In recent months some 70 individuals with diplomatic status from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia have left the United States - an event little noticed in the broad policy debate, but extremely important.
Here's why: Since 9/11, and the revelation that 15 of the 19 attackers on that day were their subjects, the Saudi rulers have repeatedly told the United States that the princely regime in Riyadh is a reliable ally in the war against terror. Such claims were restated with greater conviction after the bombings inside the kingdom last year. Yet as often as these reassurances are offered, the trail of Islamist extremism leads back to Saudi officials and Saudi state agencies.
In the latest such case, the State Department ordered 24 Saudis with diplomatic visas to return home. They included Saudis who came ostensibly as members of the kingdom's diplomatic staff but who functioned at an Islamic school in Virginia known for radical indoctrination of imams and military chaplains.
American officials, declining to be named, had previously criticized the Saudis for granting diplomatic status to those whose activities do not constitute legitimate diplomatic business.
Of the 24 ordered to leave, 16 were employees of the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America (IIASA) in Fairfax, Va. IIASA is affiliated with a religious university in Riyadh. But it is funded by and serves as an arm of the embassy's Religious Affairs Department. Its board chairman is the Saudi ambassador to America, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
IIASA has been a major center for Saudi-sponsored Islamic outreach in America, training imams for local mosques as well as at least 75 Muslim lay chaplains for service in the U.S. armed forces. Its 400 students pay no tuition.
IIASA's status as a religious body that enjoys diplomatic standing was questioned 18 months ago by Ali al-Ahmed, a prominent Saudi dissident then based in Washington. Al-Ahmed charged that IIASA, in its instruction on Islam, hewed to an ultra-radical line.
Al-Ahmed analyzed literature produced by IIASA, including an Arabic-language textbook titled "A Muslim's Relations with Non-Muslims, Enmity or Friendship," by Dr. Abdullah al-Tarekee. The author wrote, "unbelievers, idolaters and others like them must be hated and despised . . . Qur'an forbade taking Jews and Christians as friends, and that applies to every Jew and Christian, with no consideration as to whether they are at war with Islam or not."
These views reflect the domination in Saudi Arabia of the movement known as Wahhabism.
Based on his disclosure of IIASA's role as a distributor of extremist literature, dissident al-Ahmed called on U.S. and Saudi authorities to close the school and repatriate its staff.
In November, the diplomatic visa of one Islamic cleric who lectured at IIASA, Jaafar Idris, was revoked after he was scheduled to appear at a Muslim conference in Houston. Another cleric, Sheikh Allamah Ibn Jibreen, was advertised to address the Houston gathering via satellite. On his Web site, linked to that of IIASA as a recommended source of Islamic teaching, Jibreen called on Saudis to go north of the Iraqi border to attack Coalition troops.
Jibreen also praised Osama bin Laden only months ago, calling on God to "aid him and bring victory to him and by him." Sources in the Saudi embassy in Washington announced late in 2003 that the kingdom would cease operating religious affairs departments in their embassies, but as soon as the pledge was made, it was denounced by clerics in Riyadh, who denied any such action would be taken.
The return to Saudi territory of the 70 diplomats, according to Saudi sources, was part of an effort to curb extremism, rather than a normal rotation of embassy employees.
But there is little that is normal in this picture. If Saudi Arabia is really our ally, why is extremism a problem inside its embassy?
In the best case, the purge of "diplomats" may reflect a division in the highest circles of Saudi society, with those who are aware of the crisis, such as Crown Prince Abdullah, pressing for a break with the Wahhabi legacy, while a majority of hardliners in the royal family resist change.
A shutdown of the Saudi embassy's Religious Affairs Department, and of IIASA, would be welcome. But we should not forget that Prince Bandar's wife, Princess Haifa, was exposed for giving a cash donation that ended up in the pockets of two lead members of the 9/11 conspiracy, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.
Last month, the Senate Finance Committee said it would investigate 24 Islamic charities and other entities operating in the U.S. The target list includes the Muslim World League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization, all branches of the Saudi government.
The Saudi rulers want us to believe they are our friends, and that terrorist rule is the only alternative to their rule. Yet they still subsidize the global Wahhabi offensive.
Washington has yet to face, with the vigor it demands, the problem of official Saudi backing for extremism. It's time to serve the Saudis with an ultimatum: support for international Wahhabism must end.