A Grunt's View of the Saudi Volcano

October 4, 2001

Comment: #428

Discussion Thread - Comment #s - 427, 424


[1] Hugh Pope, Yaroslav Trofimov and Danny Pearl, "Saudi Arabian Royal Family Finds Itself Caught In The Middle Of Two Alliances," The Wall Street Journal, October 4, 2001 Pg. 1. Excerpts attached.

[2] Jeremy Campbell in Washington, 'US called off first attacks' This Is London, [Associated Newspapers Ltd]., 03 October 2001. Excerpts attached.

It is generally believed that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were inspired by Osama bin Laden and financed by his al Qaeda network. But a web of Saudi connections raises ambivalent questions about that country's relation to the 9-11 atrocity, and more generally, its forthcoming role in the nascent war on terrorism.

Mr. Bin Laden comes from Saudi Arabia, and he wants the U.S. military out of Saudi Arabia, among other things. On 23 February 1998, he and his allies issued a fatwah (which will be discussed in a forthcoming blaster) accusing the United States of "occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."

Now this accusation may sound like nonsense to your ears, but it plays well on the impoverished, ill-educated Arab street. Osama's fatwah concluded by issuing a "ruling" urging Muslims to kill Americans until they leave the lands of Islam.

To be sure, the Saudi Arabian royal family had already expelled bin Laden from that country, but that does not mean the monarchy is firmly in the U.S. camp. There are persistent reports that Osama's network continues to receive financial support from conservative Saudi sheiks and fundamentalist Wahabbi charities (which are usually sponsored or at least condoned by the monarchy). It also appears that a majority of hijackers in the 9-11 atrocity were middle-class Saudis. At least one, Wail Mohammed Al-Shehri, was a Wahhabi teacher, and another, Ahmed Ibrahim Al Haznawi, was an imam in the Baljurashi mosque [Reference 1]. Moreover, the largest contingent of Arab fighters allied with the Taleban in Afghanistan comes from Saudi Arabia.

In Reference 2 below, Jeremy Campbell reports that the United States may have called off the first attacks of the war, because Saudi Arabia (as well as Oman, and Uzbekistan) got cold feet. One U.S. official, referring to Saudi Arabia, told Campbell that Saudi support for air strikes "is no longer true." Secretary Rumsfeld and Prime Minister Tony Blair are making hastily arranged trips to the region, presumably to shore up support.

So, what is going on in Saudi Arabia?

In Reference 1 below, Hugh Pope, Yaroslav Trofimov, and Danny Pearl report in the Wall Street Journal on the history of the increasingly unstable Saudi-American relationship going back to a deal made between Franklin Roosevelt and King Abd al-Aziz,. They agreed the U.S. would protect the Saudi royal family in return for preferred access to Saudi oil. Changing conditions have now mutated that arrangement into a political condition wherein the Saudi monarchy maintains its power by standing on two mutually exclusive pillars: (1) a military alliance with the U.S. and (2) a religious alliance with the deeply conservative Wahabbi strain of Islam that is determined to rid Saudi Arabia of all foreign influence.

Saudi Arabia's role in the so-called war on terrorism is increasingly conflicted, if not wobbly. Not surprisingly, its leadership is acting as if it were sitting on top of a volcano. Several weeks ago, just after the 9-11 Atrocity, I asked Staff Sergeant Kountzonikolai, a man with experience in Saudi Arabia and a frequent contributor to the Blaster, for his appreciation of the Saudi volcano.

What follows is one grunt's eye view, and a very imaginative one at that - it makes an excellent bookend to the Wall Street Journal analysis in Reference 1, which I urge you to read as well.


An Open Source Analysis

by SSG Kountzonikolai (nom de plume for a Staff Sergeant on active duty in the U.S. ARMY. He has spent time on the ground in Saudi Arabia.)

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and New York, most people expected a great cry for vengeance against the people behind them. But President Bush and Secretaries Powell and Rumsfeld are being more circumspect, saying this is going to be a long campaign. They are telling us, correctly in my opinion, this "war" is going to be unlike any the world has ever fought before. Before we can fight the enemy, we must know the enemy.

By knowing the enemy, we can fight him smart, as well as hard. And make no mistake it will be difficult.

The President says our adversary is a global network of terrorist organizations and their state sponsors. One man -- Usama bin Laden -- has been singled out as being at the heart of this network. No doubt, other equally important names will surface, but I think Usama is a useful a metaphor for understanding the human dimensions of this conflict. My aim here is to try to explain who he is, where he comes from, where his support is coming from, and why people like him. My information in this article is based on my experience in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as a lot of open source reading on the subject.

Usama bin Laden is a son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman who made his fortune in the construction business. [note: "Usama", "Ussama", and "Osama" are alternative ways of transcribing the Arabic.] As the oil wealth of Saudi Arabia was being developed, much of the money was spent on infrastructure development. Infrastructure is where Usama's dad made his money. His corporation built many of the prestigious buildings in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), including that country's tallest building, and many of its military installations. So, saying that bin Laden's father owned a construction company would be like saying Bill Gates owns a software company.

Not only is the bin Laden family wealthy, it is well-connected. Through his family connections, Usama received not only an excellent business education, but he also had the opportunity to observe the way business was done in Saudi Arabia. And somewhere along the line, to use an American phrase, he got religion. After dabbling with the rich playboy lifestyle, he became an extraordinarily devout Muslim.

Now remember this, there is no separation of religion and state in Saudi Arabia. The royal family's legitimacy is based on how well it takes cares of the sacred mosques (in Mecca and Medina) and how well it provides for the religious establishment.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Usama saw godless Russians murdering fellow Muslims. He responded by bringing his wealth and managerial skills to help the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. In addition to setting up refugee camps, providing funding to the resistance fighters, and recruiting Saudis and other Arabs to the cause, a fact not often mentioned is that he brought in Muslim clergy [adhering to the fundamentalist Wahabbi tradition] to serve as Chaplains in the camps in order to see to the spiritual needs of the people.

These Chaplains helped serve as the seed corn for the group of people known as the Taliban. Back in Saudi Arabia, Usama's good works became widely known. Many other Saudis contributed monetarily to his works, and he became known as a good man who was doing good works. He also learned the tricks of the trade of how to recruit people to fight for a cause.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, US and European forces entered Saudi Arabia as part of an alliance with Arab forces including Egypt and Syria. The presence of American military forces on Saudi soil, nevertheless, upset a large number of Saudis, including bin Laden, who had volunteered to form a defense force around his corps of experienced fighters.

Bin Laden and others saw the King's decision to call in the Americans as an abdication of the ruling family's duty to care for the two holy mosques. The saw a royal family opening the door to hundreds of thousands of infidels, roaming the country, displaying utter contempt for Islamic law. (It did not matter that these soldiers were largely kept out of sight.) To make matters worse, when the war ended, the infidels did not all leave as promised.

The decision by the royal family to keep foreign military forces on Saudi soil severely damaged its legitimacy in the eyes of the Saudi masses. It also gave Usama an enemy to go after on his home turf, which increased his popularity in conservative religious circles.

A huge and rapidly growing population of young people in Saudi Arabia is now exacerbating the discontent. With declining wealth, the rapidly growing population translates into fewer jobs than in earlier times. And many of the Saudi youngsters are unwilling or unable to take lower end jobs. Unemployment among Saudi youth may be as high as 40%.

Well, these guys are looking for something to do.

After the Russians left Afghanistan, the Americans lost interest and departed the scene, which some locals perceived as abandonment. Usama started preaching against the US, as well as the Afghan communists who were left in charge after the Russians pulled out. Many young Saudi men, seeking a bit of adventure, signed up to fight in Afghanistan against the communist rulers. This influx enabled bin Laden to set up training camps, and develop a cadre of warriors. Much of what he did there played well with the folks in Saudi Arabia

Summarizing the present situation:

  • The ruling royal family is widely perceived to have breached the social (or at least religious) contract between the leadership and the led.

  • There is a huge increase in the population of the younger generation, with diminishing prospects for advancement.

  • The royal family is widely perceived as keeping up its own standards of living, while the rest of the country deteriorates

  • The rulers have engaged the use of foreign mercenary forces (US, British, French) to maintain their place in power (which implies it can't trust the natives).

At this point, I want to draw some parallels between the present situation in Saudi Arabia and the American Revolution. This comparison may seem a bit odd at first, but please bear with me, because I think it will help us appreciate the changes now blowing in the wind.

In Usama, Saudi masses have a combination of:

  • John Hancock (wealthy shrewd businessman),

  • George Washington (war hero: he helped to force the Russians out of Afghanistan, like George did to the French and Indians),

  • Thomas Paine (knows how to use propaganda to spread his message; his fatwahs, according to some scholars, are superbly crafted in a poetic sense, which is very important in Arabic), and

  • Jerry Falwell (conservative religious figure, calling for a return to traditional values, saying that once the country has done this, Allah will smile upon us, and we will live happily ever after).

Usama's message has a lot of appeal among the younger folks. The moneyed class sees what is happening, so they contribute to Usama's causes, hoping it will buy them protection in the event of social turmoil. And the royal family quietly shifts assets to foreign locations, so they can move if they suddenly find themselves out of a job. [as John Boyd showed in his analysis of guerrilla insurgencies, these are common reactions of middle and upper classes during the pre-crisis stage of revolution and insurrection—and probably should be treated as "indicators and warnings" by intelligence community—CS].

In the present situation, the royal family clearly needs to proceed with internal government reforms that will create real economic opportunities for the growing population, while reducing corruption. But whether it does so or not, inevitable changes are coming to Saudi Arabia.

The United States will have no choice but to accommodate itself to these changes. We should do so in a way that helps the Saudi man in the street without harming our interests. I do not believe Saudi Arabia will become another Iran - the two cultures are too different. It will become something else, and it may well fragment, since it's only been a unified country since 1932, or 69 years.

Our national leaders should figure out who the next generation of leaders are going to be, and get them on our side without corrupting them or being seen to corrupt them. Also, whenever possible, the United States should consider a long term strategy that reduces its military presence in Saudi Arabia, perhaps in conjunction with a policy of replacing American soldiers with troops from friendly Islamic nations. This would set better with the locals, while we could still keep a hand in the game (but with a lighter touch).

End of SSG Kountzonikolai's comments

Put another way, SSG Kountzonikolai is calling for a grand strategy that rids the world of the terrorist scourge, changes how we are perceived in the Islamic world, and yet protects our legitimate interests in that part of the world - a tall order indeed. Too bad he wasn't high ranking enough to help with Quadrennial Defense Review.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

The Wall Street Journal
October 4, 2001 Pg. 1

Saudi Arabian Royal Family Finds Itself Caught In The Middle Of Two Alliances

By Hugh Pope, Yaroslav Trofimov and Danny Pearl, Staff Reporters of The Wall Street Journal



"Osama has no hope of overthrowing the U.S. -- but he does seek that in his own country," says Chas W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "What he hopes we will do is attack a broad target in the Middle East, and thus delegitimize both what we do and the Saudi regime."


The economic relationship continues today. The Saudis awarded $25 billion in gas and infrastructure projects this summer to three consortia dominated by U.S. firms and led by Exxon Mobil Corp


Prince Sultan Air Base, completed in 1996, is owned by the Saudis but manned by U.S. military personnel.

... in many ways it was the growing U.S. military activity on Saudi soil that put the U.S. and Saudi elite on a collision course with the other pillar of royal Saudi support.

The 30,000-strong Saudi royal family, many of whose senior members populate key posts in the government, is no stranger to religious fervor. An alliance since the 18th century with the family of Mohammed Abd al-Wahhab, founder of Saudi Arabia's puritan Wahhabite sect, has supplied the ideology that three successive Saudi regimes have wielded to hold sway in Arabia.


Many ordinary Saudis think big-spending members of the royal family are straying too far from the mainstream.


Since the Sept. 11 attacks, says one local Saudi official, who declines to be identified, local Islamic preachers have been more strident than ever in mosques filled with fervent young people.

Reference #2

'US called off first attacks'

by Jeremy Campbell in Washington

This Is London, Associated Newspapers Ltd., 03 October 2001



Two senior US officials have told reporters that until yesterday the Saudis were firm in their offer to provide assistance for strikes, including use of a state-of-the-art command centre at the Prince Royal Sultan Air Force Base.

Then the situation changed. One US official told Knight Newspapers: "That is no longer true. We fear there is something deeper here."


Mr Rumsfeld's tour, which includes Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and Uzbekistan, is being compared to the stage-setting trip made by Dick Cheney, then Defence Secretary, to the Gulf just before the start of Desert Storm.


US officials are not sure whether this is a case of last minute jitters, or " something more serious".

One notable omission on Mr Rumsfeld's itinerary is Pakistan. "The last thing Pakistan needs is a high profile visit by a US Secretary of Defense," said a Pentagon official.

Iraq and the Middle East