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Prince Saud al-Faisal

The son of the late King Faisal, he is the Saudi foreign minister. He argues that Saudi Arabia has been an active participant in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. He tells FRONTLINE that in Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda are "pursued people. They are people under the microscope." This interview was conducted on Oct. 2, 2002.


Prince Saud al-Faisal photo
Prince Saud al-Faisal photo

There is a perception in the United States that Saudi Arabia is dragging its feet, that you're not doing your part in the war against Al Qaeda. Why do you think that is?

We really are as amused as you are about this, because every time we talk to the officials of the United States government, they are happy with the cooperation. They are pleased with the coordination that we have in this. All in all, the work has been going on for the benefit of both security agencies in the United States and in Saudi Arabia as well as can be expected.

Much of the effort that was done in this obviously has been done in secret between the two countries, as it should be. But the perception remains that we are not cooperating as closely as possible. The best check on that, I assume, is to ask American officials on that.

The perception is that you can't announce the contributions you're making to the war on Al Qaeda, because it will offend "the street," where there is widespread support for Al Qaeda.

No, that is absolutely not true. There is absolutely no inhibition on our part. Al Qaeda has done damage to this country. They have caused bloodshed in this part of the world. Nobody supports Al Qaeda. This is absolutely a misconception in here. The government has stood from day one against it. We had problems with Al Qaeda before 9/11, as a matter of fact. They are pursued everywhere by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Why not publicize some of the bigger arrests that you've made? Why do it in secret? Pakistan has made big announcements of the arrests of Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh.

We have announced all the ones that we have arrested. Every time somebody asks a question about it, we tell them the facts of the story. We had many interviews between the media and the officials and the security forces [in which] they have announced the people that they have captured.

But we have a process here, where you have once you capture somebody and he's in court, the court is the deciding element on the guilt. So that is [why] we wait until that process is ended before we make a statement on it. ...

But you're speaking as if there's no gap between the position of the government, the position of the royal family, and the people on the street. I talk to people on the street, and they are very pro-Al Qaeda, very anti-American. There's a very sharp mood out there.

Al Qaeda has done damage to this country. They have caused bloodshed in this part of the world. Nobody supports Al Qaeda.

Well, maybe it's the way the question is asked. There is definitely a mood that is against American policy in the Middle East, and I don't think it should be confused as pro-Al Qaeda or pro-bin Laden. That is not the case. I live here. I see the same Saudis. We talk to each other about it. I see no sympathy for the Al Qaeda, but I see a lot of criticism for American policy towards the Middle East.

And the reluctance to announce the arrest of suspects is because of?

No. The moment we capture somebody, we make an announcement that they are captured.

So, how many people have you arrested?

I think you would have to talk to the security agencies here on that. But we have in the twenties or thirties that have been arrested just lately in this effort. They've been questioned. Those who are guilty are referred to the courts, and those who are innocent are let go.

We have received some of those who have come out of Afghanistan or in Iran or in Pakistan. They have been transferred to us, and they have gone through the same process of questioning.

I mean, Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization. It is working against Saudi Arabia. At least two bombings in Saudi Arabia have been caused by them. So these are criminals that are being pursued by Saudi Arabia -- not because they're only trying to justify their method.

Again I have to -- and with all due respect -- go back to the perception that exists in America. It was a long time before the government of Saudi Arabia would admit that 15 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. There were many statements coming from the government saying the evidence wasn't there, but yet evidence had been supplied, very early on.

I know that. And I think you must understand how shocking it was for Saudi Arabia to have heard the news that 15 Saudis were part of that. We went through a process of disbelief, utter disbelief, to deny it. And then the realization hit us fully in the face. It is not easy to wake up one day and find that your son is a mass murderer.

That is a reaction of disbelief. Even denial is the most natural of reactions that has happened. But we are now convinced of the situation. That is why we are doing everything that we can to see that our children and our sons are not deluded anymore by such people as the people of Al Qaeda.

These are people who went to Afghanistan to fight for Afghanistan, and they were captured by evil men, who deluded them into becoming what they have become, unfortunately.

When they went to Afghanistan to fight the Americans, whether before 9/11 or after 9/11, they went first to clerics and asked for permissions, asked for a dispensation. [They] said, "I want to go fight jihad. Can I have your approval?" Have you interrogated these clerics?

We have, of course. Whatever the interrogation takes you go the road, you find the tools -- how it happened, how it was done. For them to go to clerics about jihad to ask how to go about it is nothing strange in that. On the contrary; jihad is a legal thing to do if you are fighting injustice, if you are fighting for the cause of the liberation of a country. ...

But these clerics have given Al Qaeda contact names and numbers to these young men who came to them. In other words, they facilitated hooking them up with Al Qaeda.

I don't know where you got this information. I can't comment on [this].

I've talked to the clerics.

I haven't talked to the clerics that you've talked to. But I know from our security people that, once they found out what was happening with the Al Qaeda and what they were doing, they clamped down on everybody who went to Afghanistan, and it was prohibited for people to go to Afghanistan. Those who went, went in roundabout ways in doing that. So once the suspicion was aroused, then the government measures were started to be taken.

The questioning indicates to me that it is a probe to see whether Saudi Arabia is working in cahoots with Al Qaeda. How can that be? How can it be if Al Qaeda is doing work against Saudi Arabia? The main aim of Al Qaeda is to bring destruction to this country. How can the country be working with somebody who wants to destroy the country? ...

I don't think that we're saying Saudi Arabia is working in cahoots with Al Qaeda, but certainly there are elements within Saudi Arabia that support Al Qaeda.

If we find anybody that supports them materially or in any other way, they will be arrested here.

Why can't you convince the Americans that you're doing that? The Pakistanis have made very high-profile arrests. American officials say you've made some very high-profile arrests, but you haven't publicized them -- not high-profile arrests. You've made some very important arrests. You're holding some people that are major logistics people, but you're not publicizing that information.

Perhaps it's our nature in Saudi Arabia that the Bedouin doesn't like to speak about himself. He thinks that's boasting when he says something about himself. There is a reticence. We are a shy people, basically. That to come out and say, "I did this and I did this and I did that" is against the nature of the desert people. Maybe that's part of it.

But added to the nature of things, the nature of the situation also is not a publicity issue for us. If you pursue work to catch criminals, you must have some level of secrecy in this that has to be balanced out -- on the final analysis, how much information is given. ...

I think you have a public relations problem, perhaps. Your shyness creates a public relation problem.

What do we do with that?

I don't know. Recently you announced the formation of an agency to monitor charities.

Yes.

Why now? Why not sooner? It's been a problem for a long time.

No, the agency is the only the last step. But from the moment that we identified that there was illicit money going through charity organizations to Al Qaeda, we informed everybody that it was illegal to do so. That money can be transferred only if it is known where it is going and what purpose it is serving.

A long list of restriction were placed on all the government from all the government agencies involved about charities, whether it is the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Interior or the security forces. We cooperate in that with the United States Treasury Department very closely.

We have a list of suspects. We go after them. We verify whether they are doing it or not, and then we take measures against them. We have been cooperating. I think the cooperation is very much appreciated by the officials in the United States.

Are you also cooperating with the Pakistanis?

Of course.

With the Iranians?

With the Iranians. We have received some of those who escaped from Afghanistan from both the Iranians and the Pakistanis.

Can you give me some sense of the route that they're traveling -- what you've learned from talking to these suspects?

They come across the [border] from Afghanistan to whether Pakistan or--

Iran?

Iran. The borders are long borders in both cases. And from there, they are captured, and we are informed that they are Saudi citizens. Then we ask for them, and they give them to us.

Have you also caught them coming across the Gulf?

Some have come across the Emirates, for instance, and they were transferred to us immediately.

So the UAE has handed you some people? And Oman as well?

All the governments of the region are cooperating in this.

So there were quite a few Saudis? These are Saudi citizens, I presume.

Not so many in comparison with the overall makeup of Al Qaeda. I think perhaps Saudis [are] the foot soldiers, for instance, in Al Qaeda. And the leadership, I don't think other than bin Laden who was a former Saudi, and the leader--

Abu Zubaydah grew up here.

Yes, but he's not a Saudi citizen. And the leadership there, other than bin Laden, I don't know anybody that is a Saudi. But then the foot soldiers, the number in comparison with the whole is very small indeed. That is why we say that, in choosing the 15 Saudis who run or go on this operation, it was not a normal choice, because a normal choice would have had many other nationalities.

If it was left to the numbers to indicate, but it was on purpose by bin Laden. So that he would show that it is only Saudis, and to drive that wedge and increase that suspicion that you talked about.

It was also because they could get visas to the U.S., right?

Well, so did many others. I mean, they are not the only ones that could get visas to the United States.

Of the foot soldiers who have been arrested and handed over to the Americans and are in Guantanamo, most are Saudis, though. A large number of them are Saudis.

I don't know the exact number, but I will take your word as the truth.

Well, I shouldn't say "most of them." I should say the largest single group is from Saudi Arabia.

It could be, it could be. If 15 Saudis were in the operation itself, suspicion would be cast on them more than anybody else.

You recently had a delegation go over and take a look and talk to the people being held in Guantanamo. What did you learn?

I think the United States was so happy with the visit and the questioning that they asked us to go back again to help in the questioning of those people, and we will do that. If we find that those that are guilty there, we would, of course, require that they be punished.

Is it leading to information and more arrests here? Presumably it would.

Well, all information that you garner is helpful, whether it leads directly to arrests or it leads to knowing exactly how the chain of the Al Qaeda works. So the important thing is not just to what it leads to in terms of arrests, but to the size and type of operations that they have in different parts of the world.

And may I say that the infrastructure of Al Qaeda perhaps is less in Saudi Arabia than it is in many other countries -- especially in Western countries. Here, they are pursued people. They are people who are under the microscope. In the West, the people working for them and their networks are considered dissidents, and therefore protected by law in these countries, and not pursued.

This is one of the elements that you and us have to work out with some of the European countries, who perceive these people are part of the chain of activity of the Al Qaeda, and to take measures against them.

We talked to children. They were thrilled with Al Qaeda. They were thrilled with bin Laden. I asked them, "Does the media teach you this?" They said, "No. The media says he's a criminal. But we believe he's a hero." This is a huge problem for you, is it not?

... The thing that you must remember, our educational system has been there for the last 50 years. Now, why over the last 50 years has there been no Al Qaeda, no bin Laden? If it were the school, certainly we must have seen signs of that prior to this period.

It is not the school system that created the terrorists. It is not the situation in Saudi Arabia that created the terrorists. Terrorists are created by evildoers who try to use existing conditions in the world. Whether poverty, whether political or military issues -- injustice is seen, and mistreatment as it is perceived to feed on that and turn them into doing things that are abhorrent in this sphere. If it is finger-pointing and trying to find somebody to accuse, it would be the worst of tragedies if the one who is accused is the one whose fighting on your side.

Saudi Arabia is not the enemy in this. Saudi Arabia is the collaborator, the ally and the friend of the United States.

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