hunting bin laden
Said K. Aburish

He is a Palestinian-born journalist and author of many books on the Middle East, including The Rise, Corruption, and Coming Fall of the House of Saud. He talks about Osama bin Laden's roots in Saudi Arabia's dissident movement--a movement which seeks to drive 'infidel' U.S. forces out of the Saudi kingdom, the land of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina.
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... When I was looking through your book, I was somewhat surprised at the way you equated the House of Saud with Saddam Hussein ...

said k. aburishWell, the House of Saud is not terribly different from Saddam['s regime]. ... People still disappear in the middle of the night in Saudi Arabia. And people are imprisoned without being charged. And people have no voice in the running of the government. And they have squandered the country's wealth. ...

But, naively maybe, those of us sitting in the United States looking out towards the Middle East and Saudi Arabia, we see oil, Mercedes ...

... They do have oil. A considerable amount of oil. But they have not used their income wisely. And they have squandered all of their reserves. And as a result in this moment in time, the country is not only broke, they are heavily in debt. And ... that debt has become a big burden for them.

If they are willing to sacrifice themselves, then they will be able to carry out operations similar to Nairobi and other places in the future.   I believe they are willing to sacrifice themselves.  So we should expect more operations of that kind.In the meanwhile, since the hey day of OPEC and forty dollars a barrel of oil, the population of Saudi Arabia has increased by about 70 percent. So we have a situation where the per capita income has declined [from] over $14,000 a year to about $4,500 a year. ... There are poor people [in Saudi Arabia.] There are shanty towns. There are people who have not benefited from the oil. There are people who do not go to school because there [aren't too many] schools. There are people who do not get medical care because there are not enough hospitals. There is poverty in Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt about it.

So it's not the subsidized oil paradise that we think of?

It is not the oil paradise we think of or spoke of. It never was that. ... Because since the 60s there have been so many attempt to overthrow that government and to rebel. We don't hear about them because Saudi Arabia is a different place. Saudi Arabia is not they type of place where people march down the street with [placards]. They express themselves differently. Their occupation of Buraydah about three years ago was tantamount to an open rebellion against the regime.

Buraydah's a city?

Buraydah's a city of about a 150,000 people. The Islamic [fundamentalists] self divided. They raised the flag of Islam. They went to the top of the minarets and [summoned] against the House of [Saud]. And it took 48 hours for the Saudi National Guard to subdue it. That was open rebellion. If we close our eyes and think of what happened in Al Khobar and the blowing up of the American compound--that would have been unthinkable about six or seven years ago. But it happened. Or the attack on the military mission in Riyadh, which is the capital of the country. That would have been unthinkable. These are expressions of unrest within the country. Conditions within the country are conducive to that. They are unwell. And because there is oppression and [suppression], the only way the people in the country can express themselves is violently. And this is what we're getting at this moment in time.

Most of this violence or rebellion has the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism behind it?

There is nothing else in Saudi Arabia at this moment in time, in terms of political movements, except Islamic fundamentalism. The regime itself is a fundamentalist regime when it comes internal policy, to the behavior of women. They cannot move unaccompanied by relatives, husbands or brothers. ... But in terms of foreign policy, it differs from the Islamic fundamentalist movements that we know because it is a regime that is friendly to the west, and the other fundamentalist movements are not friendly to the west. That is where the difference is. The difference is over foreign policy and over oil policy. ...

So given the violent Islamic fundamentalist uprisings in Saudi Arabia, it then becomes a little clearer where bin Laden comes from.

Osama bin Laden is the prophet of these movements. And Osama bin Laden is much more interesting than most of them because Osama bin Laden belongs to a family that is part of the ruling establishment in Saudi Arabia. And therefore it is an indication of how bad things have got, when a member of the establishment becomes a radical Islamist against the regime. He comes from a very wealthy family. He comes from a family that benefited from the oil. And yet he is unhappy with the foreign policy of the country. Osama bin Laden's first demand is that the American troops [in] Saudi Arabia should leave the holy soil of Islam.

Explain that to me. I thought the American troops were in Saudi Arabia to defend Saudi Arabia against invasion. Why wouldn't they be happy to see them there?

The American troops in Saudi Arabia are supposed to be there to protect Saudi Arabia against invasion. The people of Saudi Arabia do not accept this theory. They do not feel threatened by outside forces. The traditional outside forces that threatened Saudi Arabia are Iran and Iraq. Iran at this moment in time is inward looking. They have their own problems. And Iraq is really a toothless [tiger]. So they do not see the danger. They do not see the need for the presence of American troops. And the second thing, American troops are mostly, I suspect, Christian. And therefore they should not be there. Because this is holy Islamic soil. An infidel should not be camped on holy Islamic soil. ... Religiously, their presence is unacceptable. ...

[American troops were] ostensibly to defend Saudi Arabia against external dangers. That was the original reason. I think that was redefined and refined by President Reagan, who said that the United States was committed to protecting Saudi Arabia against "external and internal dangers." He added internal to the dangers. That means that the United States of America is committed to defending the House of Saud against any internal political movement that might want to get rid of it. Or perhaps even reform it. ... [American troops are] now perceived as a presence to defend the royal family and the system of governments that exist under the royal family. And since the system is becoming less acceptable by the day, then the danger of an attempt to overthrow this regime, and a confrontation with the United States, is also growing by the day. And when they ... want to attack the House of Saud, they attack the Americans. Through attacking the American barracks and the American training center in Riyadh, the attackers achieved a dual purpose. They attacked their own government and they attacked the protectors of their own government. ...

So if bin Laden or his supporters or allies attack the United States, in their minds they're also attacking the House of Saud?

Oh, without any doubt. ... I think attacking the United States is attacking both at the same time. ...

What is the great motivation to change the foreign policy of the country?

A great many things. I mean, the number one issue with Osama bin Laden is that American troops should just leave Saudi Arabia. The second demand that bin Laden has in his long list of demands, is ... that there should be a Muslim Jerusalem where Islamic holy places are protected. He feels very strongly that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not doing enough about this subject. ... The rest of the problems he mentions, about the setting up of Islamic governments in other places and the change in policy of these places and Islamic unity against the rest of the world, they are religious in nature ... [and] they effect the structure of global power politics. ...

[Bin Laden also objects] to the way the royal family behaves. Bin Laden and the Islamic fundamentalist groups are not happy with the fact that the royal family takes so much of the country's income and at a time when the price of oil is down and when the country's income has declined to the point where they have to borrow money all the time. ...

[What strata of Saudi society support bin Laden?]

The support [for] bin Laden comes from all levels of society in Saudi Arabia. There are members of the House of Saud who belong to Islamic fundamentalist groups. And I don't want to mention any names for obvious reasons. But there are some of them who have been suspected of being involved with these groups to the extent of funding them. So this is not a movement that is the offspring of poverty or anything of this sort. This is a political program. A political attitude. And it does include members of the royal family. ...

So when we announce publicly in the United States that bin Laden--as president Clinton says--is the personification of evil and that we're going to go out and try to kill him, we shouldn't be surprised if he becomes a folk hero in his own country?

I think to some people he is already a folk hero ... . I think you have a fellow there in Afghanistan sort of hiding away from the only superpower in the world. He's become somewhat of a Robin Hood ... sort of an attractive, revolutionary figure in the middle of nowhere. What do you have to do to avoid capture by the United States or being killed by the United States? You have to have something special to be able to do that. And this is the way people look at him. That does not mean, by the way, that they approve of his ways. He's just become somewhat of a romantic hero to many of them. Some indeed do approve of his ways. But that's a small group of people.

The Saudi government appears--in particularly their intelligence apparatus and police apparatus--to be hunting him and his followers.

king fahdI'm not sure that the Saudi government is out to capture Osama bin Laden. Not that they would be capable of doing it. The last thing the Saudi government wants at this moment in time is to try bin Laden, find him guilty and execute him. That would make him more of a hero. The Saudi government has great many problems. Many of them economic. Many of them in terms of the behavior of the members of the family. Many of them have to do with foreign policy. Their influence in the Muslim and the Arab world has declined considerably since the 70s. They are in the business of survival. And if capturing Osama bin Laden, trying him, and executing him is going to diminish their popular base in the country, then they would rather not do it. They don't want that problem.

How do you explain their alleged visit to the Taliban asking them to expel him?

Well, like any other government in the world, the Saudi government has to go through some motions. ... We don't know what went on during that visit, how much pressure they really put on the Taliban to get Osama bin Laden back. Saudi Arabia operates in very, very mysterious ways. I mean, we don't know why the Saudis at this moment in time are not sharing information with the United States of America about the bombing of the American compound in Al Khobar. They announced on two or three occasions that they knew who the perpetrators were. And yet the FBI and Janet Reno and everybody else has said we're not getting any cooperation from them. Why aren't we getting any cooperation from Saudi Arabia? This is a very interesting question indeed. Did the people who carried out this bombing have any connection with the Saudi government? Would that expose the weakness of the Saudi government in terms of this connection? Perhaps. We don't know. ...

When we started out we were talking about the Saudis and Saddam being similar. We really are talking about a totally closed society. I know that we can't get cameras in just to film on the street.

In Saudi Arabia, it is against the law to take pictures in a public place. Not only for foreigners but also for a Saudi citizen. The only time you can take a picture is inside your own house. ... We are talking about a closed society. We are talking about a closed country. We are talking about a country that guards its reputation to a great extent, and spends a lot of money doing that. We are talking about a country that does not want outside influences to sort of infect their society. Because inevitably these outside influences would include calls for human rights, equality, democracy and things of this sort that the House of Saud is not about to tolerate. So they want to cut off the country from the rest of the world. Now the big question--is that possible in this day and age? Because all we have to do is put a television dish on top of your roof and you get news from all over the world. I don't think it is possible. And this is why they are out of step. And being out of step means they're in trouble.

But then the revolutionary or resistant movement--let's say as expressed by bin Laden--wants to be even more restrictive.

... Islamic movements want to be more restrictive in terms of some policies but not in terms of the internal policy. Because that is already in place. If the Islamists, or the Islamic fundamentalists as they are better known, are to take over Saudi Arabia tomorrow, there would be very little change in terms of the Sharia laws that govern the behavior of the people inside the country. Because the letter of these laws is being applied at this moment in time. If you see any flesh between the hem of a woman's dress and her shoes, that woman is punished on the spot by the religious police who carry sticks especially for this purpose. ... They still believe in beheading people in public places. This is their way of punishing people for capital crimes. They still believe in amputating people's arms. This is Islamic law applied to the N'th degree. I cannot see what Osama bin Laden would do to make it more strict. It is as strict as Iran. It is as strict as any Islamic country in the world. ...

You mentioned the bin Laden family profiting off the oil and bin Laden being a member of this prosperous family. Can you give a thumb nail sketch of the bin Laden family? Their role in Saudi Arabia?

The bin Laden family is originally from ... a part of the Yemen called Hadramout. And the Hadramoutis used to be the merchants in Saudi Arabia. So it's an old merchant family that was trading before the discovery of oil and the benefit of the big jump in oil prices in the 70s. But they were there on the ground. And they had a construction company. And the government was so much in need of companies to undertake standard development targets, that the bin Laden company was one of the big ones they called on to take these projects. And they benefited hugely. We're talking about a family that may very well be worth over a billion dollars. And Osama is from the main branch. He is the son of the former owner. He is one of the heirs to this huge fortune. And ... this is indicative of where things are ... it is not limited, this movement of Islamic fundamentalism, to poor people. It is not a social movement as such. It is a political movement aimed at changing the foreign policy of the country. ...

If I understand, the bin Laden family rebuilt the major mosques in Mecca and Medina... . They are basically the Bechtels of Saudi Arabia?

Well, one of the Bechtels of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, they are large contractors ... they have been involved in programs to rebuild the mosques throughout the kingdom. ...

So they're an integral part of the Saudi royal family's entourage?

Very, very close. ... The House of Saud does not award huge construction contracts except to friends. So you can assume through analyzing the amount of contracts or the number of contracts the bin Laden family received over the years, that they were close to the royal family. And they are still getting business from the royal family. So Osama is one off. He's a renegade. He's an outsider in the family. And, this should be understood, that he does not represent the bin Laden family. Nor does he have access to the money of the bin Laden family. He has access to a small share of it, which he has already taken out of the family pot. And that money is no where near the numbers that have been banded around in terms of hundreds of millions of dollars.

He's not worth 250 million dollars?

I do not believe so. I believe the most that Osama bin Laden took out of Saudi Arabia is probably somewhere between 30 and 40 million dollars. But he is happy for people to think that he took 250 million dollars out. Or 500 million dollars out. Because then he does not have to answer the question of, "Where does the money to support his operations come from?" ... He gives the impression that he's paying for it himself. In fact, I believe that money comes from inside Saudi Arabia, from other people who belong to merchant families. And perhaps from members of the royal family itself.

When he was building the road in Sudan--when he had his construction company in Sudan--some of the financing came out of the Saudi national commercial bank.

Yes. ...

Is that what you're talking about?

Well, I'm talking about that, [but] that was open financing. That was a business transaction. We cannot complain about that. No. I'm talking about secret money that goes into the conference of bin Laden as donations. As political support for what Osama bin Laden stands for. That is illegal. ...

You're saying that the illegal flow of money out of Saudi Arabia to support bin Laden...

... is probably taking place at this moment in time and we don't know who's behind it. Two and a half years ago, the Saudi government enacted a law which was curious and which nobody noticed. It said [that] any donations made to Islamic groups throughout the world must be registered and cleared with the Emir of Riyadh. ... This was the first time they called for something like that. And the reason they called for that is because they were worried where Saudi donations were going to. ...

What was the role of the Afghan war in building up this fundamentalist movement and its militarization?

The fundamentalist movement started, really, in a big way, after 1967, after the Arab defeat in 1967 when King Faisal, on behalf of Saudi Arabia, assumed the leadership of the Arab and Muslim world. ... Because Saudi Arabia was rich and was able to pay enough countries to follow it. This encouraged a great many groups and societies and the World Muslim Conference and people like that to start operating all over the place. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan, in a strange way, the Muslim world was ready to respond to them because they ha[d] these organizations on the ground. And when volunteers trekked [to] Afghanistan from all of these countries, including Saudi Arabia, and the government of course supported them directly and supported them in terms of encouraging people to donate to the mujahedeen cause in Afghanistan, what happened is the people who went to Afghanistan became radicalized. They assumed a political role above and beyond the original purpose of facing the Russians. They wanted to go back home and have a say about how things were being done in their own countries. And that is really what happened to Osama bin Laden. And then that sense of camaraderie--it's just like the people who fought in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s--bound them together, and you have these affiliations. ... It is probably the one place where the Muslims met in a serious way for the first time in the past five decades. You have bin Laden communicating and cooperating with people from Morocco, people from Malaysia, people [from] Indonesia--people from other places. And they found common grounds. Which is unhappiness with the systems of government of the countries from where they came. And this aided and abetted the creation of smaller groups. And of course the groups that were supporting them financially were already on the ground. And the governments were very slow to wake up and to stop the flow of money to them after they became radicalized. Took them a long time to realize what is happening to their boys in the field.

If I understand what you're saying, beginning with the opposition to the communists and to Arab socialism, the Saudis helped build up Islamic fundamentalist movements through out the Arab world.

Very much so.

Those groups then in turn were natural recruits or recruiting grounds for the opposition to the Soviet Union's invasion in Afghanistan.

Correct, sir. ... Those groups have developed a new purpose, which is to get rid of their creators, essentially. If Saudi Arabia and the other countries were the countries that sponsored their creation, then those groups are rebelling against their creators.

Would it be correct to say that the way you look at what's happening is that, in a way, Nairobi is just the beginning?

Nairobi is an expression of something that exists and will continue to exist with or without bin Laden. The Islamic groups that are committed to violence have stripped into tiny little groups of about 30 people each. They don't know a great deal about each other. So if you eliminated one, another one would operate somewhere else. They are spread throughout the Middle East in the Islamic world. They are unafraid. I remember a former Jordanian prime minister saying, "How do you frighten someone who thinks he's going to heaven if you chop his head off?" It's a good question. If they are willing to sacrifice themselves, then they will be able to carry out operations similar to Nairobi and other places in the future. And I believe they are willing to sacrifice themselves. So we should expect more operations of that kind. ...

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