Of all the media myths about Islamist extremism prevalent in the West, none is hardier than the claim that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida seek to overthrow the Saudi monarchy. This cliché is repeated time after time by network and cable television anchors, newspaper reporters, columnists and other pundits, and government experts on all sides. It is, of course, also assiduously purveyed by the Saudis themselves through their diplomatic representatives and spin experts, who never tire of telling Americans they are targets of the same enemy, and on the same side as America, in the war on terror.
Yet the history of al-Qaida inside Saudi Arabia is filled with unanswered questions and bizarre ambiguities. Al-Qaida has never attacked a single one of the thousands of Saudi princes and princesses, and has never assaulted any of the vast number of Saudi business offices and other enterprises around the world. This makes it unique in the history of radical movements, if it truly opposes the Saudi state. Although threats and imprecations against the Saudi royal family, and calls for its overthrow, are typically attributed to Bin Laden by Westerners, a close reading of his diatribes shows no such language. Bin Laden calls for death and expulsion of foreigners, but not for the destruction of the Saudi regime.
In the recent wave of terrorist atrocities carried on Saudi soil by al-Qaida, none has been directed against agencies or representatives of the established order. Victims have almost exclusively comprised foreigners, including non-Saudi Muslims and Arab Christians. Even the weird bombings that occurred on December 29, in which some terrorists were killed, appeared as aimless, almost accidental incidents on the streets of Riyadh. Further, nearly all such attacks have been perpetrated by personnel in police and other uniforms, using official vehicles, with the obvious complicity of "persons unknown" inside the state.
For these and other reasons, it comes as no surprise to close and undeceived observers of Saudi reality that dissident Saudi subjects firmly believe al-Qaida enjoys some form of official protection or support from within the royal family. It is often alleged in the West that the Saudi royals buy off the radicals to prevent the destruction of their reign, but other explanations are offered by the kingdom's ordinary residents. They frequently assert that the Saudis play a double game, to prevent either the country's middle class -- the largest in the Arab world -- or the Bush administration from pressing for meaningful change in the most reactionary and repressive state in the world. The message: if the House of Saud and the subsidized Wahhabi clerics who administer the official "religious" ideology are weakened, the alternative to their power may be something inconceivably worse -- the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most feudal, most exclusionary, and most expansionist representatives of Saudi-Wahhabi "desert Islam," i.e. rule by al-Qaida, or pure Islamofascism.
But disaffected Saudis, who support liberal reform, say there could be no regime worse than that under which they live. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women to drive; its religious militia whips women who, in public, violate its extreme rules for bodily covering and obligatory accompaniment by male relatives. The same thugs assault Muslims who fail to observe all their prescribed forms of Islamic observance, and confiscate "unapproved" Islamic religious literature brought into the country by foreign Muslims making the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The government interferes with or bans public worship by non-Wahhabi Muslims as well as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus who find themselves on Saudi territory. In the latter case, the burden falls heavily on the quarter of the populace that have come to the kingdom as guest workers, including millions of Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists from South Asia, the Philippines, and South Korea.
Even Iran, Sudan, and Syria are less oppressive. And Saudi Arabia is now bordered by a crescent of Arab and Muslim countries that, although they can hardly be compared with a Western democracy, are more or less normal. From Kuwait through the Emirates to Yemen, women drive cars, and many of them can dress as they see fit; Christian churches and Hindu temples function openly, and Bahrein and Yemen even have small Jewish communities, and synagogues. The examples of such modernized states close by are increasingly tantalizing to Saudi liberals.
Thus, the Saudi kingdom may need al-Qaida to protect itself against the demands of its own people. But Bin Laden's terrorism has other uses as well; above all in Iraq, today, bloody jihad is a safety valve for disposing of discontented youth, and the Wahhabis have always harbored the ambition to completely dominate Sunni Islam worldwide. Wahhabi terror in Chechnya, Israel, Central Asia, and elsewhere serves to mobilize volunteers for this campaign. And Wahhabis despise Shia and Sufi Muslims even more than they hate Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. Nothing on earth is more frightening for the Wahhabis and their royal patrons than the spectre of an Arab Shia democracy on their northern border.
In this context, Bin Laden and al-Qaida, in my view -- and that of Saudi liberal reformers -- serve to protect the monarchy and Wahhabism, and will not undermine it. But what evidence do we have for this analysis, so counterintuitive in comparison with the certainties heard from Western media, academic, and government experts?
We have a remarkable and revealing message from supporters of al-Qaida, which supports our argument. This information comes to us from a strange man living in London named Saad al-Fagih, head of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), which operates television and radio programs, and a website. Just as Western media, academic, and government representatives tell us that Bin Laden is a diehard foe of the Saudi monarchy, so, until the end of 2004, were we regularly informed that al-Fagih was a legitimate dissident, a representative of the authentic Saudi people in their opposition to the regime.
On December 17, simultaneous with a manifesto from Bin Laden calling for "peaceful" and "nonviolent" change in the kingdom, al-Fagih and MIRA announced that demonstrations against the government would be held in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and its commercial center, Jiddah. The kingdom mobilized its bodies of armed men, in the form of riot police, to head off the "protest." But while al-Fagih had promised that tens of thousands of people would heed his appeal to march, only a few showed up, in the two main cities and in the towns of Dammam and Hail, and a small number were arrested.
Saad al-Fagih has enjoyed extraordinary flattery by Western media. The Associated Press reported that his movement calls for "a liberal, democratic government" in the Saudi kingdom. The Los Angeles Times said he aims at "an elected leadership to replace the royal family, an independent judiciary and a new constitution with 'the stamp of Islamic law.'" The London Guardian has published op-ed columns under his signature.
But the coincidental timing of his appeal for demonstrations and the latest declamations from Bin Laden alarmed authentic Saudi liberals, who do not trust al-Fagih. And on December 21, the U.S. Treasury requested that the United Nations add al-Fagih to its roster of terrorists, for providing financial and material support to al-Qaida and Bin Laden.
Al-Fagih and his apologists claimed that the U.S. acted against him at the behest of the Saudis, to curb a dangerous reformer. But the convoluted tale of Saad al-Fagih is of less immediate interest than a dialogue with him published in September, in which he candidly described the relationship between Bin Laden and the Saudi regime. The interview was published by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, a think tank that analyzes extremism.
Al-Fagih was questioned closely by Jamestown Terrorism Monitor editor Mahan Abedin. He was asked, "Is Bin Laden's primary aim still the overthrow of the Saudi regime?" Al-Fagih replied in a manner that would doubtless shock most Westerners: "This has never been Bin Laden's primary aim... Some people thought this was indicative of some kind of relationship with the Saudis. Bin Laden's philosophy was that the Saudis are indeed oppressors and quite possible even enemies of Islam but the fact remains that the ordinary people still consider them as Muslims. Therefore targeting them might not go down well with the ordinary people. Even now al-Qaida is reluctant to attack the Saudis directly... [A]l-Qaida, intent as it is on attacking the American homeland, believes that the U.S. will be so enraged by a second 9/11 style attack that it will vent its fury on Saudi Arabia... in the event of its regime not being totally loyal to America. Therefore al-Qaeda looks upon the royal family as some kind of insurance in the event of a second 9/11 style assault on America."
Rather than the Saudis buying off al-Qaida, al-Fagih, whom there is little reason to doubt, believes that al-Qaida appeases the Saudi government. In his next question, Abedin asked, "So why is al-Qaida bombing the Saudi regime?"
Al-Fagih answered, "They are not fighting the regime. This is the irony of the situation." In line with Wahhabi doctrine, according to al-Fagih, al-Qaida is "trying to bolster their position and reputation in the wider Muslim world." Abedin responded almost incredulously, "you really don't believe they are trying to overthrow the regime?" Al-Fagih declared, "No, I don't think they are keen on removing the regime right now."
Could this be mere disinformation? I think not; rather, I believe, with the Saudi liberals of my acquaintance, that the al-Qaida radicals, Bin Laden, and al-Fagih share a desire to reinforce the Saudi regime. Their aim is to save Wahhabism at a time when the people of Saudi Arabia have grown exhausted with its extremism and brutality. Two major questions therefore remain: how long will the Saudi masses tolerate this elaborate camouflage? And why should the Bush administration acquiesce in the deceit?