ERIC FELTEN, Host: Saudi Arabia gets a wake-up call on terrorism. Next, On the Line. [music]
Host: Al-Qa'ida terrorists murdered twenty-five people in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in suicide bombings. Days later, terrorists set off bombs in Casablanca, Morocco, killing twenty-nine people. The attacks have led many in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and other Arab countries to question the rationale and tolerance for terrorism. The Saudi Arabian newspaper Arab News, has denounced the terrorists and their apologists. The Riyadh attacks were "an undertaking of sheer evil," the Arab News wrote. "Those who gloat over September 11th, those who happily support suicide bombings in Israel and Russia, those who consider non-Muslims less human than Muslims and therefore somehow disposable, all bear part of the responsibility for the Riyadh bombs."
Do these views reflect a significant change in Arab attitudes towards terrorism? I'll ask my guests:
- Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Saudi Institute;
- Matt Levitt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and joining us by phone from New York,
- Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum.
Welcome, thanks for joining us today. Ali Al-Ahmed, does that Arab News editorial reflect widespread views in Saudi Arabia?
ALI AL-AHMED: Yes. Definitely, it reflects a significant part of the Saudi population's views toward the terrorists and their apologists in Saudi Arabia. We have a large section of society, especially in the religious institutions, that are apologists for what happened May 12th in Riyadh and September 11th and others. Definitely there is a tendency among the religious extremists in Saudi Arabia to support such actions. And the victims are non-Muslims or other Muslims who they don't agree with. You will see, and I have managed to see, people congratulating each other when an Iranian plane falls—civilian airliners—because the Iranians are Shi`a. Or if [there is] an accident of Shi`a in Saudi Arabia, a car accident killing children and women, they see this as an opportunity to celebrate and be joyful. So, there is a problem and however there is an increasing circle in Saudi society that are coming to admit such a problem of tolerance and hatred toward the other. And that could be a non-Muslim or other Muslim at the same time.
HOST: Matt Levitt, do you see a change in views as a result of these bombs in Riyadh?
MATT LEVITT: Not yet. I think that we have to expect that after a bombing in a specific country you're going to hear revulsion. But the truth will be in the weeks and days ahead to see if that revulsion continues and to see if that in fact does apply to bombings and attacks elsewhere as was implied in that quote; to see if Saudi financing for attacks in Israel for example -- Saudi charities that are financing terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world -- see if those types of activities are curbed. That's really much more important than what the press says the day after the attack.
HOST: Daniel Pipes are you there from New York?
DANIEL PIPES: Yes I am, and I second what Matt Levitt just said. I would only add that the bombings should be seen in the context of an intra-Wahhabi dispute that has been going on for most of the century, in which the government of Saudi Arabia is the less radical of the two alternatives. The other viewpoint is roughly akin to the Taliban in Afghanistan. And it is a fight between the more radical and the less radical versions of Wahhabism over who will control what is now called Saudi Arabia.
HOST: Well, Daniel Pipes, if this is a battle over internal politics in Saudi Arabia, why only now this kind of terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia as opposed to earlier terrorist attacks in other places.
PIPES: Sure. Think back to 1979 and the takeover of the Grand Mosque [in Mecca], a much larger event than the bombing last week.
HOST: Ali Al-Ahmed, do people in Saudi Arabia expect this struggle between different factions in Saudi Arabia to lead to more, and more frequent, terrorist attacks within Saudi Arabia?
AL-AHMED: Oh there is, I think, a lot of indications and the environment is ready for more attacks. At the same time there is a popular condemnation of terrorism but also a large section of the religious institution of Saudi Arabia that is, its response to the bombings were very muted. Even the Grand Mufti himself, his response was delayed and muted. And then only later came really strong language because of the government request. There is going to be, I think, an increase of these attacks. Not in a spectacular fashion, but frequent attacks. Just on Monday, there was a kidnapping of a Shi`a cleric, a blind Shi`a cleric and he was almost killed. This is a new wave of violence. The violence, if not directed against American interests, it will be targeted against internal enemies for domination of Saudi Arabia.
HOST: Matt Levitt, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States held a dinner with journalists recently in the U-S in which he talked about the extent to which al-Qa'ida had cells and operatives within Saudi Arabia. And he said that there were probably three to five cells and probably two-hundred to three-hundred al-Qa'ida people and supporters in Saudi Arabia. Is that an accurate estimation of the forces that al-Qa'ida has at its disposal in Saudi Arabia?
LEVITT: Let's assume that it is an accurate portrayal of the number of actual hard-core operatives, the number of trigger-pullers that are there. It is by no means indicative of the larger support network, let alone the sympathies that run throughout Saudi society and are representative of Saudi society, even into the ministry of the interior and the Saudi Arabia national guard and elsewhere. Whereas there have been other attempts to attack Saudi Arabian and Western interests in the kingdom both before the Riyadh bombings and after, believed to have been primarily by the same network of cells. It's interesting to note that Prince Bandar, who you mentioned and others after the attacks had talked about the al-Qa'ida presence in the kingdom. But just days before the attacks Prince Nayef, the Minister of the Interior, was saying that there is no al-Qa'ida presence in the kingdom. And another example, before the attacks, there was no action being taken against the vast array of Saudi charitable organizations financing terror. In the days after the attacks, suddenly the Saudis announced that they were shutting down up to ten branch offices of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which is only one of a large number of such foundations that have been linked to terrorism. And one has to wonder why that action is suddenly being taken now and it wasn't taken beforehand. We've known that this organization was linked to terror. Two of its offices were shut down by U-S and Saudi authorities, although they're believed to have been reopened. And then we know from the interrogation of Omar al-Faruq, who was captured in June and is believed to have been al-Qa'ida's representative to the Jemaah Islamiya network in Southeast Asia, that the Jemaah Islamiya was being funded, according to Omar al-Faruq by wealthy Saudis and the money was being transferred and laundered through Al-Haramain. And yet, no action was taken until these bombings.
HOST: Daniel Pipes, is the result of this bombing going to be any kind of reduction in the long term of the money that comes out of Saudi Arabia for supporting al-Qa'ida?
PIPES: Before addressing that, let me also add on to the prior point that not only did the Saudi government not see al-Qa'ida, when there were attacks on Westerners, the Saudi government had the gall to claim that these were intra-western disputes over liquor. And they actually jailed a number of Canadian, British and other Westerners on these totally fabricated grounds, ignoring the fact that this in all likelihood was al-Qa'ida-style terrorism.
As far as the diminution of money, probably. I mean, it is actually hard to explain, to put oneself in al-Qa'ida's or other militant Islamic groups' shoes and figure out exactly what it is they're trying to achieve. Because over and over again you see the success of their terrorist operations actually diminishes their ability to go forward and continue. We certainly saw that in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 and it looks like that's going to happen in Saudi Arabia as well. So, one has to ask oneself, what exactly is the purpose of this violence. It's killing people, okay, but is it achieving any goals? That's much harder to ascertain.
HOST: Ali Al-Ahmed, what do the terrorists think they're going to achieve in Saudi Arabia by killing people?
AL-AHMED: They want America and the West out of Saudi Arabia and they want it out not only in military form but in any presence—that is restaurants or even t-v shows. The message of al-Qa'ida and its sympathizers is that the West has occupied us, not only militarily, but also culturally, financially and economically and they want the West out of Saudi Arabia. This has been their message. Of course they are appealing to many Saudis who have no jobs. The reason I said there will be more attacks is because the economic situation in Saudi Arabia is very bad. The corruption is increasing tremendously and its huge. The leadership in Saudi Arabia are a bunch of old folks who cannot respond to challenges and we have the Minister of the Interior and the government in total has a lot of al-Qa'ida sympathizers and even operatives. And three-hundred is a small number, because in every mosque you have a disciple of al-Qa'ida who is an Imam. Most Imams in Saudi Arabia are young and they are in support of al-Qa'ida. They would recruit young Saudis from sixteen to twenty to be operatives or sympathizers, who are ready to do anything for al-Qa'ida. Now the situation is more dangerous than before because the [Saudi] leadership is incapable of handling any challenges.
HOST: Matt Levitt, Ali Al-Ahmed talks about the influence that the Imams in the mosque have. And in the wake of these bombings, there were some editorials in Saudi papers saying that Saudis need to address this problem of the education of the youth both in schools and in the mosques. Is that anything that's going to be seriously addressed?
LEVITT: It has not been seriously addressed in the wake of nine-eleven and it is not a new phenomenon or issue since the Riyadh attacks. This is something that's been on the table certainly in terms of U-S dialogue with the Saudis at least since nine-eleven.
HOST: Is there something different in Saudi Arabia that this attack is in Saudi Arabia as opposed to in New York city for the nine-eleven attack. Is that going to have a different impact on the society?
LEVITT: Traditionally, the way the Saudis would react to this is by cracking down on the elements that carried out this specific attack, treating them as criminals that are beyond the pale, cracking down hard sending a message to others. And the message is "Do what you want to do abroad but in the kingdom this is beyond the pale." What we're looking at here is to see if there's going to be a break and they're going to treat this as an act of international terrorism and look at the links between these individuals and other terrorists abroad, the financial links. The odds are the financing for this operation came from Saudi Arabia in one form or another. And to date, there's no indication that this is going to be treated as anything different than a discreet series of terrorist attacks by a group of terrorists. That's why they want to put a number to the number of radicals, a number to the number of cells and that's very dangerous.
HOST: Well Daniel Pipes, the Washington Post had a reporter in Riyadh who was talking to some people outside a mosque on the first Friday after the bombing in Riyadh. And speaking to several people, the Post was told by Abdul Abdullah, a gentleman in the street that "I don't think that the bombings were an internal act. No Muslim would do such a thing. I think the Jews are behind it." That was a quote in the Washington Post. How much is that reflective of attitudes within Saudi Arabia and how people have responded to the attacks?
PIPES: Well, probably Mr. Al-Ahmed is in a better position to answer that than I am, but I noted to you before, the earlier blaming [of attacks] on a liquor mob and now it's Jews. This is denial. This is obviously an attempt to put the blame somewhere else and not come to terms with reality. I don't think it's a very healthy response but the quote you had at the top of the program about "let's look seriously at this," suggests that there are also those within Saudi Arabia who are ready to look at it in that serious and constructive manner.
HOST: Ali Al-Ahmed, who do you think has more momentum within Saudi society at this point? The sort of Arab News editorialists who say that this is the time for serious reconsideration of the fundamentals of the education and attitudes of the society, or those who are in denial saying yet again, this is, you know, the act of the C-I-A or "the Jews."
AL-AHMED: The problem is the people who are in denial hold the power and the people who are advocating the examination and reform, serious reform, not cosmetic reforms, they don't have the power. They might be able to write an article here or there, but the people who have the power, [such as] Prince Nayef, he is a chauvinist. He is anti-West. He is anti-so many people. And he is what I call a whisky Wahhabi. He is a person who follows on the Wahhabi ideology although he is not himself personally following the ideal of Wahhabism.
HOST: What about just in broad Saudi society, not just the divisions within the government, but rather, just the average person, where is the momentum there?
AL-AHMED: I think the Saudi society has been sort of sidelined. They have no, since childhood you have no input in your government and the politics. The only outlet for you is through a mosque and through al-Qa'ida sort of styled functions—you know, camps, and speeches that are in the same line. Civil society in Saudi Arabia has not been allowed to flourish. The people who are allowed to flourish are Al-Haramain and [others] and all these people with offices and publications and so-on. And activities, [and] Saudi T-V has been dominated by these people. So now the solution for Saudi Arabia's problem should come from the outside, and I think the Americans have the responsibility for that. But unfortunately, They are not doing what they're supposed to do, [which is] being proactive in addressing issues of political reform. Because Saudi Arabia cannot deal with terrorism without having a serious overhaul of its political system.
HOST: Matt Levitt, let's turn real quickly to the attacks that followed a few days later after the Riyadh bombing, several bombings then in Morocco, in Casablanca. How were those bombings received in Morocco?
LEVITT: Well Morocco is a very different place than Saudi Arabia. It's a much more egalitarian society, much more accepting, closer to Europe, but in general a much more tolerant society, a much more accepting version of Islam. And so the bombings there have been received with tremendous shock. Morocco has been a very proactive ally in the war on terrorism and in that sense it wasn't surprising that it was a target. In fact, one of the last al-Qa'ida tapes that was aired in the media mentioned Morocco specifically as an infidel regime for its cooperation with the Washington war on terrorism. It clearly was an effort to divide society in terms of the selection of targets, most of which were Jewish targets. But Moroccan society, I think, is far more capable—and I'm talking the societal level, leave aside the law enforcement and intelligence services—to deal with this kind of attack and maintain the types of freedoms that they enjoy.
HOST: Daniel Pipes, how important are these kinds of reactions by the populations after these bombs, perhaps looking at the attacks in Luxor, Egypt and then the Bali bombings in Indonesia and what happened after those.
PIPES: Well, the trouble is that populations and governments alike in the Muslim world have responded as Matt Levitt indicated before, by looking at this as criminality. Round up the suspects, put them in jail, try them and make sure they don't do it again. That is similar to what we did before 9/11. Take, for example, the East Africa embassy bombings of 1998. We found four perpetrators, brought them to New York, put them on trial and now they're in jail. This, however, is a very superficial understanding of the problem.
Yes, of course there's criminality involved, but it's much more than criminality. This is not people out to better their economic circumstances. These are people out to further a political agenda. This is not criminality alone. This is war. And that is what the U-S government suddenly realized on 9/11. That very day, George Bush said, "This is a war on terror." And that was a huge shift in understanding. It became not just a matter for lawyers and judges to deal with and law enforcement, but a matter for intelligence services and military and so forth. Well, in the Muslim world it is generally treated, as we used to do it, as criminality. Whether it be the Luxor case or the ones we were just talking about. And that's not enough. They need to understand, the governments and populations need to understand that this is something much deeper.
HOST: Well, Ali Al-Ahmed, is there any likelihood that in Saudi Arabia that this will change and this will be thought of as something deeper than just a criminality of a narrower sort?
AL-AHMED: The problem is the government of Saudi Arabia is part of the problem. They are not part of the solution. And again, you won't be able to have any addressing of this issue of terrorism unless you address the government of Saudi Arabia as it is now. It must change. I think we need a new administration in Saudi Arabia. This administration now, the top executives are old, they're uneducated. None of them have any formal education, by the way, from Prince Abdullah, on. King Fahd can't even feed himself. So, we're asking people who can't even understand the issue to implement policies. They are too old and too uneducated to implement. What we need is a new generation of leaders who are educated, who are more aware of the world around them. And maybe this will help address part of the problem. Another part is political reforms not only changing leadership, but also ending corruption and sharing power with the population of Saudi Arabia. Part of the problem there is a frustration of lack of annual—for the population the economic situation is very bad.
HOST: I'm afraid that's going to have to be the last word because we're out of time for today. I'd like to thank my guests: Ali Al-Ahmed of the Saudi Institute; Matt Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and joining us by phone from New York, Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum.
Before we go, I'd like to invite you to send us your questions or comments. You can Email them to Ontheline@ibb.gov. For On the Line, I'm Eric Felten.