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Al-Qa’ida, the Second Act: Is Saudi Arabia Regretting Its Support for Terrorism?
The role of Saudi Arabia as the jihadists’ greatest ally – will the kingdom be forced to change tack in the face of American impatience and anarchy in Syria
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It is a chilling five-minute film made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), showing its fighters stopping three large trucks on what looks like the main highway linking Syria and Iraq. A burly bearded gunmen takes the ID cards of the drivers who stand nervously in front of him.

“You are all Shia,” he says threateningly.

“No, we are Sunni from Homs,” says one of the drivers in a low, hopeless tone of voice. “May Allah give you victory.”

“We just want to live,” pleads another driver. “We are here because we want to earn a living.” The Isis man puts them through a test to see if they are Sunni. “How many times do you kneel for the dawn prayer?” he asks. Their answers vary between three and five.

“What are the Alawites doing with the honour of Syria?” rhetorically asks the gunman who by this stage has been joined by other fighters. “They are raping women and killing Muslims. From your talk you are polytheists.” The three drivers are taken to the side road and there is gunfire as they are murdered.

The armed opposition in Syria and Iraq is today dominated by Salafi jihadists, fundamentalist Islamic fighters committed to holy war. Those killing non-Sunni drivers on the Damascus-Baghdad road are an all too typical an example of this. Western governments may not care very much how many Shia die in Syria, Iraq or Pakistan, but they can see that Sunni movements with beliefs similar to the al-Qa’ida of Osama bin Laden, today have a base in Iraq and Syria far larger than anything they enjoyed in Afghanistan before 9/11 when they were subordinate to the Taliban.

The film shows the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants

The film shows the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants

The three Syrian truck drivers are pulled over

The three Syrian truck drivers are pulled over

All three are killed for not being Sunni Muslims

All three are killed for not being Sunni Muslims

The pretence that the Western-backed and supposedly secular Free Syrian Army was leading the fight to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad finally evaporated last December as jihadists overran their supply depots and killed their commanders.

In the past six months there have been signs of real anger in Washington at actions by Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf in supplying and financing jihadi warlords in Syria who are now so powerful. US Secretary of State John Kerry privately criticised Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of Saudi intelligence since 2012 and former Saudi ambassador in Washington, who had been masterminding the campaign to overthrow the Assad government.

He struck back by denouncing President Obama for not intervening militarily in Syria when chemical weapons were used against civilians.

Last month, it was revealed that Prince Bandar, while remaining intelligence chief, was no longer in charge of Saudi policy in Syria. He has been replaced by interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef, who gets on with the US and is chiefly known for his campaign against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the Saudi King Abdullah and head of the Saudi National Guard, will also play a role in formulating a new Syrian policy. Saudi Arabia’s differences with some of the other Gulf monarchies are becoming more explicit, with the Saudis, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar this month. This was primarily because of Qatar’s backing for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but also for its funding and supplying of out-of-control jihadi groups in Syria.

Saudi Arabia took over from Qatar as the main funder of the Syrian rebels last summer. But Saudi involvement is much deeper and more long term than this, with more fighters coming from Saudi Arabia than from any other country.

Saudi preachers call vehemently for armed intervention against Assad, either by individual volunteers or by states. The beliefs of Wahhabism, the puritanical literalist Saudi version of Islam, are not much different from those of al-Qa’ida or other Salafi jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Libya.

The Saudis have always ideologically opposed Shi’ism as a heresy, much as Roman Catholics in Reformation Europe detested and sought to eliminate Protestantism. This hostility goes back to the alliance between the Wahhabis and the House of Saud dating from the 18th century. But the key date for the development of the jihadist movements as political players is 1979, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini turned Iran into a Shia theocracy.

During the 1980s, an alliance was born between Saudi Arabia, Pakistan (or more properly the Pakistani army) and the US which has proved extraordinarily durable. It has been one of the main supports of American predominance in the region, but also provided a seed plot for jihadist movements of which Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida was originally only one strain.

The shock of 9/11 provided a Pearl Harbour moment in the US when public revulsion and fear could be manipulated to implement a pre-existing neo-conservative agenda by targeting Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq. A reason for waterboarding al-Qa’ida suspects was to extract confessions implicating Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia.

The 9/11 Commission report identified Saudi Arabia as the main source of al-Qa’ida financing. But six years after the attack – at the height of US-al-Qa’ida military conflict in Iraq in 2007 – Stuart Levey, the Under-Secretary of the US Treasury in charge of monitoring and impeding terror financing, told ABC News that, when it came to al-Qa’ida, “if I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia.” He added that not one person identified by the US or the UN as funding terrorism had been prosecuted by the Saudis.


Despite this high-level frustration at the Saudis for not cooperating, nothing much had improved a couple of years later. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in December 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks: “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorists groups.” She complained that in so far as Saudi Arabia did act against al-Qa’ida, it was as a domestic threat and not against its activities abroad.

The US Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, last week praised Saudi Arabia for progress in stamping out al-Qa’ida funding sources within its own borders, but said that other jihadist groups could access donors in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is not alone among the Gulf monarchies in supporting jihadists. Mr Cohen says sourly that “our ally Kuwait has become the epicentre for fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria”. He complains particularly of the appointment of Nayef al-Ajmi as both Minister of Justice and Minister of Islamic Endowments (Awqaf) and Islamic Affairs. He says: “Al-Ajmi has a history of promoting jihad in Syria. In fact, his image has been featured on fundraising posters for a prominent al-Nusra Front financier.” He adds that the Awqaf ministry has recently announced that fundraisers can now collect donations for the Syrian people at Kuwait mosques, opening the door wide to jihadist fundraisers.

A further point coming across strongly in leaked American diplomatic traffic is the extent to which the Saudis gave priority to confronting the Shia. Here the paranoia runs deep: take Pakistan, Saudi Arabia’s most important Muslim ally, of which a senior Saudi diplomat said that “we are not observers in Pakistan, we are participants”. Pre-9/11, only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had given official recognition to the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.

There is something hysterical and exaggerated about Saudi fear of Shia expansionism, since the Shia are only powerful in the handful of countries where they are in the majority or are a strong minority. Of 57 Muslim countries, just four have a Shia majority.

Nevertheless, the Saudis were highly suspicious of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and made clear they would have much preferred a military dictatorship in Pakistan. The reason for the dislike was sectarian, according to UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed who told the Americans that “Saudi Arabia suspects that Zardari is Shia, this creating Saudi concern of a Shia triangle in the region between Iran, the Maliki government in Iraq, and Pakistan under Zardari”.

Sectarian hostility to the Shia as heretics is combined with fear and loathing of Iran. King Abdullah continuously urged America to attack Iran and “cut off the head of the snake”. Rolling back the influence of the Shia majority in Iraq was another priority. Here was another reason why so many Saudis sympathised with the actions of jihadists in Iraq against the government.

The takeover of Iraq by a Shia government – the first in the Arab world since Saladin overthrew the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt in 1171 – had caused serious alarm in Riyadh and other Sunni capitals, whose rulers wanted to reverse this historic defeat. The Iraqi government noticed with alarm in 2009 that when a Saudi imam issued a fatwa calling on Shia to be killed that Sunni governments in the region were “suspiciously silent” when it came to condemning his statement.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 exacerbated sectarianism, not least in Saudi Arabia which is always highly conscious of its Shia minority in the Eastern Province. In March, 1,500 Saudi troops provided back up for the al-Khalifa royal family in Bahrain as they crushed pro-democracy protests by the Shia majority on the island, the openly sectarian nature of the clampdown underlined when Shia shrines were bulldozed.

In Syria, the Saudis believed that the Syrian government would be swiftly overwhelmed like that of Muammar Gaddafi. They underestimated its staying power and the support it was getting from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But Saudi involvement, along with that of Qatar and Turkey, de-emphasised secular democratic change as the ideology of the uprising, which then turned into a Sunni bid for power in which the Salafi jihadist brigades were the cutting edge of the revolt.

Predictably, the Alawites and other minorities feel they have no choice but to fight to the death.

Many nonsensical conspiracy theories have evolved, peddling the idea that the US government was somehow complicit in the 9/11 attacks. The very absurdity of these theories has diverted attention from the fact that in one sense there was a conspiracy, but it was quite open and never a secret.

The price of the triple alliance between the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan was the jihadi movement. So far, this is anti-Shia before it is anti-Western, but, as the Isis gunmen on the Damascus-Baghdad road showed, any non-Sunni is at risk.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Al Qaeda, Saudi Arabia 
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  1. Scott says:

    I have to strongly quibble with the use of the word “anarchy” in the subheading in relation to Syria. There is chaos, death, destruction and war in Syrai, to be sure, but it is not “anarchy.” Anarchy is the lack of a state or a ruler. There IS a state in Syria. There is also a group of people who WANTS to be the state in Syria. That’s the problem. It’s not anarchy; it’s criminal behavior by statists — as we’ve seen time and time again throughout history.

  2. traveler says:

    What a bunch of dirty animals, those dumb and nasty fighters.

  3. KA says: • Website

    “Many nonsensical conspiracy theories have evolved, peddling the idea that the US government was somehow complicit in the 9/11 attacks. ”

    When the criminal let his intention of removing Saddam be known and the reason stated as far as way back as 1979,when the same guy inserts itself in the administration again after conviction
    and repeats his intention of removing that regime along few other fitting one common aspect of otherwise diverse profile ,ignore the dangers that can possibly lead to American death and significant retaliation but diverts the resources or tries to diverts the resources of the agencies to the absent ,non existent danger from Saddam and after 911 points the gun and asks everybody to do so at Saddam from a powerful,authentic position —you don’t have an operator working on conspiracy ,by conspiracy through conspiracy- it is worst It is plain bold open statement that if opportunity of slim chances arises of adverse events against US, I would allow that by willful ignorance ,forceful diversion of resources to avert it,and then use that to remove Saddam.
    That was done by Wolfowitz. He was from same 1979 supported and nurtured and made available by Richard Perle who was stil active in 2001 parroting forcefully same line There were others adding their names to the project of removing Saddam and other regimes,writing letters in the media,urging government to remove Saddam . They all came together in 2000. None of them showed one ounce of interest in Al Quida before 911 ,all of them would blame Al Quida peripherally only in relation to Saddam before and after 911. While in Bush government they kept their gun dry for Saddam and again ignored the warnings and ridiculed the concerns of the inteligence about Al Quida.
    BTW WTC bombings were explained by Wolfowoyz as work of Saddam and not Al Quida , as well.
    Did they know in detail about 911? Does it matter ? when the actions they were planning based on any adverse events including a new Pearl Harbor ,were million times worse than 911 on rest of the world . These guys did not want to wait for any reason as their musings,urging s,pathetic obsession ith Saddam showed in various media appearances , newspaper writings,and constant urgings through the media openly and behind the scene through connection.

    Did they actually write the script of 911? No one has accused them yet of that. Did they want it. Yes ,they would have wanted anything as their fear that without one new Pearl Harbor ,they would not get the US riled up.
    Did they have pre knodledge ?
    One group had. They were deported,not followed up,and not investigated sincerely and thoroughly. The same group also hailed from Israel with open hatred against the same regime these guys within administration and think tanks were trying to remove. The person ( ADL ) with connection to the guys inside administration asked Fox News not to further expose,air,or follow the story of the Israeli angle.
    Did they ( within administration ) ignore the warnings? There are plenty of instances of that reality.
    It is not conspiracy theory. It is worst. They did not ever bother to look for any justification or cause to attack Saddam. Any excuse would have been fine as long as the excuse were of enough emotional stirrings for US citizen to get excited about. Some were aware of possible excuses and some ignored it. Both of these two ” some” were also connected by loyalty to the same cause

  4. KA says: • Website

    One of the fallout of the marriage between religion and politics in Saudi Arab is the result of conflating ‘heresy” with disloyalty or treason to the state.
    When Saudi claims to be custodian of religious sites and also supporters of the faith underpinning the prevalent religious views in Saud Arab, a slope of downward spiral is created that sees any religious disagreement as the opening for disagreement in other realms including royal politicis . Allowing the slope means the open discussion and disagreements have to be allowed giving rise to democratic reforms.
    So the fanaticism in S Arab is not going to disappear unless there are changes in political process. Same applies to Pakistan .

  5. nancy says:

    Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Gulf states, the US and the European Union are responsible for the killings of millions of innoccent people around the world. The gulf states believe that their oil money will stop the west from turning against one day, so they continue to support the west to disstablise the Muslim world and Africa.
    All those who have supported terrorism in Syria, God will rain hell on them. Syrians, Iragis and Libyans are dying every day because countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the west can choose who dies or lives. Millions of Syrians have been displaced or killed, for what? The gulf countries will one day drawn in their own oil because the blood of the innoccent will hunt them for generations to come.

  6. “Many nonsensical conspiracy theories have evolved, peddling the idea that the US government was somehow complicit in the 9/11 attacks. ”

    No, Mr Cockburn. It is people like you who systematically refuse to look at the evidence who peddle the nonsense. There are a great many legitimate questions about the events of 9/11 for which the most plausible explanation is that elements of the US agencies of state must have been either complicit or at the very least allowed it to happen.

    Denouncing such questions as “conspiracy theories” is a well known tactic to try and discredit those asking the questions without examining the basis upon which the questions were asked.

    Promoting such nonsense yourself of course distracts from what is otherwise a thoughtful article asking legitimate questions.

  7. Dave37 says:

    Seems like no matter what the US does the middle east will still want to fight each other to the death. Perhaps the Russians know better how to handle the growing threat to the world of a middle east war building itself toward the use of the ultimate nuclear weapon.

  8. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    P. Cockburn cannot be trusted. He systematically has supported the war waged by the west against the states in the middle east and north Africa. He supported genocide in Libya and now Syria. He supports the Kurds, a terrorist entily serving the interest of Israel and US in the region. His written misleading ‘articles’ goes hand in hand with MI6/CIA/Mossad propaganda. He goes after Sudi Arabia, US/Israel puppet, and leve US and Israel along. We are not stupid, we are not stupid. He like the war criminals in Washington and Britain calls “regime in Syria a dictator and brutal” yet refuses to call Obama regime a ditctator or brutal who have committed numerous war crimes against humanity. US/NATO/Israel have massacred 50000 people in Libya alone. Why don’t you hiding the facts agent?

  9. Chico says:

    Should have invaded Saudi Arabia, not Iraq after 9/11. After all, who was most responsible and when do we get to see the sealed parts of the 9/11 Commission report?

    How do they get away with it? Oil is not enough of an answer, the oil would still be there.

  10. quercus says:

    Those who mock what they call ‘conspiracy’ theory demonstrate an abysmal ignorance of history. One only has to look at Roman history and the murders of many of its emperors.
    There are unaswered questions about September 11th, and it is not all beyond possibility that people within our government may have had advance knowledge but chose not to act on it as an attack served our purposes, which it did, did it not?

    Mr. Cockburn places far too much importance on the role of religion in this violence. Religion is the excuse, the reasons are something else — power, money, economics ….. The crusades were not about religion, not really, may be the average schmuck thought he was fighting for his holy Church, but it was economics. The Muslims controlled the silk roads, over which great riches were coming into Europe, the merchants, elite, bankers, aristocracy, wanted a piece of that action, if not to control it entirely.

    I would like our country to cut loose Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, amongst others, and most especially the state of Israel.

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