Why terrorist attacks are not inevitable, say Saudis

Anti-American anger, say Saudi analysts, will fade if US policy in Mideast changes.

Concern is mounting in Washington that more terrorist attacks on the United States are "inevitable."

But Saudis familiar with the thinking behind the anti-American hatred of groups like Al-Qaeda, say such attacks on the US are not inevitable.

They say that anti-US attacks since the mid-1990s – from bombings in this desert kingdom in the mid-1990s to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen – were a deliberate chain of events leading up to Sept. 11. They had one message for America, these sources say: Stop your blind support of Israel, and withdraw your forces from Saudi Arabia.

"These attacks are going to continue against the US again and again, until America wakes up to the problem of siding with Israel," says a Saudi veteran of the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, who is familiar with the thinking of militants today, but did not participate in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

"Why must they intervene in every single thing? And when they do, why do they do it so unjustly?" asks the Saudi veteran, a computer specialist.

The linkage between US support for Israel – widely perceived in the Arab world to be at the expense of Palestinians – and the Sept. 11 attack is often rejected in Washington. But here it is considered an article of faith.

Though Saudi Arabia has had tight security and military ties to the US for more than half a century, the country is also the home of 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, and fully more than one-third of the Al Qaeda detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Within this apparent contradiction, somewhere on the convoluted path between Saudi Arabia's branch of puritanical Islam and its embrace of the West, may lie answers to questions about those "inevitable" future attacks.

Violence in Palestinian territories is piped hot and graphic daily into Arab living rooms by satellite television, and it feeds discontent.

Would the anger toward America fade, if the US pressured Israel to withdraw from Palestinian land occupied in the 1967 war, in line with a Saudi-sponsored peace plan?

"Can they [pressure Israel]? I don't think it is possible for them," answers another Saudi who visited Afghanistan in the late 1980s, lost family members in Bosnia, and is now a businessman.

"America does not understand.... We love America," says the Saudi businessman. But he says the US must ask itself: "Why do [Arab] young people want to join the jihad?"

Saudi analysts and Islamists say that the US policies in the Mideast have provided a focal point for militants like Saudi-born Osama bin Laden.

Former President Bill Clinton, who many analysts describe as Israel's most supportive US president until Bush, also drew the link during a Tuesday speech in Tokyo. "The big threat today to the peace of the world that is stoking all this terrorism is this continuous violence in the Middle East," Mr. Clinton said.

The anti-US attacks started small, with a 1995 blast in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed five Americans. "It follows like a chain, one after another," the Saudi computer expert says. "When there was no response, they decided to hit the US, so that Americans [would] ... ask [their government] to withdraw [US troops from the region]."

"Ask any Saudi: 'Why do you hate the American government?' and they will tell you: 'We are in a war – not in our country – but in Palestine. Between us and the Jews. And if the US supports them, we are against the US," the Saudi veteran says.

Radical as these views may sound, they are not uncommon in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Islamic world. Nor is the depth of anger limited to young men bent on answering what they see as a religious duty to help fellow Muslims and engage in "jihad," or struggle, against forces they deem to be occupiers.

Registering the risk to America's Arab allies in the region – simply by association with US policy – Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz sent a stark message to Washington late last August: "We are at a crossroads. It is time for the US and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests." Saudi leaders had to "feel the pulse of their people."

That pulse means trying to tamp down a roller coaster of popular emotions that have recoiled at the Sept. 11 carnage and then the American bombing of Afghanistan.

"Most scholars condemn the Sept. 11 attacks, because innocent people are innocent people," says Mohsen al-Awaji, an Islamic activist here who was imprisoned for several years in the 1990s for outspoken views.

"After the US bombed Afghanistan, we understand the difference between the targets of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," Mr. Al-Awaji says. "I still believe the World Trade Center was not a legitimate target – but look at the Pentagon: There is a question mark."

The Pentagon, he says, was the source of the decision to bomb a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998, in retaliation for the US embassy bombings; and for planning the Afghanistan campaign, among other operations Al-Awaji sees as directed at Muslims. The "humiliation" at Camp X-Ray has been a last straw.

It is difficult to gauge the extent of such views – contrary to official thinking in Saudi Arabia – though the impact of even a few people putting such thoughts into action can be disruptive.

"I am very angry at US foreign policy, very angry," says Jamal Khashoggi, deputy editor of the Arab News in Jeddah. "But why don't I approve the killing of Americans?"

"That is terrorism, by a small group of people who adopt radical Islamic views that I completely reject," Mr. Khashoggi says. "It is my duty to oppose that, because I don't want to see more of my people follow that path.

"Those organizations do not need huge armies, he says. "Five or 10 people can hijack planes or blow them up. That will get the headlines. But if many more moderate Islamic activists set up a clinic or newspaper in Gaza, it will never make the news."

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