by Austin Bay
January 14, 2004
Nov. 13, 1995, marked the end of a brief but important era in U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia.
On that day, a terror bomb destroyed the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) advisory compound in Riyadh, killing seven people. Two were Americans. In April 1996, four Saudis admitted (on television) to launching the attack. They were executed that May. Three of the terrorists, veterans of Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, had backgrounds suspiciously similar to Al Qaeda "Islamic internationalists."
I was in Riyadh the week before the 1995 bombing. Over dinner, an American officer and I discussed the cultural sensitivities U.S. military and civilian advisers must acknowledge, accept, then occasionally finesse when training foreign troops. The biggest frustration he faced is one I knew many of his Saudi counterparts shared. Saudi society is a tribal society, hi-tech feudalism powered by petrodollars. A soldier actively training on Monday may tell his prince on Tuesday he must visit his mother on Wednesday. Maintaining smooth familial and tribal relations meant sending the soldier home to Mom. This trumped training run by American and Saudi colonels.
"We have one big thing going for us over here," my host said. "We're still The Saviors of The Kingdom. I hear that from all sectors. The Saudis believe Saddam wanted them after he invaded Kuwait. We stopped him. Americans are respected guests. We can travel around the country with reasonable safety."
The SANG bombing, 10 days later, put a violent end to the notion of reasonable safety. Saviors and guests were under attack. My host, fortunately, wasn't in the building when the attack occurred.
Other assaults on U.S. facilities followed, including Khobar Towers in 1996. American guests in Saudi Arabia lived an increasingly bunkered and isolated life.
Sept. 11 ended the notion of "reasonable safety" from terrorists for Americans at home. The Saudis, however, still thought themselves "reasonably safe" from their own Al Qaeda Wahabi extremists.
The May 2003 Al Qaeda attack in Riyadh, then the terrible suicide bombing at the end of Ramadan, put an end to that blindness.
The aggressive Saudi police response to these attacks is encouraging. It had better be, for the House of Saud is fighting for its own survival.
The Saudis know The War on Terror is an intra-Islam and Arabian Peninsula war writ large. The Saudis certainly understand the intersection of theology and psychological warfare, and are exploiting ideological-theological cracks in Al Qaeda that are extremely difficult for the United States to leverage.
The London Times reported that Sheikh Nasser al-Fahd, one of Al Qaedas key religious backers, appeared on Saudi TV last November and denounced Al Qaeda's attacks in Riyadh. Though jailed for issuing "inflammatory fatwas," he insisted that his comments were voluntary.
"Blowing oneself up in such operations (on Muslim soil) is not martyrdom," al-Fahd said, "it is suicide." Islamic law forbids suicide. He added that Islam forbids attacks on non-Muslims who go legally to Islamic countries -- meaning they are invited "guests" and, as legal visitors, should enjoy protection. The Times noted: "Although he raised no objection to attacks on America or other non-Islamic countries, his denunciation of bombings on Islamic soil known as internal jihad appears to have caught Al Qaeda off-guard."
Al Qaeda websites now confront al-Fahd with statements like, "The new strategy for us in our fight with the Americans is based on the expansion of the battlefield and the attrition of the enemy, who has spread his activities all over the globe."
Al Qaeda's response demonstrates more than theological argument, it is also an inadvertent admission that the U.S. strategy of returning the battlefield to the Middle East has worked. Waging the war at its source instead of in Manhattan has exposed Arab and intra-Islam quarrels.
Al Qaeda faces bad choices. In Iraq, Al Qaeda infiltrators are unpopular foreigners. Attacking "soft targets" in the Middle East -- like the Ramadan revelers -- means killing Muslims and guests, further damaging pan-Islamic appeals.
The House of Saud also faces the choice of political evolution or potential revolution. A successful democratic government in Iraq will empower pro-democracy activists throughout the Persian Gulf. This time, saving The Kingdom may mean establishing a constitutional monarchy.