The Magazine

Misunderstanding al Qaeda

What you weren't told about their targets in Saudi Arabia.

Dec 1, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 12 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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AMERICAN REACTIONS to the recent bombing of a foreign workers' compound in Riyadh reveal multiple misreadings of the Arab world and--more dangerously--of both al Qaeda and the Saudis.

The media seem to equate Arab with Muslim and, along with some in the administration, think that al Qaeda's war is against Americans and Westerners per se, rather than against all "infidels," a group al Qaeda defines idiosyncratically and expansively as anyone who is not a strictly observant Muslim. Both mistakes are compounded by reliance on the Saudis' distorted account of the attack.

The November 8 bombing took place in a Lebanese Christian neighborhood of Riyadh, and of the seven publicly identified Lebanese victims, six were Christian. Lebanon's newspapers are replete with photographs of Maronite Catholic and Greek Orthodox victims. Daleel al Mojahid, an al Qaeda-linked webpage, praised the killing of "non-Muslims." The Middle East Media Research Institute quotes Abu Salma al Hijazi, reputed to be an al Qaeda commander, as saying that Saudi characterizations of the victims as Muslims were "merely media deceit."

If so, the media fell for it. Reuters described the bombing as against "fellow Muslims," the Los Angeles Times as "against Muslims," the Washington Times called the victims "innocent Muslims," the San Francisco Chronicle "Muslim civilians who happened to be in the wrong place," and the New York Times "expatriates from other Muslim countries."

Others used vaguer terms. The BBC said the "bombing killed Arabs and Muslims," as did the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. In the Wall Street Journal, David Pryce-Jones pronounced the dead "exclusively Arabs and Muslims." While perhaps strictly correct, this circumlocution hides the fact that the victims included Arab non-Muslims and Muslim non-Arabs.

The effect of this mischaracterization is to link Arab to Muslim, ignoring the large numbers of Christian Arabs from Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere who work in Saudi Arabia (and Israel) and have long been targeted by Islamic extremists, including by the Saudi government. (At the time of the bombing, two Egyptian Christians, Sabry Gayed and Guirguis Eskander, were in a Riyadh prison for holding a worship service, even though Prince Sultan had ordered them released.)

Similarly, media coverage of the October 4 suicide attack on Maxim, a restaurant in Haifa, noted that one co-owner was Jewish, but described the other simply as "Arab." Commentators wondered why Palestinian terrorists were killing "Arabs." But the second co-owner was actually a Lebanese Catholic, as were many of those killed. The term "Arab," while playing into America's obsession with ethnicity, hides the religious dimension that is central to the worldview of al Qaeda, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

Similar puzzlement over attacks in Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia, as well as over the targeting of the U.N. and Red Cross in Iraq, reflects a focus on nationality and ethnicity that misses the terrorists' own obsession with "infidels" and once again ties the attacks exclusively to anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism.

The New York Times associated the bombed compound in Riyadh with "Western lifestyles and foreign influence." The BBC speculated that the attackers "thought that among the residents were Americans." Pryce-Jones wondered whether, finally, "somebody is evidently even more eager to destabilize Saudi Arabia than to kill Americans or Westerners."

However, every day in every way, al Qaeda reiterates that its target is "infidels," wherever they live, including Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and the vast majority of the world's Muslims, who reject the extremists' vision of a restored caliphate under a reactionary version of Islamic law. Bin Laden's October tape, aimed at Muslims, described his enemy as "the Romans . . . gathered under the banner of the cross," but it also denounced Muslim "infidels and heretics." (At the same time, of course, al Qaeda is happy to form tactical alliances with others who do not share its vision, whether Shiites in Iran or secularists like Saddam Hussein.)

For years, one of al Qaeda's major components, Egypt's Islamic Jihad, led by bin Laden deputy Zawahiri, massacred Christians and moderate Muslims in Egypt. The Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, which has openly declared itself a bin Laden ally, has killed over 100,000 Muslims, often by disemboweling them. The Sudanese National Islamic Front, formerly known as the Muslim Brotherhood, has killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the Nuba mountains and elsewhere, as well as nearly 2 million non-Muslims.

In the Riyadh bombing, al Qaeda once again targeted "infidels." Al Hijazi claimed that the compound had contained Americans and "Lebanese Christians who had tortured Muslims . . . during the civil war." The bombing killed Christians, and also Muslims, who--because they lived in a gated compound with swimming pools and alcohol, mixed with infidels, and allowed women to go unveiled--were seen by the terrorists as infidels and apostates therefore deserving to die.

Why have the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the BBC, the Associated Press, Reuters, and Arab News, among many others, published false or misleading information on this important subject? The answer lies in their sources. Saudi Arabia does not allow freedom for investigative reporting. It restricted journalists' access to the bombing site, and quickly demolished the area with bulldozers, before any forensic examination or in-depth investigation could take place. Consequently, the controlled Saudi media, and the government itself, are the source of most information.

The Saudi authorities' own statements have been studiously vague about the target of the bombing. While avoiding outright falsehood, their careful phrases hide the true nature of the attack and instead try to portray themselves as the real victims. Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz, the Islamic affairs minister, described the attack as "flagrant aggression . . . against Islam, the people of Islam, in the land of Islam."

Ubiquitous Saudi spokesman Adel al-Jubeir, when asked in three different CNN interviews about the targets of the bombing, each time switched the topic to a bomb factory uncovered in Mecca, complete with booby-trapped Korans, saying, "These Korans were intended for Muslims." He described an enemy who attacks "everyone," "humanity," "regardless of the target," and added, "They're killing anyone they can get their hands on."

Since state-supported Saudi imams preach hatred of infidels, especially Christians and Jews, and the kingdom spends billions to export these ideas, the regime has good reason to hide the fact that someone acted on their teaching.

Despite this dissembling, there is little possibility that the Saudi government did not know what went on in the compound and who the targets were. Three months before the bombing, the Muttawa religious police, also known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, had raided the compound, and scuffled with its security guards, because they had heard of an "un-Islamic" party in progress. Once inside, not for the first time, they knew exactly which buildings they wanted to check. The head of the Muttawa is a Saudi cabinet minister.

The fact that the Saudi authorities did not reveal that this was largely a Lebanese Christian area, that they rapidly demolished the remains and stayed silent while the media misreported the identity of the victims, suggests a deliberate attempt to mask what is going on in the kingdom. (Meanwhile, a debate is taking place in the Saudi press over whether a woman named Saban Abu Lisam, who was herself injured in the blast but nevertheless drove seven other injured victims to the hospital, should be praised for her courage or punished for violating the ban on women driving.)

In the Riyadh bombing, al Qaeda did what it has always done, and, as usual, it explained why its targets were chosen. Nevertheless, much of the U.S. administration seems to share the media's bafflement. U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, in Saudi Arabia at the time of the blast, opined that the bombers had attacked "the government and people of Saudi Arabia." The Los Angeles Times describes "senior administration officials," puzzled at this latest choice of targets, as "grasping, saying this doesn't fit the box we expected."

If this is true, the administration, like the media, needs a new box. It would be a good place to dump Saudi prevarications, and also to store the al Qaeda videos, tapes, books, and fatwas that for the last ten years have been laying out the organization's goals in explicit detail. To repeat: Al Qaeda and its allies aim to kill or subdue all "infidels," Muslim or non-Muslim, who stand in the way of their goal of restoring a worldwide caliphate governed, Taliban-style, by the strictest, narrowest interpretation of Islamic law.

Until this fact is finally assimilated, we will continue to have a military that fights superbly against an enemy whose strategic aims we refuse to understand.

Paul Marshall is a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom and the author of "Islam at the Crossroads."