"And remember," said Osama bin Laden in his February 11, 2003 audio tape to al Jazeera, "those who deal with the infidels will be treated as infidels." The master of al Qaeda, angry with his former friends of the 1980s, blasted the Saudis for not cutting their relationship short with the US and its allies.
In this important speech, the man who ordered the September 11 massacres against the hated Kuffars (infidels in Arabic) wanted to see the Saudi monarchy sever all ties with Washington. Thus, as President Bush established his famous equation of being with us or with the terrorists, al Qaeda mimicked his words, threatening: "Either you're with the infidels or you're with us."
The Saudis understood bin Laden’s message, but they had two different criticisms to deal with: the first from the US, blaming them for two decades of Wahabi teachings and noting the citizenship of fourteen of the 9/11 hijackers; and the other from international Jihadists warning them not to engage in the War on Terror, let alone participate in the War in Iraq.
From the Fall of 2001 to the Spring of 2003, Riyadh tried to survive these two opposing messages. Its spokespeople in Washington practiced all their PR skills to dodge questions on the subject. The media savvy Adel al Jubair dismissed media and legislative critics a hundred times, claiming "We are in the War against Terror in as much as you are."
But practically speaking, the Salafi clerics within the kingdom continued to hail al Qaeda and al Jazeera, amplifying their voices around the Muslim world. Crown Prince Abdallah promised war against terror, while his religious emirs vowed Jihad against the West. The Iraq war didn't help any.
The Saudi pragmatic approach could have been successful -- before September 11. But America has changed and its public grew more suspicious of the whole Fundamentalist labyrinth. Riyadh opposed the war but tried to find interim solutions. Washington was demanding an answer from the ally it once saved from Saddam. But the Wahabis of the palaces feared the Wahabis of the mosques. Saudi diplomats whispered, “going to war in Iraq would trigger attacks by terrorists,” in Western ears. But not going to war in Iraq didn't spare the Saudis either.
The rulers of Saudi Arabia refused to participate in the war efforts. They banned American use of their air, land and ports. Moreover, Emir Abdallah embraced Iraq's second most powerful man, Izzat el Dine Ibrahim at a Beirut Arab summit. If you were a classical pan Arabist, you would have praised the "Arab brotherhood" displayed openly by the kingdom. But this spasm of slight anti-Americanism, or more precisely, Saudi resistance to the Bush Administration, didn't get Riyadh al Qaeda's approval.
"Not enough," screamed the radical sheikhs on al Jazeera. "Al Saud should have done more to cripple America." A series of memos, broadcasted by al Qaeda web sites, accused the Saudis of not using the "formidable weapon of Allah." Ayman al Thawahiri clarified: "The Saudi royal family should have cut all oil supplies to the United States. They could have had the Americans on their knees, as we had them on September 11 in New York and Washington," said the second in command of al Qaeda. In short, the neo-Wahabis have condemned the Wahabis.
In May of 2003, a major strike rocked a compound in the Saudi capitol. This was a first, as Saudi Arabia was considered an oasis of security. Many in the West rushed to judgement. The BBC, the NewYork Times and other news agencies concluded that Bin Laden’s organization was losing its temper. "When al Qaeda attacks Muslims, it means bankruptcy," concluded some analysts. The conclusion was too fast, for al Qaeda's was planning precision bombings. Most of the victims were foreigners, carefully chosen as "infidels." The Islamist network could have easily chosen a public market, as Hamas does in Israel. Instead al Qaeda chose a target of Jihad interest: non-Muslims. The reason is obvious. Bin Laden's cohorts are killing Christians and Buddhists and are politically cornering the Saudi family.
State Wahabism has always encouraged or at least tolerated notions such as killing Kafir, or infidels. The neo-Wahabi of al Qaeda took this concept to heart. Killing infidels is ideologically PC. Throwing the Kafirs outside the Arabian peninsula could be tolerated with religious references, graciously offered by the radical clerics. "We're abiding by your teachings," seems to be the terrorist motto to the Saudis. The latter, cornered, embarrassed internationally, had only one way out of the quagmire: go after the cells.
And so they did during the summer of 2003. The escalation crescendoed. Saudi security forces battled armed Mujahedins in Mecca, Medina and Riyadh, and terrorist groups engaged the police and the national guards. Al Qaeda understood the weakness of al Saud. They cannot attack the ideology of al Qaeda. As I wrote in Times Magazine last fall, "the Saudi Wahabi cannot cut the roots of the branch they are sitting on."
In October, Osama bin Laden issued the state of Jihad address. In it, he condemns the apostate regime. The neo-Wahabi armies decided to do away with the older Wahabi clans: to put it crudely, al Qaeda decided to devour al Saud. From of a cave somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest authority in the world of Jihad terror signaled to his men in the peninsula that the hour has come. By November, a massive attack targeted the al Muhayya compound in Riyadh.
One more time most of the press run headlines such as "Killing Arabs signals chaos within al Qaeda." One more time, the authors of these analyses fail miserably to comprehend what’s really going on. Most of the victims, including children who burned to death, were infidels. Arab-speaking children yes, but still non-Muslims. An al Qaeda communiqué clarifies the intentions: "We have punished those Lebanese Christians for what they have done to Muslims in Lebanon," wrote the spokesman of the group.
The Monarchy is shaken, its emirs promise punishment, but its Achilles’ heel is now revealed. The minister of interior Nayef bin Sultan threatens the terrorists and their radical mentors, "whom we know well," he said. But still not one word is uttered about the ideological motives of the perpetrators. It sounds as if al Qaeda’s words are more lethal than its brutal actions. Accusing the Saudis of apostasy and collaboration with the infidels is as dangerous if not more so than all the shootings and explosions. In the chat rooms, which I have visited, the debate is raging. The neo-Wahabis overwhelm the classical Wahabis. Very few participants defend the regime while many endorse al Qaeda.
Early in 2004, Abdul Aziz al Maqri, al Qaeda's regional commander, launched his Spring offensive. With al Zarqawi pounding Iraq and threatening Jordan, the Jihad in Saudi Arabia crossed one line after another. Al Maqri's men attacked Saudi security headquarters and finally landed in Khubar, the capital of Saudi oil. With high ideological precision, the terrorists struck twice: first against the nerve sensitive web of Petro-dollars and then against the "infidels." In a sinister reminder of the Nazi onslaught against the Jews during WWII, the armed men applied the teachings of Wahabism: "The world is divided in two: Muslims and Infidels." Ethnicity and language cannot help any more. During the killings, a Jordanian Christian and a family of Lebanese Christians had to lie about their religions to avoid execution.
The Arab world unanimously criticized these operations and stood firmly by the Saudi regime. But in the underworld of the radical clerics and the Jihadists, the "amalya" (operation) was a success. Some Imams-on-line (or so they define themselves) called for more and more, till the monarchy comes back to “the rule of Allah.”
It is difficult for Americans, and many others in the international community, to fathom the nuances of the Wahabi paradigm. I was asked one day in the classroom: "If the Wahabis want a fundamentalist state, what do the neo-Wahabis want?" I answered without hesitation: The neo-Wahabis want it now and at any cost.
The attacks in Khubar and the events that have taken place in the oil rich kingdom are nothing but a harsh reality of the morbid world of fundamentalism: when reforms are obstructed, fundamentalism will take even more radical forms than it has in the past.