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The Saudi Connection

By Robert Fisk
The Independent, 08/1998

THE KEY to the identity and motives of the men who bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on Friday lies deep within the nation that the Americans regard as their principal ally in the Arab Gulf - Saudi Arabia. The attacks, which cost the lives of more than 100 men and women, reflected the growing fury of thousands of Saudis - including, some say, members of the Royal Family - at America's continued military and political presence in the land which is home to Islam's two holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina.

Resistance to the US presence in Saudi Arabia by some of the Kingdom's most influential figures has been largely ignored in the West - not least by the routine "terrorist-watchers" and so-called intelligence experts who have been regaling us for the past 48 hours with the potential guilt of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan or, to use their own exotic phrase, "international Islamic terror". Not one of them has focused on the country whose fearful identity crisis is at the heart of the current crisis in the Gulf.

It was not by chance that the bombs exploded in Kenya and Tanzania on the eighth anniversary, to the very day, of the arrival of the first US troops in Saudi Arabia following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. US forces were invited into the Kingdom by the now-ailing King Fahd, who insisted that the Americans withdraw all their military forces once the threat of Iraqi aggression had ended.

The Americans did not keep their promise; today, thousands of US military personnel are still based in Saudi Arabia with key operatives inside the Saudi ministries of defence and interior - just as they were in Iran before the fall of the Shah.

One of the latest claims of responsibility - from the so-called "Liberation Army of the Islamic Sanctuaries" - itself suggests a Saudi source. Egyptian security services have long believed that, while Sudan may be a springboard for military operations against them, it is the Saudis who have been the principal financial backers of the Gemaa Islamiya (Islamic Group), which has attacked police, tourists, Christian villagers and even President Moubarak himself. Saudi money funds the ferociously anti-feminist Taliban militia in Afghanistan - just as Saudi money was originally poured into Algeria to support the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), whose banning led to the country's savage internal war.

There are, for example, regular flights of transport aircraft to the Taliban in Jalalabad which take off from the Arab emirate of Sharjah but whose flight plans, unlisted in the Emirates, show their original point of departure as the Saudi port of Jeddah. Weapons have flowed to the Taliban from Saudi Arabia on aircraft from Uzbekistan. The Taliban's cruel "Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Suppression of Vice" - responsible for stonings, amputations and other judicial atrocities - is modelled directly on the structure of the Saudi "mutawah" religious police. Many members of the Saudi royal family, whose princes can be counted in their thousands, are far more conservative than King Fahd and fiercely resent what they regard as America's betrayal of the Arab world, most recently its refusal to force Israel to abide by the Oslo peace agreement.

In this context the remote but intriguing figure of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi dissident now living in Afghanistan, makes more sense. Far from being an outcast from his own country, he is in contact with the Saudi authorities via the Saudi embassy in Islamabad. Indeed, in 1996, he received an emissary from the Saudi royal family who said that bin Laden could have his Saudi citizenship restored to him plus a gift of #339m to his family if he abandoned his public jihad (holy war) against the West's presence in the Kingdom.

"If liberating my land is called terrorism, this is a great honour for me," he told me last year. He regarded American and Israeli forces as identical - a view which will have been reinforced by the news that Israeli intelligence agents have arrived in Nairobi to help the Americans identify the bombers. But bin Laden is only the latest in a long line of hate figures upon whom the West likes to vent its anger (previous incumbents have been Palestinians Abu Nidal and Wadi Haddad, Colonel Gaddafi, Ayatollah Khomeini, Carlos the Jackal and, more recently, Saddam Hussein). What the so-called terrorist experts routinely fail to discuss are the reasons for Muslim frustration: Palestinian dispossession, American domination of the Arab world, Washington's blind support for Israel, the US stranglehold on the Gulf oil market - and the vicious intelligence conflict being played out between America and Muslim groups in the Middle East.

Egyptian "Islamists" now claim that American intelligence operatives taught the Egyptian police their increasingly sophisticated torture techniques, just as they once taught the Shah's SAVAK secret police how to torture women (after the revolution, the Iranians found CIA film of these lessons). And "Islamist" groups have been enraged by America's snatch squads who have, in effect, abducted wanted men from Muslim countries - in past years, from Malaysia, Pakistan, Lebanon and now Albania. Many of the Saudi and other Arab fighters who resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with CIA support, find themselves reviled by their own governments and without passports; a few days ago, a close guerrilla colleague of bin Laden and an Afghan veteran, introduced himself to a Saudi outside the largest mosque in Istanbul to say that he no longer had any citizenship.

So who in Saudi Arabia leads the resistance to the American presence? Certainly not the three Shia Muslim Saudis beheaded for bombing the US barracks in Dhahran in 1996, killing 19 Americans. The CIA were refused permission to interview the men before their execution - even the Americans suspect they may have been "set up" by powerful figures in the Kingdom.

Certainly not bin Laden. Among the more vociferous critics of the US presence is none other than Crown Prince Abdullah. No, he doesn't lead "Terror Inc". Nor does the Saudi government. They don't need to. For Saudi Arabia is metamorphosing into an anti-American nation in front of our eyes. Of course, we're not told about that. Which is why, for most of the world, the bombing of the US embassies last week was represented as an assault by Muslim "madmen". Arrest the usual suspects.




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