When Americans think of terrorism and Saudi Arabia, they likely make this connection: It is the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and of 15 of the 19 hijackers from 9/11. But over the weekend, they learned – perhaps for the first time – that the Saudis are an essential antiterrorism partner of the United States.
It was a Saudi intelligence tip that alerted Washington to cargo bombs sent from Yemen to Jewish addresses in the US. Apparently, the inside knowledge came from a member of Al Qaeda who was released from Guantánamo Bay in 2006, then rehabilitated in a special Saudi program. Eventually, Jabr al-Faifi rejoined Al Qaeda in neighboring Yemen. But two weeks ago, he turned himself back in to Saudi authorities.
It will be interesting to see how Saudis react to this news of intelligence cooperation, especially the extremist, anti-West Wahhabist strain of Islam. Their government is helping thwart an attack on Jews – and hated Americans?
That tension underscores the challenge that the Saudi monarchy faces in partnering with Washington in the logistical fight against Islamic terrorists – and longer term, in moving forward a country steeped in fundamentalist Islam. Riyadh has progressed speedily on the first count, and characteristically slowly on the second.
Not unusually, self-interest has propelled the Saudi royal family to bear down on Al Qaeda terrorists. The government took far too tolerant a stance until 2003 to 2005, when terrorists began targeting Saudi Arabia itself. Then the monarchy cracked down – with wide-reaching surveillance, SWAT teams, and financial measures. And it started a rehabilitation program for former terrorists to reorient themselves, and to help them find jobs.
The measures have reflected Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed autocracy, but the US seems to have taken a “suffer it to be so now” approach. Indeed, Riyadh claims it has driven Al Qaeda out of Saudi Arabia. But many have gone next door to Yemen, where they swear to overthrow the Saudi monarchy. Still, the Saudis reportedly have intelligence links with this branch of Al Qaeda and they strongly back the Yemeni government.
Helpful to Riyadh is that popular Saudi support for Al Qaeda has fallen significantly since the bloody domestic attacks earlier this decade. That makes it easier to take on the antiterrorist fight, even in concert with other Western governments. Earlier this month, the Saudis tipped off the French to a possible Al Qaeda attack.
Much harder is moving the country culturally forward from the grip of Wahhabi clerics who preach violence against other kinds of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The country’s religious police enforce gender separation and dress codes, and those who violate Wahhabi law can receive severe penalties, including floggings.
But Saudi King Abdullah, who came to power in 2005, has moved toward reform inch by inch. He reshuffled the cabinet and put moderates in the place of staunch conservatives in the education and justice ministries – traditionally under Wahhabi influence. Earlier this year he restricted religious fatwas, or edicts. He has opened the country’s first co-ed university. And last month’s secular celebration of the nation’s founding – itself a new holiday created in 2005 – was notable for dancing in the streets and the relatively light touch of the religious police.
The West, of course, would like King Abdullah to move more quickly with his reforms. For instance, revised textbooks still preach an ideology of hate toward non-Wahhabis. An intolerant Islam that supports hatred and violence creates a supportive atmosphere for terrorism.
For now, though, the US and other governments should count this weekend’s cooperation as a major intelligence victory and encourage more reform steps from the Saudi monarch. He’s walking a rocky path.