Osama Bin Laden running for high office in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia? And winning a free election hands down? A preposterous scenario, but one that was suggested by one of the most important Saudi businessmen, speaking privately in a European capital this week. “We are reaping what we have sown over the last 25 years,” said the billionaire who is on good terms with the highest ranking members of the Saudi royal family.
The terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia over the past year have not weakened popular support for bin Laden, the Saudi said. The execution of an American technician, he speculated today, is precisely what fundamentalists seek. They want all the westerners who keep the economy and the military humming to leave. The economy would then grind to a halt and the House of Saud, they hope, would collapse like a sand castle at high tide.
Until al Qaeda terrorists attacked the U.S. September 11, 2001, U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia was see-hear-speak no evil about the royal family. CIA officers based in the kingdom were discouraged from reporting on the excesses of the royals and the activities of the Wahhabi clergy. Saudi intelligence, also in denial, failed to monitor what their nationals were up to in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya and the Muslim states of the former Soviet Union.
Even though 15 of the 19 suicide bombers on September 11 were Saudi nationals, the Saudi royals still failed to recognize they had become vulnerable on the home front.
Some 100,000 young men in the Arab and Muslim worlds, including about 20,000 Saudis, underwent guerrilla training in Pakistan in the years that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When Saudi veterans returned home after the Soviets decamped in Feb. 1989, veteran Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Feisal (now the ambassador in London) did not see them as a threat to the House of Saud.
When the Taliban regime fought its way to power in Afghanistan in 1996, and Osama bin Laden moved his headquarters from Khartoum, Sudan, to Kabul, drawing some 25,000 Saudis for indoctrination in his Islamist training camps, the royals remained oblivious to any internal threat — until May 2003, that is, when terrorist attacks got underway on Saudi soil.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Saudi organizations and individuals transferred hundreds of billions of dollars of privately-held money to their accounts in foreign banks. Surveillance of all this traffic was impossible for Saudi intelligence agencies. And for the less fortunate, the hawala (trust) system was virtually impenetrable. Known hawala clients transferred smaller amounts up to $50,000 without so much as a rudimentary paper trail.
It was these transfer channels that enabled the Wahhabi clergy to move some $300 million a year to Pakistan to maintain more than 10,000 madrassas that taught some 5 million young boys during the past 14 years to learn Arabic and recite the Koran by heart. Interspersed in the one-dimensional curriculum were messages of hate about the United States, Israel and India.
A critical turning point occurred in 1979 on several fronts: 1) the Soviets occupied Afghanistan; 2) Iran’s religious extremists — Shi’ite variety — overthrew the pro-western monarchy; 3) Saudi religious extremists — Sunni variety — occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
It took the royals — with technical assistance from French security — three weeks to subdue the religious revolt, but the compromise negotiated with the Wahhabi clergy left the royal establishment hoist on its own petard. In return for muzzling their Wahhabi critics, the royals left the clergy to its own devices outside of Saudi Arabia. Funded with the zakat — the 2.5 percent of yearly incomes that are semi-mandatory donations to clergy-controlled charities — the Wahhabis spread their strictest form of Islam from Mindanao in the Philippines to Morocco.
Such charities also financed extremist fronts, including the Palestinian terrorist organizations that most Saudis see as legitimate national liberation fronts. Thus, massive subsidies flowed to extremist and terrorist organizations under the guise of charity.
It was not until recently that Saudi intelligence discovered, belatedly, that some 15,000 young Saudis were involved in homegrown Islamist extremist groups. This was hardly a small number given the tiny size of a terrorist cell. In Northern Ireland, at the height of the IRA’s terrorist campaign against British rule, there were never more than 300 Irish terrorists in the field. But they kept half the British army pinned down for a quarter of a century.
The Saudi kingdom’s head-in-the-sand surveillance also failed to detect a spreading Wahhabi missionary network in Europe and North America.
Alarmed by the spread of Islamist extremism in Europe, France’s new Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, who was the former foreign minister, asked the “Renseignments Generaux,” the French equivalent of the FBI’s counter-intelligence branch, for a report on what goes on in the country’s mosques.
Eighty percent of the imams in the 1,000 mosques surveyed by RG are foreigners; 20 percent French nationals, but only 2 percent born in France. Most of the imams said they are unpaid volunteers dependent on collection plates. In 40 percent of the mosques, imams admitted they were “self-proclaimed” or “improvised” with no theological credentials. Only the Turks could prove they had undergone religious training.
A little over one tenth of the imams surveyed said they were “self-taught” and were getting their religious training on the Internet. Asked to show what Web sites they were consulting, they were all pro-al Qaeda. France’s domestic intelligence agency also reported a steady increase in inflammatory sermons from Brest to Marseilles. Their attacks on French discrimination against Muslims — female scarves banned from state schools — paled next to anti-U.S. diatribes.
The Saudi royals detained over 1,000 imams after last year’s bombings in May and November. They were warned they would go straight to jail if they so much as mentioned the word jihad (holy war) in their Friday prayers. The Saudi billionaire, speaking not for attribution, said there are 40,000 mosques in Saudi Arabia, and the warnings go largely unheeded.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.