Saudi radicalism springs from deep source
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — A toy store may be an unlikely window into the extreme environment that created anti-West hijackers. But in Saudi Arabia home to 15 of the 19 hijackers from the Sept. 11 attacks the doll lineup hints at how the deep currents of puritanical Islam shape this nation.
You won't find Barbie on the shelves here. The doll is outlawed as a symbol of Western immorality. Despite official pro-American policies, fleets of gas-guzzling, US-made cars on the streets, and Western-style shopping in one gleaming mall after another, Saudi Arabia is a nation where all citizens are officially adherents of the hardline Wahhabi branch of Islam, and the punishment for forsaking Islam is death.
It is a nation born of a brutal religious history, infused with a powerful sense of holy war and a view of the world that divides humanity into believers and "infidels." It's a view that has changed little since Sept. 11, experts say and could yield more militants.
"Segments of Saudi society have never been so radical as they are now," says Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi exile who runs the Virginia-based Saudi Institute. A handful of "radical teachers" have been "infected by bin Laden," he says, "so we are going to have another young generation of bin Ladens."
For some here, the banning of Western cultural icons is the tip of a radical iceberg that indicates a level of intolerance that helped create the militant views of the Saudi hijackers.
"Banning Barbie is an act of radicalism," argues a Saudi analyst in Jeddah, who asked not to be named. In one sense, it's "as dangerous as killing an American GI or or putting a bomb under the General Motors dealership. It creates the same environment, and in Saudi Arabia, it has religious roots."
"If you want to understand the roots of this hate, this killing, this disregard for human rights, you have to go back to the roots of Saudi Arabia, when the idea was that only we are right," says the Saudi analyst. "The Ikhwan [religious warriors that helped the ruling Al-Saud family consolidate the state 250 years ago] were fighting with the notion that 'We are good Muslims who will go to Heaven, and all others will die.'"
Though a few radical sheikhs have praised the Sept 11 attacks, most religious leaders in Saudi Arabia denounced them. Crown Prince Abdullah warned Islamic scholars in the aftermath that it was "their duty to be careful.... I advise you not to get emotional or provoked by anyone."
Radical views can drive equally unforgiving political ideas and create holy warriors. Saudi Arabia and the CIA encouraged young men to go to Afghanistan to wage jihad, or "holy war," against the Soviets in the 1980s. And it didn't prevent hundreds from joining the ranks of native son Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s.
"Some went to Chechnya, some fought fellow Muslims [in Afghanistan] and some were sent to Manhattan," says the Jeddah analyst, who has long followed militant Islamic groups.
The fact that more than one-third of the original 300 detainees sent to Cuba's Guantanamo Bay from Afghanistan were Saudi nationals tells something about how they were recruited.
Far from all being hardened jihad veterans, many of the Saudis held by the US are just 18- or 19-year-olds, "poor guys with crescent moons in their eyes," the US official says.
"The Saudis can't let this happen again," the American official adds. "It's a severe wake-up call, a symptom of a problem that is a very combustible mixture."
But solving that problem has vexed Saudi officials as much as it has American investigators. Many Saudis dismiss this case as summarily as Americans who say that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, hardly represented mainstream views. While the Saudis have been helpful in handling the families of the hijackers including collecting DNA samples they still ask: Where did they come from?
"There are three reasons people wanted to join this jihad," says a young-faced, US-educated Saudi who traveled briefly to Afghanistan five times in the late 1980s, but refused to join later because bin Laden's "aims had changed."
"Some people have no other purpose in their life, and are losers; some see Hollywood movies, and think they can be strong if they have a gun," says the Saudi professional. "And others know that if they die, they can be a shahid [martyr], and are looking for that victory."
"The problem is, they don't understand Islam in the right way," the Saudi adds. "It's stupid to fight someone who is stronger I prefer to go to America and convince people to join Islam, not fight a war we will lose."
Still, some 10,000 to 15,000 Saudis are reported to have taken part in paramilitary training by extremist groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the past two decades. "Bin Laden speaks to the heart of all of us," says another young Saudi, educated in the US. "It is very easy to recruit for Afghanistan, because people are hating the Americans."
"It's everywhere in the Arab world this anti-American feeling," says Saleh Khathlan, a political scientist at King Saud University. "If there is a single factor behind the [Sept. 11] attacks, it is that US policy is perceived to be anti-Muslim. The hijackers were brought up to believe the world is divided into Muslims and nonbelievers. What's missing is a view of the whole world, something broader that is connecting all humans."
That something is given little chance in rural parts of Saudi Arabia, where most of the hijackers came from.
Subject to hard-line Islamic preachers and an education system that sometimes teaches hatred instead of tolerance, they look back to the first militant generations of Islam in the 7th century for guidance, and call their movement Salafism.
"I blame Salafism. It is behind the most violent groups in the Muslim world; it is the one thing that ties all the hijackers," says the Saudi analyst in Jeddah. Despite the hardline view of some clerics, Saudi rulers are far more moderate.
"We have prevented people from volunteering [for jihad]," Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, says in an interview. "How can you assure that there are no mad people here, who have been deluded? Nobody is immune to that but everything that we can do to prevent it is being done."
Except put Barbie back on toy shop shelves.
For Islamic militants from the bleak Arabian Peninsula to the lush islands of Indonesia, waging holy war is considered the highest form of worship. For two decades, such true believers have been taking up arms to fight in conflicts from Bosnia to Afghanistan.
But how can suicide bombings especially in Israel, where Jewish civilians and soldiers alike are targeted by Palestinians be justified?
"We will not only support suicide bombers [in Israel], but will support more and more suicide bombers if we can," declares Mohsen al-Awaji, an Islamic activist here who was imprisoned for several years in the 1990s for his outspoken views. "We must defend ourselves. This is part of our program. It is not just my view, but widespread."
Support for suicide bombings is not limited to Saudi sheikhs who consider themselves to be "moderate activists" like Mr. Al-Awaji. The popular view was clear when the Saudi ambassador to London, Ghazi Algosaibi, published a poem called "The Martyrs" on the front-page of the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper in April. The poem praised a female suicide bomber, Ayat Akhras, who killed two Israelis and wounded 25 in late March, as a "bride of loftiness" who "kissed death in joy and pride, honoring the word of God."
Saudi Arabia's more moderate leaders are proposing a peace plan that calls for formal Arab recognition of the Jewish state, in exchange for Israel's full withdrawal to pre-1967 borders.
Key Arab leaders, for the first time last month, rejected violence "in all its forms." And some voices from Beirut to Cairo have raised questions about whether suicide attacks aren't now beginning to undermine the Palestinian cause.
But others say that suicide bombings are not only legitimate, they are in some cases a religious duty for the truly faithful. Mr. Al-Awaji says that while the World Trade Center was a wrong target, questions remain about the strike against the Pentagon. In Israel and the occupied territories, though, even that distinction blurs.
"Jihad in our religion is very important, but we will never support any action against innocent people, regardless of their religion," says Al-Awaji, whose ability to speak so openly is part of a current Saudi strategy of dialogue with the self-described "moderate" Islamic activists. "The most important thing is that we should differentiate between Israel and the US," al-Awaji says. "In Israel, we must consider two points: All Israelis are fighters during any war, all people can be mobilized. Everyone is registered with the army.
"And even though we are against targeting women and children, if Israel is doing everything to [Palestinian women and children], what can we do?" al-Awaji says. "There," al-Awaji adds, acknowledging the incendiary nature of his words. "Now I am an 'extremist.' "