- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004

Switzerland, the landlocked country that invented the cuckoo clock and the secret numbered bank account, has overcome its strong commitment to neutrality to get into the same sandbox with the other international players on counterterrorism.

Earlier this month Switzerland announced it had arrested eight people in connection with the May 12 suicide bombings that claimed 35 lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The CIA had blamed the attack targeting a compound housing Western workers on al Qaeda. One of the dead was a Swiss citizen.

The Swiss charged the detainees, whose names were not released, with providing “logistical support to a criminal organization.” No one said whether the detainees also were linked to the al Qaeda car bombers who killed 17 people and wounded 122 at another Riyadh compound housing foreign workers last November or whether they were planning still further attacks in Saudi Arabia.

The Swiss arrests followed the detention last March in Pakistan of suspected al Qaeda terrorist, Khaled Sheikh Muhammed, who has been extradited to the United States. The CIA apparently alerted Swiss authorities that Khaled Sheikh had some Swiss numbers in the memory of his cell phone, and subsequent Swiss taps of the phone numbers led to the discovery of the local al Qaeda cell.

The Swiss were not always so quick to crack down on international terror. A U.N. report issued last month criticized Switzerland for failing to interdict support for Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and the Afghan Taliban. The report alleged Switzerland was a pipeline for terrorist arms and money. Evidence had linked bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to Swiss bank accounts in the 1990s. Mohamed Atta and another of the September 11, 2001, terrorists briefly passed through Switzerland. It is no secret al Qaeda operatives have used Swiss cell phone numbers to communicate.

The news is that the Swiss, who were ever so neutral about Adolf Hitler, whom they eagerly provided with a depository for Nazi plunder, are not neutral about the terrorist threat. They appear now to recognize their obligation to the world community to take strong counterterrorist action.

The Saudi-Swiss link-up is starkly drawn. Osama bin Laden’s half brother, Yeslam Binladin, one of the terrorist’s 53 siblings, is a Swiss citizen. More than a year ago, the Swiss police searched the offices of eight companies that had been linked to Yeslam Binladin who prior to September 11 marketed a range of clothes and accessories bearing the “bin Laden” brand name.

The real cause for hope, however, is not that Switzerland has decided to be other than neutral about terrorism but that the Saudis themselves may have decided to crack down on the terrorists in their midst. The change in position was perhaps foreshadowed last May after the Riyadh attack when Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto leader of the Saudis, met with President Pascal Couchepan of Switzerland in Lausanne.

Prince Abdullah has long favored a rapprochement between Muslims and non-Muslims and has promoted democratic reform. One week after the May bombing, a statement issued in the name of Prince Abdullah’s father, the ailing King Fahd, renounced Saudi Arabia’s traditional insularity, stating the obvious that, “We are part of this world and cannot be disconnected from it.” The king’s statement also promised political reform and “wider horizons for women.”

But, as Princeton Professor Michael Scott Doran points out in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia is a “dual monarchy” which “functions as the intermediary between… a Westernized elite… and a Wahhabi religious establishment.” On the Wahabbi side is Prince Abdullah’s half brother, Prince Nayef, the interior minister. Prince Nayef, while not so well known in the West as Prince Abdullah, is a formidable power in his own right as he controls the secret police. Prince Nayef opposes reform and has aligned himself with the clerics, Wahhabis and militants who would restore the “golden age” of the Caliphate. He views Christians, Jews, Shi’ites and less devout Sunnis as infidels who seek to destroy true Islam. This conviction leads Prince Nayef to support jihadists, al Qaeda-oriented clerics and practitioners of Palestinian violence.

Prince Nayef paranoically continues to propagate the theory September 11 was not accomplished by jihadists but by Israelis who wanted to turn the world against Islam. His associates have strong connections to the al Qaeda network.

Though the May 12 suicide bombings forced Prince Nayef to round up some of the “usual suspects,” his true stance is less than clear. At the same time authorities sought 19 who figured in the plot, clerics close to Prince Nayef claimed the government in concert with the U.S. sought to persecute fighters who had participated in jihad against the “malevolent Crusaders in Afghanistan.” Indeed, experts have claimed the bombings even led to a crackdown on reformist elements in the press who proposed that the bombings would bring about a fundamental change in attitude.

The key question is, as Madeleine Albright has written, what happens next? She states somewhat naively that, “By attacking and killing fellow Muslims — and by bringing explosives into the Holy City of Mecca — it is possible that al Qaeda has overreached.” Wishful thinking. True, it is indeed possible the pendulum of history may now swing the way of true political and economic reform, and an end to terrorism, so Saudi Arabia will look in time like Switzerland with oil. But with regard to reform, Prince Bandar, Saudi ambassador to the United States, has counseled patience, warning a group at a Houston think tank that, “If you really are our friends, don’t rush us.” And as Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has said, “a Middle East sense of time” has provided no real impetus for instant reformation. It all sounds like the old Swiss cuckoo clock.

Most likely, the situation will settle down to business as usual. When after the May attacks, a journalist representing the reformist newspaper al-Watan asked Prince Nayef whether the attacks meant the religious police would be restructured, the response was, “As a Saudi, you should be ashamed to be asking that question.” One week later, the editor of al-Watan was fired. He now lives in exile.

James D. Zirin is a partner in the New York office of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood LLP. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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