As we have been saying here for four years now.
By Nick Fielding and Sarah Baxter in the Times (thanks to Sr. Soph):
[...] Yet wealthy Saudis remain the chief financiers of worldwide terror networks. “If I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia,” said Stuart Levey, the US Treasury official in charge of tracking terror financing.
Extremist clerics provide a stream of recruits to some of the world’s nastiest trouble spots.
An analysis by NBC News suggested that the Saudis make up 55% of foreign fighters in Iraq. They are also among the most uncompromising and militant.
Half the foreign fighters held by the US at Camp Cropper near Baghdad are Saudis. They are kept in yellow jumpsuits in a separate, windowless compound after they attempted to impose sharia on the other detainees and preached an extreme form of Wahhabist Islam.
In recent months, Saudi religious scholars have caused consternation in Iraq and Iran by issuing fatwas calling for the destruction of the great Shi’ite shrines in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, some of which have already been bombed. And while prominent members of the ruling al-Saud dynasty regularly express their abhorrence of terrorism, leading figures within the kingdom who advocate extremism are tolerated.
Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, the chief justice, who oversees terrorist trials, was recorded on tape in a mosque in 2004, encouraging young men to fight in Iraq. “Entering Iraq has become risky now,” he cautioned. “It requires avoiding those evil satellites and those drone aircraft, which own every corner of the skies over Iraq. If someone knows that he is capable of entering Iraq in order to join the fight, and if his intention is to raise up the word of God, then he is free to do so.”
In the past the Saudis openly supported Islamic militants. Osama Bin Laden was originally treated as a favourite son of the regime and feted as a hero for fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Huge charitable organisations such as the International Islamic Relief Organisation and the al-Haramain Foundation – accused in American court documents of having links to extremist groups – flourished, sometimes with patronage from senior Saudi royals.
The 1991 Gulf war was a wake-up call for the Saudis. Bin Laden began making vitriolic attacks on the Saudi royal family for cooperating with the US and demanded the expulsion of foreign troops from Arabia. His citizenship was revoked in 1994. The 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, which killed 19 US servicemen and one Saudi, was a warning that he could strike within the kingdom.
As long as foreigners were the principal targets, the Saudis turned a blind eye to terror. Even the September 11 attacks of 2001, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, could not shake their complacency. Despite promises to crack down on radical imams, Saudi mosques continued to preach hatred of America.
The mood began to change in 2003 and 2004, when Al-Qaeda mounted a series of terrorist attacks within the kingdom that threatened to become an insurgency. “They finally acknowledged at the highest levels that they had a problem and it was coming for them,” said Rachel Bronson, the author of Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia.
Assassination attempts against security officials caused some of the royals to fear for their own safety. In May 2004 Islamic terrorists struck two oil industry installations and a foreigners’ housing compound in Khobar, taking 50 hostages and killing 22 of them.
The Saudi authorities began to cooperate more with the FBI, clamp down on extremist charities, monitor mosques and keep a watchful eye on fighters returning from Iraq.
Only last month Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s leading cleric, criticised gullible Saudis for becoming “convenient knights for whoever wants to exploit their zeal, even to the point of turning them into walking bombs”.
And last week in London, King Abdullah warned young British Muslims not to become involved with extremists.
Yet the Saudis’ ambivalence towards terrorism has not gone away. Money for foreign fighters and terror groups still pours out of the kingdom, but it now tends to be carried in cash by couriers rather than sent through the wires, where it can be stopped and identified more easily.
A National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad, a nongovernmental organisation that was intended to regulate private aid abroad to guard against terrorist financing, has still not been created three years after it was trumpeted by the Saudi embassy in Washington.
Hundreds of Islamic militants have been arrested but many have been released after undergoing reeducation programmes led by Muslim clerics.
According to the daily Alwa-tan [sic], the interior ministry has given 115m riyals (£14.7m) to detainees and their families to help them to repay debts, to assist families with health care and housing, to pay for weddings and to buy a car on their release. The most needy prisoners’ families receive 2,000-3,000 riyals (£286 to £384) a month.
Ali Sa’d Al-Mussa, a lecturer at King Khaled University in Abha, protested: “I’m afraid that holding [extremist] views leads to earning a prize or, worse, a steady income.”
Former detainees from the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are also benefiting. To celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid, 55 prisoners were temporarily released last month and given the equivalent of £1,300 each to spend with their families.
School textbooks still teach the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious antiSemitic forgery, and preach hatred towards Christians, Jews and other religions, including Shi’ite Muslims, who are considered heretics.
Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, said: “The Saudi education system has over 5m children using these books. If only one in 1,000 take these teachings to heart and seek to act on them violently, there will be 5,000 terrorists.”
In frustration, Arlen Specter, the Republican senator for Pennsylvania, introduced the Saudi Arabia Accountability Act 10 days ago, calling for strong encouragement of the Saudi government to “end its support for institutions that fund, train, incite, encourage or in any other way aid and abet terrorism”.
The act, however, is expected to die when it reaches the Senate foreign relations committee: the Bush administration is counting on Saudi Arabia to help stabilise Iraq, curtail Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions and give a push to the Israeli and Palestinian peace process at a conference due to be held this month in Annapolis, Maryland.
“Do we really want to take on the Saudis at the moment?” asks Bronson. “We’ve got enough problems as it is.”