 12 attacks in Riyadh last year were al-Ghamdis, including the purported mastermind, Ali Abdul Rahman al-Faqaasi al-Ghamdi.

However, when his surrender was announced by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, Ali al-Ghamdi’s tribal name was omitted and, following protocol, none of the Saudi newspapers carried it the next day.

What news outlets did report almost every day for the next month were official statements and photographs showing tribal leaders from the Hijaz and Asir meeting Crown Prince Abdullah and Interior Minister Prince Naif in Taif, scene of the Wahhabi massacres in the 1920s.

In almost identical speeches, all the tribal leaders pledged loyalty to the kingdom and its “wise leadership.”

John R. Bradley, formerly managing editor of the Jidda-based Arab News, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers and Puritans in the Wahhabi Kingdom.”Next week: Prince Abdullah takes over the day-to-day running of the government when his half-brother, King Fahd, suffers a stroke, and divisions surface in the royal family.

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