The Magazine

The Saudi Connection

Osama bin Laden's a lot closer to the Saudi royal family than you think.

Oct 29, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 07 • By DAVID WURMSER
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TWO QUESTIONS have been raised about Osama bin Laden. First, if bin Laden opposes the Saudi regime, why has he never struck Saudi targets? Second, if he threatens Saudi Arabia, why has the Saudi government taken the lead in recognizing and funding the Taliban government of Afghanistan, which is entwined with bin Laden's al Qaeda organization? The answer is: The bin Laden problem is deeply embedded both in Saudi religious and dynastic politics and in an effort by Iraq and Syria to shift the balance of power in the Middle East.

To begin to unravel this murky business, it is necessary to go back to the mid 1990s, when a succession struggle was beginning in Saudi Arabia. This struggle pits the octogenarian king, Fahd bin Abdel-Aziz, and his full brothers in the Sudairi branch of the family (especially the defense minister, Prince Sultan) against their half-brother, Crown Prince Abdallah. King Fahd and the Sudairis favor close ties to the United States, while Crown Prince Abdallah prefers Syria and is generally more enamored of pan-Islamic and pan-Arab ideas. All of these contenders are old. Whoever succeeds in securing the crown after Fahd will anoint the next generation of royal heirs and determine Saudi Arabia's future course--either toward the West or toward Syria, Iraq, and others who challenge the position of the United States in the region.

Abdallah is closely allied with the puritanical Wahhabi religious establishment that has underpinned the Saudi government for over a century. The Wahhabis are strident and hostile to a continued American presence in the Middle East. They made this explicit in 1990 in a pronouncement known as the Muzkara an-Nasiha, originated by Osama bin Laden and signed by virtually every sheikh in the Wahhabi establishment. It condemned Saudi Arabia's decision to allow U.S. troops into the kingdom for the purpose of resisting Saddam.

Crown Prince Abdallah has long challenged the Sudairi branch by pushing an anti-Western agenda. In mid 1995, numerous Arab newspapers reported that the crown prince was working with Syria and Egypt to sabotage Jordanian-Saudi rapprochement. The same year, the Turkish weekly Nokta reported that Abdallah had blocked Turkish-Saudi ties by ordering the execution of some Turks, incarcerated for drug-dealing, after King Fahd had assured Turkish emissaries that they would be spared.

In late 1995, King Fahd became ill and feeble, passing power temporarily to Abdallah. When shortly afterwards Abdallah briefly visited a neighboring state, his Sudairi rival, Prince Sultan, asserted power in Riyadh. Abdallah returned to reclaim his dominance, but to do so he employed his wife's close family ties to the Assad clan and invited Syrian intelligence operatives into the kingdom. Then the problems began.

ABDALLAH'S QUEST to secure the succession--leading as it did to his strategic relationship with Syrian president Hafez Assad, and their joint willingness to cooperate with Iraq--is essential background to the major terrorist attacks of recent years, including Khobar Towers, the USS Cole, and September 11. When Abdallah invited Syrian intelligence into Saudi Arabia, he created an opportunity for Syria to foster a terror network on Saudi soil. Its handiwork surfaced first in a minor attack on an American bus in Jeddah in 1995, then in the major attack on Khobar in June 1996 in which 19 U.S. servicemen died. The Washington Post reported that the Khobar bomb had originated in Syrian-controlled Lebanon, and just this month, members of the Syrian-backed Hezbollah were indicted in a U.S. court for this attack.

Sober strategic considerations brought Abdallah, Syria, and Iraq together. The years 1995 and 1996 were watershed years in the Middle East. Before then, hopeful developments (from the American point of view) had seemed afoot in the region. Between 1992 and 1995, Israel had formed a strategic relationship with Turkey; Jordan and Israel had signed a peace treaty with strategic cooperation clauses; Saddam had faced a viable, advancing opposition movement; and Jordan had become the vanguard of an anti-Saddam grouping after the defection in Amman of Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal. Pro-Western elements of the Saudi royal family pushed to reestablish Jordanian-Saudi ties, solidify Saudi-Turkish ties, and anchor Saudi Arabia in this emerging, powerful, pro-Western regional bloc.