May 22, 2003

May 22, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

Ending Appeasement in the Kingdom

"An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last," Winston Churchill once said. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is learning this the hard way. After decades of appeasing Islamic extremism in the heart of the Arab world -- and believing such a policy essentially immunized it against terrorism -- it's reeling from an unexpected, painful bite.

On May 13, several Saudi-born operatives of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network stunned the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with a suicide bombing that killed 20 and wounded hundreds including Saudi Muslims. More attacks in the holiest of Muslim lands by entrenched al Qaeda cells appear likely, prompting Riyadh officials to raise their terrorism alert to its highest level.

After successes in Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq, the war on terrorism has landed squarely on Saudi Arabia's doorstep. Regrettably, this comes as no surprise.

For years, the Saudis have tolerated Islamic radicals. They turned a blind eye to the fundamentalist Wahhabi branch of Islam, which preaches violence and exports extremism and hatred worldwide through mosques and madrassas (Islamic religious schools). They allowed Saudi charitable organizations to fund terrorism abroad.

Of course, we should remember that Osama bin Laden is Saudi and that as many as 10,000 of his countrymen fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan. No one knows how many of the more than 80,000 individuals who passed through al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan were Saudi. But we know 15 of the Sept. 11th hijackers were among them.

Long in denial about militancy in its homeland, the Saudi royal family finds itself in the terrorist crosshairs. It must, once and for all, directly confront its homegrown extremists and root them out. For Islamic fundamentalism poses a grave threat not only to the West, but to the Saudi kingdom as well.

The Saudi government should immediately increase security at likely civilian targets and act more decisively on intelligence tips. Ignoring even one request from U.S. officials for better security before last week's attack would have been bad enough; the Saudis ignored five.

It was no one-time lapse. Saudi authorities have been uncooperative in investigating past attacks against Americans, including the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, which killed 19 airmen, and the Sept. 11th attacks. The kingdom reportedly spirited a number of its citizens out of the United States after 9/11 before it could be determined if they had information about the hijackers.

This time, Saudi mabaheth (terrorist police) should cooperate fully with the United States and grant full access to suspects, witnesses and evidence on the bombings. Any leads that result could be critical in preventing future attacks.

But more must be done. Riyadh should shut off the unregulated flow of money leaving Saudi Arabia for the pockets of terrorists. A report submitted to the U.N. Secretary General by an independent consultant on terrorism financing shows that, over the last decade, Saudi "religious charities" have channeled up to $500 million to terrorist groups including al Qaeda and Hamas, which orchestrated the recent suicide bombings in Israel.

Inhibiting the flow of cash is crucial. Terrorism needs capital, and it can spread misery fairly cheaply: The 9/11 operation cost al Qaeda approximately $500,000 to conduct. Since then, approximately $134 million in terrorist money has been identified and frozen worldwide -- a fraction of the total amount available to finance such attacks. As long as terrorists have money, they're deadly.

Saudi officials also should crack down on the terrorists and their supporters. They can start by dismantling the pervasive radical Islamist infrastructure in the Kingdom that has propagated the ideology of hatred and terror at home and abroad, including the mosques and the militant media organizations.

Addressing the root causes of terrorism is also important, and that means the kingdom must reform its social and political system. Declining living standards, increasing unemployment and the lack of basic civil liberties fuel the engine of terrorism. The Saudi people deserve a more open and accountable government.

Nineteen months into the anti-terrorism war, Saudi Arabia is finally getting a wake-up call: No one is immune. The Saudis have pledged their full cooperation in the war on terrorism -- and the world deserves nothing less. It's high time we bagged this crocodile.

Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, is a senior fellow for national security affairs at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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