The Saudi royal family's once limitless capacity for self-delusion is now running on empty. The most abrupt wake-up call came in recent weeks with the discovery of al Qaeda training camps in the desert near several major Saudi cities. Camouflaged as seminaries, the pseudo-clerics doubled in brass as instructors for training in both weapons and insurgency attacks.
Some 600 suspected terrorists and large quantities of guns and explosives have been captured, including hundreds of RPGs, 2,000 sticks of dynamite, and a shoulder-launched SAM-7 anti-aircraft missile. Large sums of cash from mosque charity boxes were also seized. Camel caravans from Yemen continue to smuggle weapons across hundreds of miles of empty desert.
Internal security in Saudi Arabia is entirely in the hands of members of the House of Saud. Some 7,000 princes control all the kingdom's critical nerve centers, from air force squadrons to governors' palaces. So the horrifying conclusion is that the royal family is not only divided but certain princes sympathize with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist organization. The bin Laden family runs one of the country's principal construction conglomerates and Osama himself was a Saudi national hero in the 1980s when he recruited thousands of Saudis to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Osama turned against the royal establishment after it invited U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to prepare for the Desert Storm operation that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. He was eventually expelled from his country and stripped of his nationality. But he remains a legendary figure among Saudis, especially Wahhabi clergymen.
The Saudi Wahhabi clergy gets a hefty slice of the national budget and raises billions through the zakat, a 2.5 percent levy of income required by the Koran of all true believers. This extreme sect of Islam named two members of the axis of evil — America and Israel — long before President Bush came up with his three candidates: Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Iranian theocracy and Kim Jong-il's North Korea.
Since 1979, the Wahhabi establishment has spent an estimated $70 billion on Islamist missionary work, ranging from the funding of some 10,000 madrassas in Pakistan to the construction of thousands of mosques and seminaries and community centers all over the Muslim and Western worlds. Jihad, or holy war, against Western heathens was the fundamentalist creed.
September 11, 2001, with 15 of the 19 suicide bombers Saudi subjects, did not raise the House of Saud out its complacent torpor. Collaboration with U.S. efforts to shut down Wahhabi charities suspected of being conduits for al Qaeda was, for the most part, tokenism. Al Qaeda's May and November 2003 bombings of housing compounds in Riyadh finally rang a general alarm throughout the House of Saud.
Some 2,000 Saudi Wahhabi clerics known to be preaching jihad at Friday prayers were detained and warned that if they didn't cease and desist they would be put behind bars. The government has also revoked the diplomatic passports of hundreds of Wahhabi "missionaries" who traveled the world to recruit anti-U.S. radicals for their cause.
The crackdown on the clergy convinced a number of younger princes their elders were betraying Islam. Most Saudi princes have been educated in the United States, Britain and American universities in Cairo and Beirut. But a minority followed Osama bin Laden's path and were entirely educated in Saudi Arabia, heavily influenced by Wahhabi teachings about the decadent, anti-Islam America and Israel.
Well concealed from prying Western eyes, the ruling family is in the throes of its worst crisis in its 71 years.
The founder of the dynasty, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, married 235 women and kept 660 concubines. Their pictures and particulars were enclosed in a huge gold-embossed album for occasional perusal during daylong Cabinet meetings that the king had a habit of interrupting. This reporter met with the founder in 1952 (he died in 53) and courtiers were proud to brag about the monarch's gargantuan sexual appetites, proof of great strength. The family is 24,000-strong today (including girls and wives).
Crown Prince Abdullah, pending the passing of King Fahd, disabled by a stroke in 1995, is acting boss. A reformist by instinct of survival, Abdullah is still limited in his ability to bring about fundamental change. He has to contend with a number of royal factions, each with its own agenda that is not necessarily reformist.
Abdullah is first deputy prime minister and commander of the National Guard, which is both Praetorian Guard and internal security force. Prince Sultan, the defense minister, and second in line for the throne, is second deputy prime minister and inspector general. He controls the armed forces and is also Minister of Aviation and chairman of Saudia, the national airline. There are a number of other powerful constituencies, such as Prince Nayef, the interior minister, who cannot be pushed around by Abdullah. Nayef, who said last year Israel's Mossad engineered the September 11 attacks on America, is the closest to the Wahhabi clergy, oversees the religious police and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. One of Nayef's ranking officials was wounded last December in an assassination attempt.
Nayef rejects democratization, arguing "holy warriors" are not attacking Saudi Arabia because of its lack of democracy. They don't believe in democracy either, he said.
The inner workings of the House of Saud are more opaque than the Kremlin during the Cold War. But Westerners who have occupied senior positions in the kingdom for a number of years and speak Arabic say the current upheaval could easily lead to internecine conflict between rival factions who cannot seem to agree on what to do about reforms. The country's standard of living has dropped precipitously from a gross domestic product per capita of $15,000 in 1980 to $9,000 today.
Lest there be any doubt about the tacit Wahhabi-al Qaeda alliance in the U.S., a new book — "Terrorist Hunter" — is the extraordinary story of a woman who went undercover to infiltrate radical Islamic groups operating in America. Authored by "Anonymous," her real identity is now known. She is an Iraqi Jew who speaks perfect Arabic and uncovered a billion-dollar scheme wealthy Saudis set up to filter money to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. It's later than we think.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.