August 17, 2003 | The Weekly Standard

The Dysfunctional House of Saud

By Stephen Schwartz

THERE COMES A TIME in the history of every oppressive state when the need for change is suddenly and widely understood to be imperative. Inevitably, an incident occurs that illuminates the government's misrule and undermines the legitimacy of the regime. For the government of Saudi Arabia, such an incident occurred on September 11, 2001. Indeed, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by 19 terrorists, 15 of them Saudi subjects, did as much to subvert the authority of the Saudi monarchy at home as it did to warn the world of the menace of Wahhabism, the totalitarian form of Islam that inspires al Qaeda and is the Saudi kingdom's state religion.

The same event, of course, also made obvious the need for the United States to alter its cozy relationship with the Saudi monarchy. In that sense, the withholding of 28 pages (among other redacted material) from the 800-plus-page report on 9/11 released last month by the congressional intelligence committees is a throwback to the days when protecting Saudi sensitivities at all costs was standard in Washington. Exactly how the U.S.-Saudi relationship is to be disentangled and straightened out is not yet clear. That this must be done–for the security of Americans, as well as for the liberation of the 23 million people in Saudi Arabia from the dark night of Wahhabism–is no longer in doubt.

Seen in the context of this impending transformation, the suppression of the 28 pages–which apparently trace Saudi funding and other support for the terror network–is a minor episode. Events that are already in the public record tell an indelible story.

These start with September 11 itself. Again: The hijackers were not Palestinians or Chechens or any other aggrieved Muslim minority. Most of them–like their chief, Osama bin Laden–were Saudis. Rudely awakened by this blow, Americans who cared to follow news from the kingdom have been able to learn a great deal.

In early 2002, there was the revelation that the Saudi government openly funds “martyrdom”–including suicide bombings–in the Palestinian confrontation with Israel; it did so to the tune of $400 million in 2001 alone, according to the official Saudi embassy website.

Six months after 9/11 came an incident revealing of the purely domestic effects of Saudi tyranny: A fire in a girls' school in Mecca left 14 dead, when members of the Wahhabi religious militia, the mutawwiyya, forced the victims back into the burning building because they were insufficiently covered. The school was located in an apartment building that should not have been used for educational purposes. Anger swept the kingdom, and Crown Prince Abdullah, widely considered the “good” member of the royal elite, who listens to the people, ordered girls' education removed from the jurisdiction of the clerics and handed over to direct state supervision. He was opposed in this by Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, the powerful minister of the interior, who has blamed 9/11 on Jewish agents. Soon Wahhabi imams were declaring from the pulpit that the dead girls were noble martyrs who had died to protect their virtue.

Scandal struck again in November 2002 and touched Princess Haifa al-Faisal, wife of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to Washington (and nephew of Prince Nayef). It was learned that money had gone from her purse to the pockets of two 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, by way of two Saudi intermediaries, Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan.

The Riyadh bombings of May 12, 2003, which killed almost two dozen innocent people, nine of them Americans, seemed to provide the ultimate warning to the Saudi rulers. Yet inside Saudi Arabia, it is widely believed that the bombing was directed from within the ruling circles, to let the United States as well as locals know that demands for substantial change would not be tolerated. In the Riyadh bombings, as in 9/11, the crises of Saudi foreign relations and of Saudi domestic rule merged.

Meanwhile, international investigation of terrorist financing was confirming the role of Saudi-backed Islamic charities in such activities, including in the United States. Saudi authorities repeatedly affirmed their commitment to the war on terror, but failed to deliver on promises to shut down terror-funding charities and apprehend rich supporters of al Qaeda. They claimed to have dismissed 1,000 extremist clerics from their state positions, but sources within the kingdom point out that tens of thousands more remain in the mosques, and those who were fired were old men ready to retire. To be sure, Saudi dissenters also say that virtually all of the terrorist suspects killed in recent actions by the regime were imams. Confirmation of this is hard to come by as the regime seldom releases these people's identities.

Then in April came the U.S. liberation of Iraq and the specter, terrifying for the House of Saud, of a Western-oriented, protodemocratic regime on Saudi Arabia's long northern border. Such an Iraq would almost surely be led by Shia Muslims–whom the Wahhabis view much as the Nazis viewed the Jews. Even now, Wahhabi preaching incites Saudi subjects to head north to die in jihad against America, and at least 1,000 of them, according to Saudi informants, have answered the call. It is thus that the ranks of Baathists attacking coalition troops in Iraq were suddenly fortified by adherents of al Qaeda. Lately, however, Saudis have told of Wahhabi volunteers returning disappointed, rejected by the Iraqis they had claimed they would save.

WITH ALL THIS and more already public information, one might wonder what is left to protect of the Saudis' reputation. Take the terrorist involvement of Saudi charities. The 28-page redacted section of the 9/11 report is said to detail the financing, recruitment, and direct organization of terrorists by the main Saudi charities, including the International Islamic Relief Organization and the Al-Haramain Charitable Foundation, and official bodies charged with Wahhabi religious outreach, such as the Muslim World League and its branch office, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY).

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, describes as “strong and compelling” the evidence that such groups have been used as conduits for the funding of terrorists. Yet much of the evidence has long been available. These groups, which operated freely in the United States for years, have been under federal investigation only since 9/11. WAMY, for example, whose former U.S. head was Abdula bin Laden, brother of Osama, openly disseminates hate literature on U.S. soil and across the globe. Its publications target Shia Muslims as well as Jews and Christians.

An instance of U.S. government protection of such groups–precisely the kind of accommodation that must cease–is State Department spokesman Richard Boucher's apparent defense of the collaboration between WAMY and the Arab American Institute, the most respectable Arab advocacy group in the United States. At a June meeting in Riyadh, WAMY boss Saleh al-Wohaiby stood up beside James Zogby of the Arab American Institute to announce that the two organizations would “take up the cases of some 13,000 Arabs and Muslims, some of whom have been targeted by the U.S. government for possible deportation.”

With the relationship exposed, Zogby claimed that the meeting with WAMY had been arranged by the U.S. embassy. Boucher backed him up: Without mentioning WAMY by name, he explained on July 15 that one of the administration's goals in the Middle East is to engage “people and groups that do not share our views,” and that Zogby's participation in such efforts had taken place “at the request of the U.S. government.” Thus has an official agency of the Saudi regime, known for its hateful propaganda, seized an opportunity to interfere in internal U.S. legal affairs–and done so with Washington's aid and approval.

The disparity between the attitude of Sen. Collins and that of Richard Boucher is detectable throughout the debate over 9/11, the Saudis, and the 28 pages. While some on Capitol Hill press for disclosure, others maintain a posture of dissimulation. While the Treasury Department struggles to enforce sanctions on Saudi financing of terrorism, the State Department often blocks its way. At every turn, Saudi wiliness and effrontery are assisted by short American attention spans and a failure to connect the dots.

In this context, the 9/11 report has usefully drawn attention once again to the strange case of Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan, the beneficiaries of largesse from Ambassador Bandar's wife. In January 2000, al-Bayoumi, a footloose Saudi “student” with a lot of cash, befriended hijackers al-Midhar and Alhazmi, who turn out to have been more than obscure members of the conspiracy: The 9/11 report calls them “principal hijackers,” responsible for coordinating the movements of the others, and the first to land on U.S. soil. Al-Bayoumi–whose income suddenly rose after he met the two–assisted them in setting up house in San Diego. In the wake of September 11, al-Bayoumi and Bassnan, a known extremist, returned to Saudi Arabia. But only after the recent release of the 9/11 report did FBI officials go from Washington to Jeddah to supplement interviews conducted with al-Bayoumi by locally based FBI agents. The attempt at an upgraded inquiry was unsuccessful. One wonders why.

Documents examined by the Wall Street Journal show that al-Bayoumi was a contract employee of the Saudi Civil Aviation Agency for seven years. This suggests a whole new avenue for investigation. Even in the era of the Internet, it is unlikely that a sophisticated enterprise like the 9/11 attacks could be coordinated from backward Afghanistan. Picking the flight schools where the suicide pilots were trained, researching the rules for carrying sharp instruments aboard jetliners, ascertaining planes' fuel capacities and long-haul routes and similar desiderata of the conspiracy required some time and skill. Yet the deed was planned and carried out in less than two years, with its participants, and large sums of cash, moving speedily around the United States and the world. The Saudi Civil Aviation Agency could be expected to possess a considerable amount of the information necessary for so efficient an operation.

In addition, according to the 9/11 report, the Saudi to whom al-Bayoumi reported at the agency was the father of a man whose photo was found in an al Qaeda safe house in Pakistan and who spent a year in Afghanistan ending in May 2001. Saudi authorities have denied that al-Bayoumi and Bassnan were agents of their government. But they admit that Dallah Avco Aviation, a branch of the Dallah al-Baraka Group, a gigantic banking and business conglomerate, manages the Air Navigation Systems Support project on which al-Bayoumi worked. The head of the Dallah al-Baraka Group is Saleh Abdullah Kamel, whose name appears in the “Golden Chain,” a roster seized by Bosnian authorities in Sarajevo in March 2002 listing Saudi donors to bin Laden and his associates. Kamel is named as a supplier of funds to Adil Abdeljalil Batterjee, founder of the Benevolence International Foundation, designated a terror-financing entity by the Treasury Department. Plainly, the delegation of U.S. counterterrorism officials currently on the ground in Saudi Arabia lobbying for more serious action against the charities has its work cut out for it.

SOON AFTER the 9/11 report was published, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal flew to Washington and challenged President Bush to release the redacted portion. This dramatic gesture notwithstanding, the Saudis will maintain their posture of denial in the near term, regardless of what happens in Washington. If the 28 pages are withheld, the Saudis will claim unfair intrigues based on concealment; if the pages are released, they will complain of false accusations emanating from the Jews. Already in late July, the pro-government Saudi newspaper Al Nadwa was blustering, “There is no doubt that the fingers of the Jews and Israel in particular are behind these campaigns, as much in their planning as in their implementation.” So what then will finally force change?

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is unique in our history, and redefining it in the light of what Americans now know about terrorism, Wahhabism, and Saudi governance will not be simple. There was no manual for the Western response to the fall of Soviet totalitarianism, and neither is there any blueprint for disengagement from Saudi totalitarianism. President Bush cannot be faulted for missteps as the administration feels its way; the blacking-out of the 28 pages was an error, not a coverup. But the administration must resist the bland assurances of Secretary of State Colin Powell and others, who happily echo Saudi assurances that somehow, someday the relationship will be restored to its earlier, more pleasant status. Indeed, full disclosure can no longer be put off. Almost two years have gone by since September 11, and Saudi promises of help in the war against terror have grown stale.

The first task before the administration remains what it was on September 12: to obtain a full and transparent accounting of Saudi involvement in 9/11, no matter how high it reaches into ruling circles. Inevitably, this means focusing on Prince Nayef–the leading figure most infected with Wahhabi hatred of the West, according to Saudi dissidents, and the minister responsible for the terror-funding charities, to which he has contributed generously. Following full disclosure, we must insist that the Saudi regime turn off the tap on money flowing to the Wahhabi religious bureaucracy and maze of state-affiliated organizations–especially their international operations–and thus separate the government of Saudi Arabia from its extremist ideological legacy. We'll know we're on the right track if Saudi Arabia's withdrawal from global troublemaking leads to an opening up of Saudi society, not to a final hunkering down behind closed doors.

The longer action is delayed, the worse for us, as well as for the millions obliged to live under Wahhabi-Saudi rule. Sources inside Saudi Arabia say that while terrorist preaching continues unabated in state-controlled mosques, a new and ominous idiom has emerged: Wahhabism is no longer described as “pure Islam,” but as “our tradition”–that is, an expression of national distinctiveness rather than of expansionist, reactionary utopianism. As Saudi Arabia comes under global scrutiny, and the majority of the world's Muslims continue to reject the Wahhabis' presumption to guide them, the regime is turning further inward. Its subjects now lead an atomized existence; people no longer socialize, but remain locked up in their compounds, speaking only to their families. The Soviet dictatorship followed this path to disaster. Saudi subjects are searching for a way out.

On a recent visit to Washington, a Saudi dissident emphasized the present opportunity: “If it were not for September 11, the world would still know nothing of the oppression we face inside Saudi Arabia,” she said, “and the rulers would still be confident of their power. We owe it to the victims to press for an open inquiry and for changes that will make our country a normal one, respected in the world as an embodiment of a peaceful and forward-looking Islam.”

In that spirit, it is still possible to believe that the U.S.-Saudi relationship may again be made beneficial for both parties. While change in the character of the regime in Riyadh cannot be avoided, it need not entail civil war if Saudi leaders have the statesmanship to bow before reality. Americans can help by keeping the pressure on; certainly the U.S. government, the media, and academe should do more to spotlight human rights violations inside the kingdom. Already the effect of the 9/11 investigation on both countries cannot be overstated. Daylight on Capitol Hill–with or without those 28 pages–may eventually bring daylight in Mecca and Riyadh.

Stephen Schwartz is the author of “The Two Faces of Islam” and director of the Islam and Democracy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.