Saudi Time Bomb?
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interview: norb garrett

...What happened in Egypt? How did you become aware of the role of these charitable organizations as part of radical Isalmic fundamentalism?

I think it happened during the course of the trial of those accused of killing Sadat.

This is the assassination of President Sadat?

The assassination of President Sadat. In the course of a lot of information becoming available... I think it became known for the first time, to me, at least, the extent to which people such as those who were involved in Sadat's murder were also beneficiaries of monies that were raised in support of Islamic charities.

These are like non-profit religious charities?

I think they're non-profit. They were at that time. I think it was more or less in the earliest stages of the charity system, when they basically functioned as a substitute, or as a replacement, for government programs. Or at least this is the way they were described in the most positive sense.

Islamic charities took the place of government shortfalls. In other words, in governments where there were accusations of corruption, goods designed to get to certain people which never got there because of ripoffs at one place or another, the Islamic charities were supposedly established in order to fulfill a need. And they were built up around mosques. They were the madrassa system, the idea of government support to Islamic support, in and around the mosques themselves. I think [it] first came to my knowledge, at least, at that time.


A 29-year veteran of the CIA, he was chief of its East Asia division. Garrett currently is president of business investigations and intelligence for the Kroll Risk Management Company. He talks about the role of charitable organizations in funding terrorist groups, Wahhabism, the stability of the Saudi government, and why, for internal political reasons, the Saudi regime's public pronouncements may not reflect what is being done privately. This interview was conducted Nov. 1, 2001.

... It's consistent with the whole thought process of a good Muslim that he has to give, or that he has to support the needy. I think what's happened over the years, though, as one has watched the charities evolve, is that they have turned into ... fundraising mechanisms that are used in the international context, in the service of the growth of Islam, sort of a proselytizing sort of Islam. And there, you get larger-scale contributions. And the potential for misdirecting money, or for using it in a way which crosses the line from social welfare into political purposes -- it becomes more possible at that level. ...

Change [in Saudi Arabia] is dealt with by keeping a balancing act between the demands of the right and the demands of the left and the demands of foreign policy.  Given all your years in the Middle East, how would you describe Wahhabism, or the Saudi version of Islam? Is it fundamentalist, in the sense that we think of certain forms of Baptists are more fundamentalist than others? Or how would you describe it to someone who has very little familiarity with Islamic thought or practice?

I think you know it's difficult to do it in the context of a couple sentences. But I think Wahhabism is an ascetic version of Islam. It comes from the desert, grew out of the central part of Saudi Arabia, and emphasizes very much a right and a wrong, black-and-white version of life. It also has very strong views upon the role of women in society. It tends to lay down, I think, a more orthodox understanding of the hadifs, the stories in--

The hadifs are the stories in the Koran?

Yes, in the Koran, where there's an interpretation that doesn't leave much doubt as to what those hadifs mean. And I think it's because it grew in Saudi Arabia and wasn't exposed very much, if at all, to outside ideas, it wasn't modified, or it didn't... There was no reformed Wahhabism.

You saw other versions of Islam spread across North Africa and in the south of Spain very much influenced by local traditions. A lot more liberal -- a lot more, as I say, maybe reformed -- in a way. And the same is true of Islam, as it as it grew maybe into Southeast Asia where women very rarely wear veils. It just wouldn't be acceptable. ...

Back to the charities. You first became aware of them, and [that] there's some connection to Islamic fundamentalism and extremism, in Egypt in the 1980s. Based on your investigations since then, what does their role seem to be in the current crisis that we have with Islamic extremism?

Where they seem to have been transformed over the course of that period of time ... from being organizations which, in their basic form, were sources for change in social welfare, into being charities which could fund Islamic organizations which had political goals.

This, I think, has been the major change in the last 20 years. To some extent, it grows out of the Afghan war, which I think highly popularized the notion of the strength of Islam. Islam defeated one of the world's two superpowers. A lot of people thought that was certainly unexpected; must be God's will. And therefore, it's worth contributing, or furthering the causes of those responsible for defeating atheistic communism. ...

Trying to do financial investing in this part of the world is not very easy, is it?

No. Financial investigative activity in any part of the world where you have trouble with public record sources, you are [going to] have difficulty getting a decent start. You're also handicapped somewhat by the closeness of the societies, particularly in the Arab Gulf, where banks' potential sources -- people who are former employees who would be otherwise people who one might like to speak to about matters that took place in one's banking institution years back -- are very reluctant to talk to outsiders. It's very much, as I say, if not family, it's extended family, and it's tribal, even today. So one finds oneself at certainly a disadvantage.

Then you have the additional lack of familiarity with what we would call accepted Western business practices. For example, the concept of due diligence before a deal is consummated often doesn't happen. People will trust the word of somebody, based upon knowledge of the family, based upon knowledge of the head man in the family, or whatever. The paper trail sometimes just doesn't exist, because they don't believe it's necessary.

That's certainly not true all the time. And there are very sophisticated deals that take place in the Gulf, where lawyers are around, and deals are no less formal and no less structured than they are anyplace else in the world. But in other instances, we find that that isn't the case.

So tracing money, how it got there, where it went... It ... has another order of magnitude to it, in terms of difficulty?

Yes. It's much more difficult to trace money in and out of that part of the world, than it is in typical European banking, North American European banking systems.

What is an Islamic bank?

Well, an Islamic bank is one which deals according to Koranic principles of lending.

So the religious rules of the Koran guide its financial activity?

That's correct. The payment of interest, for example, is contrary to Islamic principles. So Islamic banks get around that in ways which are in conformity with Koranic ideas, with the sharia law. But it nonetheless is not, in fact, formal payment of interest. ...

... What's the risk assessment of Saudi Arabia?

First, I think there's no question [that] the government itself is firmly in control of the situation. They're not about to let the situation slip beyond its own control. We don't look for any sort of unforeseen explosion.

"We" means Kroll?

Meaning Kroll.

When you advise major corporations or investors, you say, "Don't worry, it's not the Shah of Iran."

We say, "You shouldn't be worried about any sort of explosive activity. Whatever change takes place in Saudi, we believe is likely to take place slowly." There is opposition. And it's increased since 1991, since the Gulf War.

The positioning of American forces in Saudi Arabia has been an issue that's genuine, and I think which has led a lot of people to feel as though the government has let them down. The government's supposed to be the protector the two most holy places of Islam. And now you have infidel troops stationed in that land. And it has a meaning that's, I think for the most of us, very difficult for us to appreciate.

I can't fully grasp it, but it does have that effect upon a believing Muslim, particularly a Saudi Arabian. So the opposition has increased. The opposition's more vocal. They're outside the country more. There are Saudi oppositions now in London. There are some in this country.

But I think it's a gradual process of change. I haven't spoken to anybody who believes that the young men who blew themselves up on the operation on Sept. 11 were representative of the opposition in Saudi Arabia. These are extremists. These are people who would be outside ... no matter which country they happen to come from, who are attracted to allying themselves with the organization which performed this operation for reasons which are a lot more personal than they are having to do with any particular grievance they might have with their own government.

Now, bin Laden's message about the corruption in Saudi Arabia and the ruling family, their role in allowing infidel troops to remain in Saudi Arabia -- is that powerful? I think it is fairly powerful. It's been a good way to appeal to a broader base than just what he may have been seeking to appeal to, which has kind of revolutionary elements.

But the government is not about to topple? It's not in any serious financial trouble or...

No. In the last in the last 10, 15 years, it's also gone through some economic setbacks. A lot of a lot of young educated Saudis are returning to Saudi Arabia and are not finding good jobs. Their population has grown significantly, and a lot of young Saudis looking for things to do with their lives. This will lead to, I suspect, an increasing amount of questioning of the authority of the Saudi ruling family.

But in the past -- and I suspect we're saying this is going to be the case in the immediate future -- change is dealt with slowly, but it's dealt with. It's dealt with by keeping a balancing act between the demands of the right and the demands of the left and the demands of foreign policy. And I think the Saudi government has been successful at it. ...

If you were advising the president of the United States about what's going on in Saudi Arabia, in particular, and the region...

... What's changed probably in the last 20 years is the need for friendly Arab government coalition partners, and the voice and the importance of the views of those coalition partners on issues that are important to them.

Therefore, the one issue which is obviously the most important to them is the Palestine-Israeli question. What one would be able to say, probably, is that as a result of this, the Egypts and Saudi Arabias, the Jordans -- the moderate Arab countries -- are going to be having a greater amount of say, or at least they're going to have their views heard perhaps even more clearly than ever before in terms of American beliefs policy.

Will it change anything? That's anybody's guess. But I think that would probably be the view that you hear being represented by America's officials serving in the Gulf and the rest of the Middle East.

So when Crown Prince Abudullah sends a letter to George W. Bush saying, "This may be a time, a crossroads when we have to go our separate way," that's something new?

It's something new. I think that's [new] indeed, if it gets to that point. One hopes that... It's been a kind of a pillar of our relationship with Saudi Arabia that you have your discussions open enough. Your relationship is friendly enough that it never gets to the point where American policy and Saudi policy on the Middle East are so far out of sync that it comes to the breaking point.

But [if] that's the message that Crown Prince Abudullah is delivering now, then clearly he's taking the opportunity to stress the movement of some chips across the table.

Is that why we don't see the Saudis, if you will, jumping up publicly to back us in what we're doing in Afghanistan and in other matters related to this crisis?

Perhaps one reason. And the other reason is, I think, the less that they are quoted and the less they're heard and the less they are forced to say in the public domain, the less inflammatory their role in cooperating with the United States is in within Saudi Arabia itself.

Whether ordinary Saudis know whether we're using the airfields in Saudi Arabia, whether ordinary Saudi Arabians know whether we're receiving intelligence support from the Saudi authorities, whether much of anything is being communicated within Saudi Arabia, one doesn't...

Saudi Arabia's a closed country. So the people of the street in Saudi Arabia are dependent on what the government is willing to let them hear, unless they can see al-Jazeera?

Right. That's right. And the less that's heard at this point, the less potentially short-term problem the government feels it's likely to have from its populace. ...

To us, what appears to be a lack of Saudi cooperation may, in fact, be just simply a lack of information about what they're really doing?

Yes, I think it's they wouldn't necessarily feel as though it's in their interest to let it be known the extent to which they're cooperating with us, particularly on the intelligence side.

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