Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Saudi Connection Is Everything

The “study” of terrorism often reverts to Saudi Arabia almost as the “default.” That may well be due to the great mystery of the Kingdom both to Americans and other Arabs. I, of course, can speak for no one except myself and a few other in-the-dark Americans, but it seems to me that what we don’t know can hurt us. Anyone who has seen “Fahrenheit 911” knows of the mysterious (and probably venal if not downright villainous) “relationship” between Osama bin Laden and the Saudis (he is, after all, a Saudi), and then between the Saudi Royal Family and the Bush Family (and many other prominent Americans). And now we have Seymour Hersh telling us,

…The Saudi royal family has been, by turns, both a sponsor and a target of Sunni extremists….The princes are gambling that they will not be overthrown as long as they continue to support religious schools and charities linked to the extremists.…To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran…[Vali] Nasr [a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations said], “The Saudis have considerable financial means, and have deep relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, Sunni extremists [sic] who view Shiites as apostates. The last time Iran was a threat, the Saudis were able to mobilize the worst kinds of Islamic radicals… A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda [and, obviously, linked to Saudi Arabia]. (Seymour Hersh. “Is the Administration’s new policy benefiting our enemies in the war on terrorism?” The New Yorker, 2007-03-05.)

So once again the Saudis are playing some sort of shadowy obviously-up-to-no-good role in 1) United States foreign policy, 2) the “sectarian struggles” within Islam, and 3) the funding and support of terrorist groups. The last of these is what keeps popping up in American media and among “talking heads” (from think tanks and the like) on an almost daily basis. It is the “received wisdom,” the almost-never-disputed or investigated understanding of Saudi Arabia’s less than honorable attitudes toward the United States and, in fact, toward the entire non-Sunni world.

My interest in finding the truth about the “Saudi” connection to everything but the kitchen sink began when my Rhetoric classes were researching a bizarre incident in the Sahara (yes, yes, I know Saudi Arabia isn't in the Sahara) as part of their study of the First Amendment guarantee of Freedom of the Press, and, more specifically, what happens when the press fails to vet its sources. All of the strangeness below—if it were played out to the usual extreme in the press—has two unspoken connections to Saudi Arabia: the Saudis are somehow responsible for Osama bin Laden, and thereby for Al-Qaeda; and they are also responsible for the “Salafi” terrorists in this story (otherwise known as the dreaded “Wahabbists” to whom the Saudi Royal Family are indebted) who are determined to export their "radical" Islam to the rest of the Muslim world (and thereby destroy life as we know it).

First, some of the story:

In the early months of 2004, a lone convoy of Toyota pickup trucks and SUVs raced eastward across the southern extremities of the Sahara. The convoy, led by a wanted Islamic militant named Ammari Saifi, had just slipped from Mali into northern Niger, where the desert rolls out into an immense, flat pan of gravelly sand. Saifi, who has been called the “bin Laden of the Sahara,” was traveling with about 50 jihadists, some from Algeria, the rest from nearby African countries such as Mauritania and Nigeria…For nearly half a year Saifi and his men had been the object of an international hunt coordinated by the United States military….Soldiers from Niger, assisted by American and Algerian special forces, had fought with Saifi twice in the past several weeks. Each time, the convoy escaped. Now it was heading further east, toward a remote mountain range in northern Chad….
….Saifi’s organization, the Algeria-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC, had killed scores of Algerian officials and soldiers; it was among the deadliest organizations in the world, with operatives in Europe and North America. Saifi appeared to be extending its reach further into Africa….
(Raffi Khatchadourian. “Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert: The U.S. Military’s $500 Million Gamble to Prevent the Next Afghanistan.” The Village Voice, January 31st, 2006 12:08 PM,khatchadourian,71993,6.html )

Another version:

Locked in a prison here, for now, is a desert bandit dubbed the “Bin Laden of the Sahara,” whose capture was secretly orchestrated by U.S. forces after a long chase across some of the most forbidding terrain on Earth.

Amari Saifi, 37, a former Algerian army paratrooper, was caught in 2004 after he and a band of rebel fighters kidnapped 32 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara and ransomed them for about $6 million.

Since then, the U.S. government has cited his case as a model for terrorist-hunting operations and a justification for expanding U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence programs in North Africa.

The kidnappers belonged to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a movement dedicated to overthrowing the Algerian government. Despite its local origins, the group has recently reached out to al-Qaeda and other networks in an attempt to broaden its scope....
(Craig Whitlock. “Taking Terror Fight to N. Africa Leads U.S. to Unlikely Alliances.” Washington Post Foreign Service. Saturday, October 28, 2006)

An interesting side note to this is that, when my classes and I e-mailed Mr. Whitlock to ask him what his sources were, we received an irate response telling us that his sources were authentic but that he could not search his notes and find them.

My classes and I began an intensive investigation of this story, and we discovered that the more removed accounts are in time and distance from the story (I can document this because I have much of our collected research), the more confused they are. No two versions are alike. The number of “hostages” changes repeatedly, the travel route over the desert morphs, and even the players change. That the German government paid a price to get a number of “tourists” out of the hands of someone was apparently true. But all other details were inconsistent and contradictory.

In the midst of all of this, I came across an article in Foreign Policy in Focus. Its opening is,

It started in 2002 with a few hesitant probes that were low on intelligence, high on imagination, and short a couple of helicopters reportedly lost in the desert wastelands of northern Mali. Then, in 2003, the U.S. launch of a second front in its “war on terror” moved into top gear. In collaboration with its regional ally Algeria, the Bush administration identified a banana-shaped swath of territory across the Sahelian regions of the southern Sahara that presumably harbored Islamic militants and bin Laden sympathizers on the run from Afghanistan.

Although the United States had vague suspicions that the Sahel region of Africa might become a possible terrorist haven following its dislodgment of the Taliban from Afghanistan, the gear change was triggered by the hostage-taking of 32 tourists in the Algerian Sahara. The United States attributed their capture in March 2003 to Algeria’s Islamist “terrorist” organization, the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC)....

The U.S. spin on these events was all very dramatic. And it was all largely untrue.

Within a year, the United States and its allies had transformed the Sahara-Sahel region into a second front in the global “war on terror” the following year, U.S. military commanders were describing terrorists as “swarming” across the Sahel and the region as a “Swamp of Terror”….Typical of the media hype were articles in the Village Voice such as “
Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert.” But the incidents used to justify the launch of this new front in the “war on terror” were either fiction, in that they simply did not happen, or fabricated by U.S. and Algerian military intelligence services….Almost every Algerian statement issued during the course of the hostage drama has now been proven to be false. No combined military force chased El Para and his men across the Sahel….

How and why did such a deception take place? ....First, the Algerian and U.S. military intelligence services channeled a stream of disinformation to an industry of terrorism “experts,” conservative ideologues, and compliant journalists who produced a barrage of articles. Second, if a story is to be fabricated, it helps if the location is far away and remote….(
Jeremy Keenan, “The Collapse of the Second Front.” Silver City, NM and Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, September 26, 2006 )

[FPIF contributor Jeremy Keenan is a teaching fellow in archaeology and anthropology at Bristol University. He is also a visiting professor at the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies at Exeter University where he is director of the Saharan Studies program. His book Alice of the Sahara: Moving Mirrors and the USA War on Terror in the Sahara will be published by Pluto Press in 2007.]

“What,” anyone who is still reading, might ask, “does this have to do with Saudi Arabia?” Very little, actually, although the American media would rather have you think otherwise. And it also has very little to do with the truth.

And that’s what it has to do with Saudi Arabia: Little of what we read about Saudi Arabia is the truth. The Saudis (first, but not exclusively among Arab or Muslim nations) are automatically linked with “terrorism” and “jihadism” (never mind that they are also seen as absolutely necessary to U.S. interests in the Middle East). Islam as practiced by many Saudis is given a name (“Wahabbism”) that has become virtually a four-letter word in the writings of American press and among talking heads. And the few who understand that it is a slur and not a valid description of anything still refer to those who practice it as haters-of-all-that-is-western and no-doubt-terrorists besides.

A small inroad into the truth about Saudi religious practice:

“[Wahabbism is]…a myth. Cooked up by outsiders to insult the Arabians. Relatively recently in history. No one here would ever call themselves ‘Wahabbi,’ but they might say it to you, or to Westerners who visit. They mean well, because they know that you believe this is what they are, and there’s no point debating the finer point. It doesn’t exist, period. What you see is purity, salafii, the ‘Najdi’ style of dress. Most of the time when you think you are looking at a ‘Wahhabi’ you are looking at a ‘Najdi.’ Their cultural dress is still unchanged, and they do this to show their piety.” (Tanya Cariina Hsu, Private e-mail, January 27, 2007.)

[ Tanya Cariina Hsu is a Saudi-US political analyst originally from London. She lives in Riyadh. She is currently writing a book on U.S.-Saudi relations. She studies Islam in Saudi Arabia focusing on Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab.]

The knee-jerk reaction of Americans to that which they do not understand is understandable but not forgivable. And the constant connection back to some shadowy “jihad” that originates in Saudi Arabia (or some other place equally “evil”) is not only uncharitable, it will continue to keep us at war and in turmoil.