Saudi Arabia’s get-out-of-terror-free card

February 24, 2015

Danny Katch examines the contradictions of a key strategic relationship for the U.S.

WHEN BARACK Obama convened a three-day "Countering Violent Extremism" summit, he and other world leaders once again ignored the elephant that plants itself squarely in the middle of any room where the U.S. policymakers discuss the "war on terror."

At the summit, Obama declared that "military force alone cannot solve this problem...We also have to confront the violent extremists--the propagandists, recruiters and enablers--who may not directly engage in terrorist acts themselves, but who radicalize, recruit and incite others to do so."

But all the attendees knew that neither the president nor any other U.S. political leader has any intention of confronting some of the most important and well-known enablers of violence and terrorism in the world: the ruling family of Saudi Arabia.

Two weeks before Obama's anti-terror summit, lawyers for family members of people who died in the September 11, 2001, attacks released the testimony of Zacarias Moussaoui--the so-called 20th hijacker, accused of plotting to help carry out the attacks. The most sensational aspect of the testimony in a civil suit deposition was that Moussaoui implicated prominent members of the Saudi ruling family as major donors to al-Qaeda in the years leading up to 9/11, including the country's intelligence chief and ambassador to the U.S.

Saudi King Salman
Saudi King Salman (Mazen AlDarrab)

U.S. officials denied Moussaoui's credibility, and it's true that some of his claims--such as his supposed conversation with a Saudi embassy staffer about shooting down Air Force One with a shoulder-fired missile--seem outlandish.

But Moussaoui would have to tell tall tales for another decade to even come close to matching the U.S. record on lying about Saudi Arabia's role in terrorism. For the past 12 years, the Bush and Obama administrations have kept under wraps the 28 pages covering Saudi Arabia in the report on the U.S. Senate investigation into 9/11. The report's lead author, former Sen. Bob Graham, claims that those pages "point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as the principal financier" in the 9/11 attack.

In other words, after more than a decade of the much-hyped "war on terror," it isn't the dozens of U.S. security agencies pursuing the roots of the 9/11 attacks, but a team of personal injury lawyers representing family members of the September 11 victims.

Add this to George W. Bush's declaration that Americans should respond to 9/11 by going to Disney World as evidence that the United States has become the strangest war-mongering empire in world history.

THE U.S. has long known about the deep connections between its Saudi ally and its al-Qaeda enemy. To take one of many examples, WikiLeaks released a U.S. embassy cable from 2009 in which then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Saudi Arabia a "critical source of terrorist funding."

The new Saudi monarch King Salman was himself the head of the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was busted in a NATO raid with "before-and-after photographs of al-Qaeda attacks, instructions on how to fake U.S. State Department badges, and maps marked to highlight government buildings across Washington."

When Bob Graham and fellow former Sen. Bob Kerrey went public in 2012 with their accusations that Saudi Arabia was directly involved in the September 11 attacks, the reaction in many media circles was not outrage but yawns. "This falls under the category of things you just don't want to know," said Wall Street investor Steven Rattner as a guest on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "The Saudis supply over 10 percent of the world's oil...They're a critical ally in many ways. And there are some things you just don't want to know."

Added Rattner's co-panelist Donny Deutch. "Were any of us surprised? The sad part is you go: yeah and--? I don't know where you go with this."

(This entire six minute clip is well worth watching, by the way, if for nothing else than to see how the hosts and guests smoothly transition from shrugging off the lies at the heart of U.S. foreign policy to joking about who has the biggest yacht and summer home.)

The stunning hypocrisy of these blasé reactions is pretty clear, but let's spell it out nonetheless.

To begin with, U.S. officials don't want to reveal information in the 9/11 investigation because it might embarrass their Saudi allies, but they have no problem shredding the civil liberties of ordinary Muslims and Arabs on the flimsiest evidence of the most tenuous ties to supposed terrorist groups.

For example, Florida professor Sami Al-Arian was recently deported after spending over a decade in prison on trumped-up charges that he used a Muslim school and charity to fundraise for terrorist groups--even though the one jury he faced refused to convict him of any charges!

Then there is Syed Fahad Hashmi, a Queens student who is in prison on a 10-year sentence for allegedly allowing a "visitor use his cell phone and stay at his student apartment with luggage containing ponchos and waterproof socks that were to be transported to al-Qaeda in Pakistan."

Or there's the fact that leading U.S. politicians and security officials have sought to reverse centuries of civilizational progress, and make torture an acceptable method of interrogation--with the justification that it is necessary to prevent future attacks by exposing networks of terrorists.

Meanwhile, many of these same government personnel know all about the terror networks that involve their ruling class friends in Saudi Arabia, but they refuse to reveal this information to the public. Should 9/11 family members have a right to water-board to force them to talk?

SOME PEOPLE point to the Saudi connections to terror networks to conclude that the U.S. isn't pursuing its "war on terror" widely enough. But this misses the point entirely.

On that same episode of Morning Joe, another guest lamented what he viewed as the moral quandary of the U.S.-Saudi relationship: "We rely on them for something that we need. But we don't share anything else in common with them in terms of values or the things they do."

This is the age-old colonialist mentality that it's the backward natives who force the white man to sink down to their level. It's the tradition that then-Vice President Dick Cheney invoked after 9/11 when he warned that U.S. agents would have to use torture because that's the "dark side" where the enemy operates.

In fact, the torture used by U.S. interrogators in Guantanamo and other detention centers didn't come from the Muslim world, but from America's own long history of imperialism and racist policing.

A recent Guardian investigation found that one of the most infamous torturers in Guantánamo was Richard Zuley, who learned his skills over decades as a Chicago police officer, using coercion to extract confessions from mostly Black suspects.

But that makes Zuley only the second-most-famous police torturer from Chicago--after former CPD Commander Jon Burge, who oversaw the torture of over 200 Black and Latino suspects, using techniques he learned back in the 1970s while serving in the Vietnam War.

Perhaps even more to the point, it was the U.S. that played an even more fundamental role in the creation of al-Qaeda.

After seeing its position in the Middle East threatened in 1979 by the Iranian Revolution and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA, in conjunction with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, assembled and trained the forces that have become the foundation for Islamic fundamentalist terror networks around the world. As author and academic Mahmood Mamdani wrote:

The grand plan of the Reagan administration was two-pronged. First, it drooled at the prospect of uniting a billion Muslims around a holy war, a Crusade, against the evil empire. I use the word Crusade, not Jihad, because only the notion of Crusade can accurately convey the frame of mind in which this initiative was taken. Second, the Reagan administration hoped to turn a religious schism inside Islam, between minority Shia and majority Sunni, into a political schism. Thereby, it hoped to contain the influence of the Iranian Revolution as a minority Shia affair.

This is the context in which an American/Saudi/Pakistani alliance was forged, and religious madrasas turned into political schools for training cadres. The Islamic world had not seen an armed Jihad for centuries. But now the CIA was determined to create one.

In other words, the forces that make up al-Qaeda and ISIS might look to ancient scriptures for inspiration, but their formation was a modern project, influenced as much by the U.S. "values" of oil extraction and world domination as by religious texts. The point of exposing Saudi connections to terror networks is not that Saudi Arabia is the root of most terrorism, but that the United States is.

A DIFFERENT mistaken conclusion about the U.S.-Saudi relationship--this one held by some antiwar activists--is that Saudi Arabia is a puppet under complete American control. In fact, the relationship between the two countries is filled with tensions and contradictions, as author Deepa Kumar explained in the International Socialist Review:

The United States is caught in a contradiction. On the one hand, the phrase "war on terror" is clearly and consistently associated with Islam. No one includes in the war on terror the idea of combating the violent Christian Right that engages in attacks on abortion clinics, or the far-right militias, of whom Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, was a supporter. On the other hand, the United States must insist that it is not at war with Islam as a religion, since some of its most important allies, including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Egypt, are majority Muslim states. Islamophobia helps to win support for overseas adventures and to stifle dissent at home, but at the same time, it threatens friendly relations with important allies in the "war on terror."

The Saudi government faces the flip side of the contradiction. It is propped up ideologically by the rigid Wahabist strain of Islam and materially by the U.S. military--two forces that are often at odds. Like Pakistan in some ways--although quite different in others--Saudi Arabia is caught between being a pillar in the U.S. "war on terror" and maintaining credibility with the jihadist groups that have turned against the U.S.

One of the reasons that the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 was to use the imperialist momentum after 9/11 to end its contradictory relationship with Saudi Arabia by creating a new regime that could be its main ally in the region. In a 2005 interview, commentator Juan Cole pointed out that many of the planners of that war hoped to "replace Saudi Arabia with Iraq as a pillar of the U.S. security establishment in the Middle East." Iraq, with its vast oil deposits, was to be the new strategic center of U.S. power in the region.

The U.S. failure to create a stable puppet regime in Iraq has only increased its reliance on Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the massive destruction that the U.S. unleashed in its invasion and occupation of Iraq, and during the subsequent Sunni-Shia civil war, created the conditions for new terror groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq and its successor, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

As Boston-area socialist Sofia Arias wrote in a comment on Facebook, if ISIS is preaching a return to the way of life in the 7th century when Islam was born, it is the U.S. government that has materially plunged Iraq back by centuries by "bombing Iraq back to the Stone Age," as James Baker, the Secretary of State under George Bush Sr., threatened on the eve of the first Gulf War in 1991.

A quarter-century of continuous U.S. warfare in one form or another has transformed Iraq from a developing industrialized country to one of the poorest nations on earth. Its infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world, and most children don't attend school.

Whatever clash of values and interests exist between the rulers of the U.S. and of Saudi Arabia, they pale in comparison to the clash of interests between each ruling class and their populations.

The desire for democracy and self-determination is not a "Western" value, but a people's value--as the uprisings of the Arab Spring demonstrated. The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia shows that its war on terror is not against terror, but against those who threaten its domination--with terrorism the convenient pretext for attacking some, while leaving others alone.

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