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SITE In The News
Inside the Kingdom
By Lisa Beyer With Scott Macleod
Published in: Time
September 15, 2003

Two years after 9/11, the Saudis are finally cracking down on terrorists at home. But many Americans remain skeptical that the Saudi brand of Islam is compatible with the war against terrorism

Until recently, residents of Saudi Arabia could easily believe they lived in the quietest realm on earth. Sure, citizens were arrested from time to time and punished with floggings, amputations and beheadings, but usually for quiet crimes like drunkenness, theft and drug smuggling. Police rarely had occasion to flip on their sirens, much less draw their guns. If they sought someone for arrest, they did so discreetly, using family and tribal ties to track down a person rather than put out a wanted poster, which might alarm the public and scandalize the suspect's clan.

This summer, however, hardly a week has gone by in which the kingdom's newspapers haven't carried sensational headlines about the latest police shoot-out with an al-Qaeda cell or the discovery of an illicit stash of arms and explosives. The streets are blocked by police checkpoints. In an unprecedented step, the Interior Ministry has published the names and photos of al-Qaeda suspects at large, appealing to the public to turn them in. Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, has declared his own war on terrorism. The kingdom's highest religious authority has issued a declaration backing him. Saudi spokesmen claim they have fired hundreds of clerics for being too extreme and are re-educating thousands more in the ways of moderation.

Is this for real? Is this the same Saudi Arabia that, despite plain evidence, questioned for months the fact that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were its citizens? The kingdom whose Interior Minister implied that the attacks on the U.S. were the work of "Zionists"? The country whose petrodollars have long funded terrorist groups? Americans, plainly, have misgivings about the Saudi kingdom, doubts that only grew when the Bush Administration, led by a President cozier than most to Riyadh, blacked out 28 pages dealing with Saudi Arabia from Congress's official report on Sept. 11, producing the smell of a cover-up of complicity in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Increasingly, commentators, members of Congress and policymakers, including a minority within the Bush Administration, are questioning the closeness of the U.S.'s relationship with this backward, authoritarian, fundamentalist state. Maybe the 600 families that lost loved ones in 9/11 and are holding the House of Saud accountable in a $1 trillion lawsuit have a point. This July a bill to add Saudi Arabia to the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism garnered 191 votes in the House before going down. Some critics of Saudi Arabia are even suggesting that the U.S. invaded the wrong country and seized the wrong oil wells in the spring. Champions of the U.S.-Saudi alliance say the Saudis are transforming themselves from financiers to fighters of terrorism. Abdullah's campaign has given this camp credibility of late. Still, defenders of the Saudis acknowledge they have a long way to go in addressing not just the symptoms but also the causes of Islamic extremism, among which are the hostility toward non-Muslims instilled in Saudi schools and mosques and the export of that ideology worldwide. An inside look at the issues:

Prince Abdullah's newfound enthusiasm for counterterrorism was not a product of 9/11. Whereas U.S. allies like Germany, France and Singapore responded to the attacks on America with aggressive battles against hidden al-Qaeda cells in their territories, Saudi Arabia acted as if the 15 Saudi hijackers had come, literally, out of nowhere. In fact, Saudi Arabia has been crawling with al-Qaeda activists, as revealed by Abdullah's recent crackdown. That campaign was sparked by an atrocity the royal family took personally, the May 12 attacks by al-Qaeda on three housing complexes in Riyadh that killed 35 people, including nine suicide bombers. Since then, Saudi authorities in more than 100 operations have killed at least 11 al-Qaeda suspects and arrested more than 200.

The militants have not gone down easily. In those sweeps, 11 Saudi security officials have died. The four members of an al-Qaeda unit, cornered in a house in the al-Jouf region, chose to bind themselves together and blow themselves up with hand grenades rather than get caught. In a number of raids, suspects managed to get away: at least two broke out of a safe house under surveillance, 10 escaped from another hideaway when police approached, and seven slipped through a police cordon during a five-hour gun battle in Riyadh. One arrest suggested al-Qaeda may have penetrated Saudi security forces: the suspect was a police officer. Saudi forces have unearthed huge arms caches: 93 rocket-propelled grenades in one spot, 20 tons of homemade explosives in another, a ton of the plastic explosive rdx elsewhere. Security forces came across a different kind of find on the body of Yousif Salih Fahad al-Ayeeri, an al-Qaeda strategist and fund raiser known as Swift Sword, who was shot as he fled a patrol on May 31. He was carrying a letter with a signature that the Saudis authenticated as Osama bin Laden's. An al-Qaeda activist in detention told the Saudis he took the letter into Saudi Arabia in February.

After the May 12 attacks, the House of Saud understood that it was under direct assault by an organization committed to its overthrow. Though bin Laden, a Saudi, long ago condemned the royal family for allowing U.S. troops on Saudi soil starting in 1990, his group had refrained from violence within the kingdom. Its reasons were clear to U.S. intelligence. Says a former Bush Administration official: "There were al-Qaeda agents in the kingdom that urged al-Qaeda not to strike in Saudi Arabia because they (the Saudis) might cut off the spigot" of funds flowing to the group.

In a new book, Why America Slept, author Gerald Posner quotes U.S. officials as saying a key al-Qaeda operative in U.S. custody, Abu Zubaydah, told his interrogators that al-Qaeda had an explicit deal with the Saudi royals to desist from violence in the kingdom in exchange for Saudi financing. Abu Zubaydah is said to have claimed that bin Laden told him he had made the deal in 1991 with Prince Turki al-Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, the longtime Saudi intelligence chief. Posner writes that Abu Zubaydah claimed to have attended several meetings with Turki and bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Turki denied all the charges in an interview with Time last week, calling them "a total fabrication" and noting they were based solely on unnamed sources. He acknowledges meeting bin Laden five times in connection with Saudi support for the Afghan rebels fighting Soviet occupation in the 1980s but says their last meeting was in 1989 or early 1990. And he says he has never laid eyes on Abu Zubaydah.

Whatever al-Qaeda's reasons, it had refrained from attacking within the kingdom until May 12. After the bombings that day, "the scales fell from the eyes of the Saudis," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has said. Says a U.S. official: "Now they are taking on the militant subculture head on." In his strongest denunciation so far of Islamic extremism, Prince Abdullah, in a televised address last month, described the battle against "deviant and misguided" terrorists as a "conflict between the power of good and the power of evil" in which "there is no room for neutrality nor for hesitancy." Three days later, his words were echoed by Saudi Arabia's highest religious body, the 17-member Council of Senior Islamic Scholars. That was no great surprise; like all institutions in Saudi Arabia, the council has little independence. But it was notable that the group characterized acts of terrorism as "have nothing to do with jihad."

How various American officials assess the Saudi counterterrorism efforts depends on what grading scale they use. Darker judgments come from those who compare Saudi Arabia unfavorably with other American allies. Kinder pronouncements are made by those whose expectations are tempered by the reality that this is a country named for a family. Another factor is the assessor's rank; top-level officials commenting on the record tend to be more generous than hands-on investigators speaking privately. Armitage has said that since May 12, "cooperation on things that are internal to Saudi Arabia has been magnificent." On the other hand, a top Administration counterterrorism official told Time he has "significant concerns" about the level of assistance from Riyadh.

The Saudis do get ever improving marks from Washington for their efforts to shut down the flow of funds to terrorist groups. Riyadh has prohibited Saudi charities from sending money abroad without government permission. It has frozen $5.7 million in bank accounts suspected of having links to terrorism. It has restricted the activities of more than half a dozen charities, including the controversial al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, whose Somalia and Bosnia branches, Washington and Riyadh concluded, were supporting terrorist activities. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told Time, "The money aspect is now completely controlled, and your government knows it."

That's an overstatement. For one thing, no one expects the flow of terrorist money to be cut off entirely, given the inventiveness of funding organizations and the fact that they often deal in cash. "It is sort of like trying to stamp out crabgrass," says Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Riyadh. "As soon as you stamp one of them out, something springs up somewhere else under a different name."

Also, the Saudis have offered only "selective cooperation" on the financial front, according to a senior U.S. official. A former Bush Administration official says the Saudis generally insist on knowing everything the Americans know before moving against a suspect. U.S. investigators, he says, sometimes suspect that the Saudis are fishing, trying to ferret out details of U.S. intelligence, or stalling, to protect Saudi individuals from embarrassment. One of the Administration's top counterterrorism officials says the Saudis still appear to be protecting charities associated with the royal family and its friends. He says the bank records of a charity suspected of being an al-Qaeda front mysteriously disappeared. The Americans hope a new joint task force, created at the suggestion of Prince Abdullah and based in Riyadh, will make better cooperation on finances more automatic.

U.S. officials tend to praise the Saudis' recent sweeps of al-Qaeda cells. "We are now seeing excellent cooperation with U.S. personnel in this fight here in the kingdom," says Jordan. "The Saudis are sharing to a much greater degree the results of interrogations and on a much more timely basis." Another U.S. official refers to a "fire hose" of intelligence flowing out of the crackdown. "We know a lot more about how al-Qaeda operates in Saudi Arabia," he says. "We are getting information on its logistics, financing, operational planning and relations with al-Qaeda leaders outside the kingdom."

The counterterrorism official, however, says the Saudi government has demonstrated a lack of openness in some areas, causing him to wonder what it has to hide. For example, the official tells Time, the Saudis have denied U.S. officials access to several suspects in custody, including a Saudi in detention for months who had knowledge of extensive plans to inject poison gas in the New York City subway system. U.S. officials want to talk to him to determine how far the plot advanced and whether he had associates in the U.S. The Saudis have provided no detailed information about him.

Some U.S. investigators think the Saudis could be learning a lot more about al-Qaeda members they have captured or killed. These officials say their Saudi counterparts have not seemed interested in setting up an analytical unit to pore over the suspects' financial records, computer hard drives, e-mails, phone records and other data. "Their attitude has been, 'Swift Sword is dead, so what use are his records?'" says a U.S. official. "Everybody's been looking for bullets and bombs, but nobody's paid any attention to the paper." The Americans hope to use the task force to convince the Saudis of the value of what the fbi inelegantly calls link analysis and associational databases.

Cracking heads and crunching data aren't the only ways to combat terrorism; there's also the matter of changing minds. Most Saudis greatly resent the implication that Wahhabism, the puritanical brand of Islam practiced in the kingdom, has any connection to terrorism. Still, some are beginning to acknowledge that Saudi culture has bred an antipathy toward non-Muslims ("infidels" in Muslim parlance) that can lead to violence. After the May 12 attacks, the newspaper al-Watan made just that link in a series of articles and cartoons. That proved to be too much for the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars. After it complained to Prince Abdullah, al-Watan's editor, Jamal Khashoggi, was fired. That, however, has not silenced Turki al-Hamad, a Saudi columnist for the London-based paper Asharq al-Awsat. "The official clergy in Saudi Arabia denounce violence, but the theoretical base of Wahhabism is a problem," says al-Hamad. "It is not enhancing or encouraging violence directly, but if you analyze the creed itself, you will reach these results." Al-Hamad goes so far as to argue that Saudis should "renounce" Wahhabism. His views have made him the subject of a number of fatwas issued by Saudi clerics calling for his death.

Whether Prince Abdullah accepts that there is a cultural problem or just thinks he needs to improve his P.R. with the West, he has begun to address his country's reputation for chauvinism. TV's Channel 1, which like all Saudi media is state controlled, has begun to air a program called War on Terrorism. It has featured footage of the Sept. 11 and May 12 attacks as well as old speeches by Saudi leaders urging respect for foreign countries. In an effort to cool the rhetoric in Saudi mosques, authorities say they have arrested nine militant clerics. If any preacher now advocates violence, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told Time, "they are removed immediately."

Saudi spokesmen say they have fired 2,000 so far (all mosque positions are government appointed), although they have declined to produce a list. But Abdul Rahman al-Matroudi, Vice Minister of Islamic Affairs, insists that they were not dismissed for their teachings but for "turning up late, not turning up at all, this kind of thing." al-Matroudi allows that as many as 3,000 imams are being retrained in mosque study circles after they were deemed insufficiently prepared to promote the new emphasis on tolerance.

Since the campaign began, worshippers in Riyadh and Jidda have reported hearing sermons promoting tolerance, denouncing terrorism and warning against radical interpretations of the doctrine of jihad. On a recent Friday, the sermon was mundane at Jidda's Juffali Mosque, which is next to Chop-Chop Square, so called for the work of the executioners who practice there. On the agenda were the importance of good deeds, kind words and the rejection of pagan customs.

Saudis are wondering how long the imams will stay in line. "When they speak about tolerance, the words don't come out easily," says a senior provincial official. "What we are hearing is only a facade. You can smell the disgust they feel in mouthing their new rhetoric." Sometimes it expresses itself plainly. Says Jordan: "We have noticed lately in influential mosques the imam has condemned terrorism and preached in favor of tolerance, then closed the sermon with 'O God, please destroy the Jews, the infidels and all who support them.'"

Like the mosques, Saudi schools have been the subject of scrutiny. Saudi textbooks have been laced with passages that not only extol the supremacy of Islam but also denigrate nonbelievers. An eighth-grade book states that Allah cursed Jews and Christians and turned some of them into apes and pigs. Ninth-graders learn that Judgment Day will not come "until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them." A chapter for a 10th-grade class warns Muslims against befriending non-Muslims, saying, "It is compulsory for the Muslims to be loyal to each other and to consider the infidels their enemy."

With these excerpts suddenly being quoted in the U.S. media after 9/11, the Saudis launched a review of their curriculum. The program 60 Minutes quoted Foreign Minister Saud that he was relieved to find that only 10% of the material was "questionable" and 5% "abhorrent"-a result that might not have comforted a top diplomat of many other nations. The Saudis vowed to excise the objectionable portions, and Prince Saud insisted to Time that "the books have been changed for the new school year." The U.S. embassy has asked for a rundown of changes but to no avail, according to Jordan. "We continue to have some concerns about the curriculum," he says.

What kinds of changes are the Saudis making? Education Minister Mohammed al-Rasheed told Time that the government had scratched the entire fifth chapter of a 10th-grade text that described how Muslims and non-believers were historical enemies. An excerpt detailing "ways to show hatred to the infidel" charges that "it is forbidden to show happiness during the holidays of the infidels." The minister noted that three Koranic messages encouraging tolerance would be included in Saudi texts. One of them says, "Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for your faith nor to drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them. For Allah loveth those who are just."

Al-Rasheed insists the old curriculum had "nothing to do with people being violent." Still, the modern, globalized world, he says, requires greater acceptance of other cultures. In a speech this week opening the new school year, he plans to tell students, "There is no future for us unless we are tolerant people, cooperating with others and seeking knowledge wherever it is."

How saudis educate their citizens is one issue; what they teach other Muslims around the world is another. Apart from channeling money to foundations that have assisted terrorist groups, Saudis have for years supported institutions abroad that propagate Wahhabism. Mohammed al-Khilewi, a Saudi diplomat who defected to the U.S. in the mid-1990s out of opposition to his country's policies, told Time in a statement provided by his lawyer, Michael Wildes, "The Saudi government spends billions of dollars to establish cultural centers in the U.S. and all over the world. They use these centers to recruit individuals and to establish extreme organizations."

Many of the madrasahs, or Islamic schools, in Pakistan that produced Taliban extremists and affiliated Pakistani radicals are Saudi funded. So are some of the more strident Islamic schools in Indonesia called pesantren, after a strain of Islam close to Wahhabi thinking. Abu Nida, a cleric in Piyungan, Indonesia, says Saudi funding-he won't say from which group-enabled him to start his Bin Baaz Islamic Center. "The first prerequisite is that you have to be a Salafi pesantren to receive the money," he says.

Bosnia is a relatively new target for the Wahhabis. The Saudis have spent some $400 million there since 1993, initially to help Bosnian Muslims fight the Serbs and then to rebuild the country and to missionize. The thrust of their message is that Bosnia's comparatively secular Muslims have strayed from the true path. A book distributed by Active Islamic Youth, a group in Bosnia founded with Saudi aid, is called Beliefs That We Have to Correct. In a high-profile case last December, a Bosnian Muslim who claimed to be a member of Active Islamic Youth (the group denied it) murdered a Christian Croat father and his two daughters on Christmas Eve in what locals say was a hate crime. Saudi teachings, complains Mohammed Besic, a former Bosnian Interior Minister, "are poisoning our youth." More recently the Saudis have focused on nearby Kosovo. Half of the $1 million the Saudi Joint Relief Committee spent in the two months after the 1999 war there went to sponsor 388 religious "propagators" intent on converting Kosovars to Wahhabism.

Diplomats in East Africa say Saudis' influence in the region is minimal but growing, especially in Tanzania, where fundamentalists have taken over 30 of the 487 mosques in the capital and have begun bombing bars and beating women who go out without being fully covered. According to a Western intelligence report, the Saudis are spending about $1 million a year in Tanzania to build new mosques and buy influence with the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi Party. "We get our funds from Yemen and Saudi Arabia," says Mohammed Madi, a fundamentalist activist. "Officially the money is used to buy medicine, but in reality the money is given to us to support our work and buy guns."

The wahhabi outreach goes beyond the Muslim world. In March 2002 Ain al-Yaqeen, an official Saudi magazine, wrote that the royal family wholly or partly funded some 210 Islamic centers, 1,500 mosques, 202 colleges and 2,000 schools in countries without Muslim majorities. Cambodia is one such place. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Cambodia's Muslims, who make up 5% of the population, turned to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to help rebuild their mosques and schools. Accompanying the aid were teachers from those countries, with the result that today 10% to 15% of Cambodian Muslims are Wahhabis. Many go to Saudi Arabia to study. "They come back and are filled with fire and want to change the way we do things," says Soi Ponyamin, a commune chief in the village of Svay Khleang.

Saudi proselytizers are also interested in Muslims in the U.S. and other Western countries. Says Antoine Sfeir, the Lebanese-born editor of the Parisian quarterly Notebooks of the East: "Their message to Muslims in Europe and America is so extreme and intolerant: 'Do not accept their ways, and do not consider yourself as one of them. You only exist as a Muslim, respecting Muslim values alone.'" Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia who spent much of his career in Canada, says that most Sunni community centers in Canada receive Saudi funding. Carl Sharif El-Tobgui, a Ph.D. student at McGill University's Institute for Islamic Studies, which specializes in the worldwide spread of Islamic culture, estimates that 10% to 20% of Canada's 580,000 Muslims adhere to Wahhabism.

Saudi gifts to build or improve mosques and community centers in the U.S. generally come with strings attached, says a U.S. official. "It's conditioned on the preaching of Wahhabism." According to Washington-based Khalid Duran, president of the Ibn Khaldun Society, a Muslim cultural association, virtually every Muslim child in the U.S. receiving religious instruction in Arabic is using Saudi textbooks. "Students are being indoctrinated into this feeling that a Muslim is automatically a better human being," he says. A seventh-grade Saudi text in use in the U.S. and obtained by Rita Katz, executive director of an institute called the Search for International Terrorist Entities, explains a Koranic verse thusly: "We have to be careful of the infidels, and we can ask Allah to destroy them in our prayers."

Al-Matroudi, of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, is vehement that the government never attaches ideological strings to its overseas aid and does not promote Wahhabism abroad. "No, no, no," he says. "(We have) nothing to do with that at all. Our understanding is for our own country. These people who are asking for help, we never ask them to practice Islam according to our understanding." Foreign Minister Saud says it's possible there are individual Saudis who have contributed money to Wahhabi schools abroad. "But if there are," he says, "we want the information. The man will go to prison. These are the new regulations" He adds, "The next time somebody comes and asks us to finance anything in their country, we will obviously refuse."

Does Prince Saud mean it, or was the statement made in pique? Credibility, these days, is a central issue between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Republican Senator Richard Shelby, former chairman of the Intelligence Committee, says he sees the Saudis taking positive steps since May 12 but notes, "If history is a judge, I don't know how long the intensity of their effort will last."

For many in the U.S., including in the halls of government, patience with the Saudis is running thin. "More and more people are saying, 'It's time to sit on the Saudis; it's time to hit them hard,'" says a State Department official. Frank Gaffney, a conservative foreign-policy analyst, has some ideas on how to do that: "You put them on notice that this kind of behavior is completely unacceptable. You can break off diplomatic relations, you can impose economic sanctions, and you have, ultimately, the option of seizing the oil fields militarily if you have to."

That's easy to advocate when you're not in office. The hard-liners in the Bush Administration, most of them neoconservatives, would like to put greater pressure on the Saudis to reform, but they don't go so far as to propose regime change. The fall of the House of Saud is too scary to contemplate, because any alternative regime would probably be more regressive. It's one measure of the essential conservatism of the Saudi people that their country, despite the lack of freedom, produces very few political refugees. By Saudi standards, the Saud regime is liberal. "If you want to marginalize the Saudis, cut them off and turn your back on them, you are simply inviting another Taliban type of regime," says Ambassador Jordan.

For that reason, it seems unlikely that the Bush Administration will adopt a tougher policy toward Riyadh. While the neocons have won most of the internal debates so far in this Administration, this time they are fighting without their powerful godfather, Vice President Dick Cheney, on board. Cheney's pragmatism on Saudi Arabia is informed by his experience as an official in the Nixon Administration in 1973, when the Saudis protested U.S. support for Israel by embargoing oil sales to the U.S. for five months, causing the worst gasoline shortages in U.S. history. From Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and, significantly, his father, President Bush is hearing a singular line from his most important foreign policy advisers: that he must engage with the Saudis, work with them to bring about change and not alienate them. Indeed, when President Bush spoke to Abdullah for 20 minutes by phone last week, say U.S. and Saudi sources, he went out of his way to compliment the Prince on Saudi Arabia's efforts to combat terrorism.

-With reporting by Timothy J. Burger, Massimo Calabresi, James Carney, Eric Roston, Elaine Shannon, Michael Weisskopf and Adam Zagorin/ Washington; Amanda Bower/New York; Bruce Crumley/ Paris; Gorill Husby/Dar es Salaam; Andrew Perrin/Bangkok; Andrew Purvis/Sarajevo; and Christopher Shulgan and Leigh Anne Williams/Toronto

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