Saudi Time Bomb?
haroun fazul
tapes & transcripts

Saudi Time Bomb?
Program #2006
Original Airdate: November 15, 2001

Written and produced by
Martin Smith and
Lowell Bergman

Lowell Bergman

    Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.

NARRATOR: Saudi Arabia claims to be with us-

    JAMES BAKER III, U.S. Secretary of State '89-'92: The Saudis have to walk a fine line.

NARRATOR: -but some of its people are not.

    SAAD AL FAGIH, Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia: After the incident, people were jubilant and happy and looking at bin Laden as a hero.

NARRATOR: How secure is this alliance?

    Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN, Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.: You can call us many things, but politically stupid we are not.

NARRATOR: Tonight on FRONTLINE: Is this a Saudi Time Bomb?

Saudi Arabia is a hidden country, a country that works hard to control its public image. The truth here is hard to come by. News from here leaks out by word of mouth. We were told by one visiting Westerner that on September 11th, drivers on the streets of Riyadh honked their horns in celebration.

A Saudi Arabian dissident in exile, Dr. Saad al Fagih, monitors Saudi Arabia from his offices in London.

SAAD AL FAGIH, Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia: The first thing that happened after the incident, people received a message in their mobile phones, "Congratulations." And then the next message in the mobile phone was "Our prayers to Bin Laden." They were very jubilant and happy and looking at Bin Laden as a hero. People started killing sheep and killing camels and making big feasts and inviting their relatives and friends to celebrate the big event in America.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN, Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.: So when those dissidents come and say, "Well, in Saudi Arabia, really, people were happy about"- that is bullshit, if you'll pardon my French.

NARRATOR: Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States for 18 years.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: Saudis are decent people, and they have a lot in common with people outside Washington- Valdesta, Georgia, or Sherman, Texas. And those people are just- don't know what they're talking about.

NARRATOR: After talking to Prince Bandar at the end of September, we hoped to travel to Saudi Arabia to find out for ourselves just what is happening inside. Unfortunately, the government decided it did not want FRONTLINE to visit, especially now. Still, we have prepared this report relying on those pictures we could find.

Understanding Saudi Arabia, its alliance with the United States and its role in the world of Islamic fundamentalism, is central to understanding the events of September 11th. Like Usama bin Laden, 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. What do these men represent? Is there significant unrest inside Saudi Arabia? Can the U.S. rely on the Saudis in the fight against terrorism? Or is America's presence here a problem?

LOWELL BERGMAN: Is there growing anti-Americanism in Saudi Arabia?

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: It's almost as deja vu again. In 1990, we were told - the whole world told - that if the Americans come to help Saudi Arabia defend itself and liberate Kuwait, the Arab world will rise, from the Atlantic to the Gulf.


Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: Because the infidels have come, because Saudi Arabia is a holy land. Well, the truth of the matter, America has never been a colonizing power, as far as we were concerned. Our relationship with America did not start in 1990, it started in the '30s. And when the Americans came to Saudi Arabia, they didn't come as an invader. They came, actually, as a private sector, trying to help us find oil. They found the oil for us, and they've been our friends ever since.

NARRATOR: But in spite of a long-lasting U.S.-Saudi relationship, there appears to be a lot of anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia. Even before September 11th, there were growing strains over U.S. support of Israel. And for years, Usama Bin Laden and his supporters have been calling for Muslims to throw out the 5,000 U.S. troops that are stationed here and the Saudi government that invited them.

James Baker was secretary of state during the Gulf war and is one of many former U.S. officials who have maintained business ties with the kingdom.

JAMES BAKER III, U.S. Secretary of State '89-'92: You know and I know that one of the foremost targets of Usama bin Laden is the monarchy in Saudi Arabia because of its- well, among other things, because of its friendship with the United States. And one of the- one of the first things I think he would like to see happen would be to see a collapse of that- of that monarchy.

LOWELL BERGMAN: But that puts us in the position, as we were told by one person, that when people in Saudi Arabia look at change in Saudi Arabia, they see the U.S. troops there as, if you will, the mercenaries who are defending the royal family, and-

JAMES BAKER III: Some people-

LOWELL BERGMAN: -therefore, they have to go through the United States.

JAMES BAKER III: Some people do see that. Some people do see that, and for those, it's the- it's the crux of their objection. There's no doubt about that.

NARRATOR: Brent Scowcroft was national security adviser to former president Bush.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Is it surprising to you that there are these reports that in Saudi Arabia, Usama bin Laden is somewhat of a folk hero amongst many people?

BRENT SCOWCROFT, National Security Adviser '89-'92: No, it's not a surprise. Look, the Saudis are worried - they're very worried - because Usama bin Laden is probably a deeper threat to Saudi Arabia, to Egypt, to Jordan, you name it, than to the United States. Usama bin Laden is going after us to get us out of the region, so he can deal with the corrupt regimes that he sees in the region, or replace them with pure Islam. The Saudis are concerned.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Are they corrupt?


NARRATOR: We first heard charges of corruption from the dissidents in London. They say that the country has squandered its wealth, driven itself into debt, that there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor, and that unemployment is well over 20 percent. In Prince Bandar's interview with us last month, he acknowledged Saudi corruption.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: The way I answer the corruption charges is this. If you tell me that building this whole country and spending $350 billion out of $400 billion, that we had a- misused or got corrupted with $50 billion, I'll tell you, "Yes." But I'll take that any time. What I'm trying to tell you is, so what? We did not invent corruption, nor did those dissidents who are so genius they discovered it!

NARRATOR: Corruption aside, the alternative to the monarchy may be less attractive to Americans. What many dissidents want is to replace King Fahd and the 5,000 princes in the royal family with an Islamic republic run by Muslim fundamentalists.

That's what happened not so long ago, when America's chief ally in the Persian Gulf was Iran.

    Pres. JIMMY CARTER: Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.

NARRATOR: The Saudis watched the shah closely. They were skeptical when he urged them to modernize.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: The shah of Iran used to write to King Faisal in the '60s, late '60s-

LOWELL BERGMAN: The king of Saudi Arabia?

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: -the king of Saudi Arabia, telling him that, "Please, my brother, modernize. Open up your country. Make the schools mixed, women and men. Let women wear miniskirts. Have discos. Be modern, otherwise I cannot guarantee you will stay in your throne."

And the king of Saudi Arabia, King Faisal, used to write to the shah and say, "Your Majesty, I appreciate your advice. May I remind you, you are not the shah of France. You are not in the Elysee, you are in Iran. Your population is 90 percent Muslims. Please don't forget that."

NARRATOR: After a popular uprising tossed the shah off his throne in 1979, it was Islamic militants who took control. American diplomats seemed as surprised as the shah.

WILLIAM QUANDT, National Security Council, '72-'74, '77-'79: There was real anxiety that this was the beginning of a wave that would sweep across the Gulf and that Saudi Arabia might be next, or at least would be in line.

NARRATOR: William Quandt served on the National Security Council at the time.

WILLIAM QUANDT: It's bad enough to have Iran in turmoil, with the uncertainty there, but if it had spread further, it would have really been a disaster.

NARRATOR: The Saudis agreed to a huge arms build-up, based on sophisticated American weaponry. It coincided with an explosion in Saudi oil income. By 1981, Saudi oil revenues reached $116 billion a year.

The Saudi monetary agency had the daunting task of investing $4 million in oil revenue every hour, nearly a $100 million a day. Many of the petrodollars flowed to American construction and engineering firms, which cashed in on Saudi Arabia's rapid modernization.

WILLIAM QUANDT: The petrodollar explosion of the '70s, and then again in the early '80s, had a tremendous impact on the physical aspect of the country. All of the big infrastructural developments that one now associates with Saudi Arabia - the fancy hotels, the enormous airports, the fantastic road system - none of that existed 30 years ago. All of the infrastructure was radically rebuilt. It has physically transformed the landscape.

NARRATOR: The biggest purchases of all were military. It began with five advanced warning aircraft, or AWACS, and eventually a $5.6 billion "Peace Shield," a state-of-the-art command-and-control system for the Royal Saudi Air Force, with six underground command centers linking 147 defense-related sites. Since 1979, the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia has added up to more than $50 billion.

JAMES BAKER III, U.S. Secretary of State '89-'92: They buy our technology because it's the best. They buy our military equipment because it's the best. They buy from America because they want America present there, to the extent we can be in the kingdom, because we are their security.

Why are we their security? We're their security because we have a self-interest in making sure that those energy reserves in the Persian Gulf don't fall under the control of a- of an- of a country that is adverse to the United States.

As I told you, I worked for four administrations under three presidents, and in every one of those, our policy was that we would go to war to protect the energy reserves in the Persian Gulf. That is a major and very significant national security interest that we have.

NARRATOR: And in 1990, the Americans did come to Saudi Arabia to fight the Gulf war. It was a massive deployment of troops, planes and equipment. Many of the pilots and soldiers remarked how the Saudi bases were as good as those in the U.S. Everything fit. Everything worked.

Ten years later, and now America is under a direct attack. On September 20th, President Bush went before Congress to ask the world to join the war on terrorism.

    Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.

NARRATOR: On October 3rd, a U.S. delegation led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came here for talks to enlist the cooperation of King Fahd. With the bombing of Afghanistan only four days away, the U.S. might have wanted to use those Saudi bases, but they knew they couldn't ask the Saudis to allow American planes to fly bombing raids from here against the Taliban.

Publicly, the Saudis were also not cooperating with Americans wanting to look at background files of the hijackers or to interview the hijackers' families. Whatever was going on privately, the royal family was aware of their audience at home.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN, Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.: My family has been in leadership position since 1747. Now, you can call us many things, but politically stupid we are not. And we make our decisions based on one simple fact: Does it sound good in downtown Riyadh or not? We don't ask ourselves "Does it sound good on CNN," or in downtown Washington, or London, or The Washington Post or La Figueroa. We are constantly keeping our thumb on the pulse of our people.

NARRATOR: In the United States, the reluctance of the Saudi Arabians fully to cooperate was seen as betrayal. Editorial pages screamed foul. But if this was upsetting American officials, they kept it private.

JAMES BAKER III: When you have a coalition like this - and it was true in the Gulf - some of your coalition partners will do some things to help you and not do others. It happened to us in the Gulf war. The Saudis have to walk a fairly fine line. They could be very easily destabilized, if they are seen by some of the people who support Usama bin Laden and walk around on the streets over there to be leaning too far forward to help us in the war in Afghanistan.

LOWELL BERGMAN: You believe that the Saudis really do have a problem in all of this because of potential unrest in their own country.

JAMES BAKER III: I think the Saudis do have a- I think they do- no- yes, I think that-

LOWELL BERGMAN: They have economic problems. They have-

JAMES BAKER III: I think they do.

LOWELL BERGMAN: -unemployment problems. They have- and religious problems.

JAMES BAKER III: Yes, I think they do.

NARRATOR: The religious problem is embedded in two-and-a-half centuries of Saudi history. Saudi Arabia is above all else a Muslim state. It is the home of the two holiest sites in Islam, the mosques at Mecca and Medina, and the Saudi royal family bases its very legitimacy on its ability to serve and protect Islam.

The monarchy has its roots in a partnership with an 18th century Islamic cleric who believed then that the nation had strayed too far from true Islam. His name was Mohammed bin Abd al Wahhab.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: He was a preacher. And in 1730s or so, people within the heart of Arabia were almost becoming pagans. You know, they worshipped trees, caves, and so on. And all what the man said is, "Please, brothers, go back to basics. What the prophet and- did or said, let's do it." And my- the founder of my family joined up with him, and the two of them, quote, unquote, "unified" the peninsula.

NARRATOR: With Wahhab's support, the al-Saud family helped spread and enforce a "back to basics" fundamentalist revival. When the nation of Saudi Arabia was finally formed in 1932, it was based on an alliance between Wahhabi clerics and the still reigning al-Saud family.

SHAFEEQ GHABRA, Director, Kuwaiti Information Office: This particular alliance went on very well.

NARRATOR: Shafeeq Ghabra is a political scientist and journalist who is currently serving as information officer at the Kuwaiti embassy in Washington D.C.

SHAFEEQ GHABRA: There were times when there was conflict between the House of al-Saud and the Wahhabis. They were tough. They were serious. They were- had a lot of enthusiasm into religion. However, the al-Sauds had the ability to control all of that through confrontation and politics, and then brought them into the system. And that created official Wahhabism, sanctioned by the government, accepted by the government.

And it is an official Wahhabism that didn't do much harm to anybody. On the contrary, it kept Saudi Arabia united. But what happened is that a new trend was in the making at the street level, a different version of Wahhabism, a street version, a mob version, a radical version, a militant version, and willing to use violence as a means.

NARRATOR: At its root, Wahhabism is a particularly austere form of Islam that insists on a very literal interpretation of the Quran.

MAHER HATHOUT, Muslim Public Affairs Council: Mohammed bin Abd al Wahhab at his time was considered a progressive person. If you freeze things at his time, it becomes a very stagnant and very literalist and very straightjacketed, puritan approach that does not cater to the changeables and the dynamics of life. People called this Wahhabism. Saudis, by the way, never say "We are Wahhabis," they say "We are just Muslims" and- but they follow the teachings, and the major book that's taught in all schools are the books of Mohammed bin Abd al Wahhab. And anyone who is subscribing to something else is - is not very much welcomed.

NARRATOR: Strict Wahhabis believe that all people who don't practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies. Critics say that Wahhabism's rigidity makes it open to misinterpretation and distortion.

[ Explore more about Wahhabism]

ALI AL-AHMED, Saudi Activist: It's very rigid. It's intolerant against Muslims themselves and against non-Muslims.

NARRATOR: Ali Al-Ahmed grew up in Saudi Arabia as a member of the Shia Muslim minority. He felt discriminated against by Wahhabist beliefs.

ALI AL-AHMED: It differs from everybody else, from Sunnis Muslims and from Shia Muslims. And they have different ideas about life, about God, about religion, about the relationship between men and among each other, which is totally different probably from the general Islamic history.

NARRATOR: We were told that many Saudis are frustrated by the control religious conservatives have over their lives. But the rules are strictly enforced by the religious police. Women use separate banks, and they are not permitted to drive. They are allowed to manage their own finances, but are excluded from professions like law or engineering. Their confinement to family and exclusion from public life is unparalleled in the Muslim world.

The royal family has also given the clergy a lot of control over education. Hours are spent studying the official religion at the expense of other subjects. The curriculum endorses the exclusivity of their brand of faith. A high school textbook warns of the dangers of having Christian and Jewish friends. It reads, "It is compulsory for Muslims to be loyal to each other and to consider the infidels their enemy."

[ More excerpts from these textbooks]

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. '99-'01: I think Saudi society is split.

NARRATOR: Richard Holbrooke was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The mainline Saudi leadership went into financial issues, defense issues, and they controlled the elite establishment. In order to purchase support from the more fundamentalist religious groups, they gave certain other ministries - the religious ministries, education ministries - to more fundamentalist Islamic leaders. And that's how the split occurred.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN, Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.: We are the only country in the world where the government is avant garde and the people are more conservative. And most of the trouble we had is because we wanted to move forward. But we are not arrogant enough to think we will move forward regardless of what our people think.

NARRATOR: What they did, though, was to pour billions of their oil dollars into the construction of new mosques and religious schools. The Binladin construction company was given $17 billion in contracts to rebuild the holy sites at Mecca and Medina. And a newly wealthy citizenry donated heavily to religious charities.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: We don't have taxes in the kingdom. People don't pay taxes. However, we have a religious tax that's dictated by our religion, that is compulsory but not enforceable. Why? Because it's left to one's faith and belief, and so on. And it is supposed to go to the poor. If you cannot find anybody needy, you go to the next neighborhood or the next village or the next city or the next country.

Well, in Saudi Arabia, God blessed us with a lot of wealth. We take care of almost all our people. So we send it to Afghanistan, to Bosnia, to Senegal, to anywhere in the world, to Africa, Asia [unintelligible] the Arab world as charity.

NARRATOR: The charities have led to an unprecedented explosion of growth in Wahhabism. In just a few decades, the insular and strict belief system that had once been confined to the inland desert of Arabia became a worldwide religious and economic presence.

From the $10 million King Faisal mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, to the $8 million King Fahd mosque in Culver City, California, they endowed communities. With them came the Wahhabi imams, who then sent religious students back to study in Saudi Arabia. And in turn, the Saudi charities established hundreds of religious schools, or madrassas, from Malaysia to Uzbekistan, from the Sudan to Pakistan.

NARRATOR: Vali Nasr is an academic and authority on Islamic fundamentalism.

LOWELL BERGMAN: What is a madrassa?

VALI NASR, Political Scientist, Univ. of San Diego: It's a seminary. It's where people- students of different ages go to learn religious education, to be schooled, first of all in reading, and then in religious studies. In the old times, it substituted for regular elementary education and higher education. And ultimately it produces - quote, unquote - clerics - in other words, scholars, preachers, you know, community- religious community leaders who conduct the religious affairs of a community.

SHAFEEQ GHABRA, Director, Kuwaiti Information Office: The principle behind them is good because you have millions of illiterate young children who will never have the opportunity to get into a normal school, and they will become illiterate adults. It has been the method throughout the Islamic world for 1,400 years that you become literate the traditional way by reading and memorizing of the Quran.

NARRATOR: But some Muslims watched the arrival of the Wahhabi clergy with concern.

NABIL MUSAWI, Iraqi National Congress: I can tell you from my own personal experience in northern Iraq during the '90s, what they do is, they would go to tiny, very poor villages. They would establish a center. The center would serve as a mosque, as school, as a community center. They would- sign a budget- a sheik, a mullah-

LOWELL BERGMAN: These are the Saudis?

NABIL MUSAWI: These are the Wahhabis, yes. And before you know it, they are totally dominating the life in the village. These villages are extremely poor. It's fertile ground for recruitment of young men who have nowhere to go, who have no future, no education. So they become totally dedicated to the cause of the Wahhabis. Even if they started their life as something else, as probably moderate Sunnis or moderate Shia, they end up being extreme Wahhabis because they were the only ones who offered them hope. That's- that's how it works.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I saw this in Uzbekistan a few years after Uzbekistan got out of the Soviet Union, became an independent state, in cities like Tashkent and Samarkand, where the Saudis were funding these schools, teaching Quranic studies and creating a class of people for whom education was simply the Holy Book, the Quran. And they were creating an intolerant, backward-looking society out of their country, for whatever reasons, which was bound in the end to cause them problems.

NARRATOR: It was here, in the remote Comoros Islands off the east African coast, that we first discovered the far-flung influence of Wahhabism. This is a poor country, where the only institutions that really function are the mosques. The schools here teach a brand of Islam that's neither radical nor anti-Western. Boys and girls study together. But a leading Muslim cleric told us about a local imam who set up a string of separate Wahhabi schools with Saudi money.

MOHAMMED CHARIF, Pres., Comoran Cncl of Ulamas: [through interpreter] We don't know what their agenda is. They have something they are hiding, and they are doing it secretly. What I know is that he has very good connections with Saudi Arabia. They give him assistance to run his schools with Wahhabi teachings.

We are against them. They give him scholarships and all sorts of aid to help him spread their ideology, which is contrary to the Islamic teaching which we practice here. And it is creating some tension, but we have no power to do anything.

NARRATOR: In the magistrate's office, there's a file on one of the school's students, Haroun Fazul, who would grow up to become a member of Usama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization. At 16, Fazul, seen here in a home video, was given a scholarship by a Muslim charity to pursue his education in a madrassa in Pakistan.

One day, he wrote home to his brother that he was now inside Afghanistan. "I've done two months in a military base on heavy weapons," he wrote, "bazookas for small planes, and another two months on explosives, how to blow up buildings, houses, palaces."

It was the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that rallied Muslims worldwide. Fighters came from all over the Muslim world. Thousands of Wahhabis came from Saudi Arabia. Usama bin Laden has become the most legendary. Those who didn't fight sent money through a host of charities that specialized in supporting the Afghan war effort.

NORBERT GARRETT, Central Intelligence Agency '64-'91: It is one of the five obligations of Islam, anyway, for a Muslim to give alms. So it's consistent with that. It's consistent with the whole thought process of a Muslim. They ask to give. They ask to support the needy.

NARRATOR: Norb Garrett worked for the CIA for 27 years, mostly in the Middle East.

NORBERT GARRETT: 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 who were responsible for defeating atheistic communism.

NARRATOR: As charity poured in, more and more madrassas were built. And because of the war, the nature of the schools changed.

VALI NASR, Political Scientist, Univ. of San Diego: Because of the Afghan war, we have a very peculiar new kind of madrassa emerging in Pakistan, Afghanistan area. How they differ from the traditional madrassas is that they were not really so much concerned about scholarship.

NARRATOR: These schools still exist. This madrassa was photographed earlier this month near the Afghanistan border. We couldn't find out where their funding came from, but they offer instruction in religion and warfare. The only difference is that now the enemy is not Russia, but America.

VALI NASR: They were organized to fight the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. This was obviously the core-

LOWELL BERGMAN: They were recruiting schools.

VALI NASR: They were recruiting, organizing schools which also used Islamic ideology as a way of creating a very efficient guerrilla army with a very clear anti-communist ideology. So you have the whole rise of, if you would, Islamic West Points, Islamic military camps, Islamic guerrilla camps, which mix a dosage of Islam with a lot of military training. I mean, the phenomenon of Taliban, meaning religious seminary students-

LOWELL BERGMAN: That's what the word means.

VALI NASR: The words means. Who are they? Are they budding preachers? Are they scholars? How much scholarship do they have? Are they better trained in throwing grenades than interpreting religious law? I mean, these are all open questions.

SHAFEEQ GHABRA, Director, Kuwaiti Information Office: You tell me that these schools may produce other results than intended. Definitely, we need to look into this now and maybe change that whole approach. Maybe that whole approach has to be questioned. You see, this particular ideology that now we are talking about was the ideology that protected Saudi Arabia and much of the region from communism. It's the ideology that prevented the Arabs from becoming communist. It's the ideology that made the Saudis stand up with America in the cold war. It is the ideology that helped face the Soviet Union during the cold war.

You tell me now that this ideology has not exactly served its goals, probably, at least after the cold war, that we have- it is outliving its usefulness, that-

LOWELL BERGMAN: Creating a nightmare in our midst.

SHAFEEQ GHABRA: And that this ideology has- has gone beyond what the ideology used to be, and that there are people who have given it a different body, a different spirit, a different feel, and therefore have used it for different purposes. That's possibly true. Then this is part of the wake-up call, again, for Saudi Arabia, for the Gulf, for the world of Islam, as much as for America.

NARRATOR: It's places like this, the Comoros Islands, pulled apart over the years by coups and warring ideologies, that foreign influences have their most profound effect.

MOHAMMED CHARIF, Pres., Comoran Cncl of Ulamas: [through interpreter] The best thing for us is to get scholarships so we can send kids to technical schools to fight Saudi Arabian influence. They have the money to spread their word. And it is not only in the Comoros. They send people to other countries to create tension and spread their beliefs.

MOHAMED ABDOU M'MADI, Prime Minister of the Comoros, '94: [through interpreter] You touch on a very sensitive point. This is where our partners from the West have to assume some real responsibility. The West has abandoned us at a time when the rate of poverty has increased. If we had some opportunities to send students to countries where democracy and the respect for human rights were present, that would help. Haroun Fazul symbolizes what I'm saying.

NARRATOR: The boy, Haroun Fazul, who left the Comoros for school in Pakistan and war in Afghanistan, grew up to be a 26-year-old man. One day in 1998, together with two Saudi men, he took a truck filled with explosives into the courtyard of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Two hundred thirteen people were killed. Haroun Fazul remains a fugitive.

[ Examine more of his story]

Back inside Saudi Arabia, the continuing presence of U.S. troops has created internal problems for the government. Many Saudis see U.S. troops as an affront to their independence and their religion. In 1994, Wahhabi fundamentalists gathered in an unprecedented protest. It was called the Buraida uprising,

MAI YAMANI, Royal Institute of International Affairs: There was an uprising in the heart of Wahhabi land. It's known as the town of Buraida.

NARRATOR: Mai Yamani grew up in a very prominent Saudi family. Today she is an anthropologist in London specializing in Saudi society.

LOWELL BERGMAN: If I understand correctly, in a sense, a political compromise was made that the royal family ceded more power to the religious side establishment and their police, in a sense, as a reward for going along with inviting the Americans in-


LOWELL BERGMAN: -for the Persian Gulf war-


LOWELL BERGMAN: -to fight Iraq.

MAI YAMANI: For Saudi Arabia, it was significant at the time that those people, using anti-American language- you know, the criticism of the United States presence in Saudi Arabia and the reference to corruption of the ruling elite and the same, similar language that bin Laden is using today, but he's taken it broader.

NARRATOR: The government did cede more control to Wahhabi clerics but only upon a promise of their support. The government cracked down on fundamentalists who refused to be appeased. Hundreds were arrested. Other fundamentalist leaders escaped to the West. The events further polarized a society where any middle ground between the government and extreme fundamentalists was rapidly vanishing.

In 1995, a U.S. military facility in Riyadh was bombed. Five American servicemen were killed. Four Saudi men were arrested and their confessions were broadcast on Saudi TV. They said they had been inspired by Usama bin Laden. Before U.S. law enforcement officials could interrogate them, the Saudis cut off their heads.

One month after the beheadings, there was another bomb attack in Saudi Arabia. Nineteen American servicemen were killed in the Khobar Tower barracks. Stymied again by lack of Saudi cooperation in the ensuing investigation, U.S. law enforcement was frustrated.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN, Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.: It was a national security matter for us. There are things that you know you don't tell us. There are things we know we may not tell you, unless we know what is the extent of the problem. We wanted to see the big picture before we shared it with you. And when it was all done, we shared what is necessary with you.

But I never found the complaints from our allies in the West as damaging politically to Saudi Arabia. I always thought that is an asset. The more Americans complain, or the Europeans, that we are not cooperating on internal matters, the more you give me strength with those- with my people and with the dissidents that we are not in the pocket of anybody.

We are your friends. We respect you. We like you to respect us. But there are lines after which we are not going to compromise.

[ Read the full interview]

NARRATOR: In recent years, the U.S. has been frustrated by Saudi Arabia's support of the Taliban. The ties are close. Many of the Taliban were educated in Saudi-financed madrassas in Pakistan.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Is it true, as some people have said to me, that the Wahhabi sect is, in fact, close to the Taliban, in terms of its roots and its nature?

SAAD AL FAGIH, Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia: There is a huge sympathy between the Saudis and the Afghans, Taliban. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, as a state, regards itself as inheriting the legacy of what they call Terhid, which is the puritan values of Islam.

And among those values is the relation between Muslim and non-Muslim. When there is a conflict between a Muslim state or a group and a non-Muslim state or a group, what is your position? What's happening now, the Saudi rulers are abandoning those values, as people perceive them, abandoning their values. So they are abandoning this legacy, while the Taliban are sticking to them and becoming the natural inheritant of those values. So they are taking over from the Saudi rulers the inheritance of the Wahhabi legacy.

NARRATOR: Saudi Arabia extended official state recognition to the Taliban. Even when the Taliban began murdering scores of Shia Muslims living in western Afghanistan, the Saudis did not cut relations. The Saudis have long battled with a Shia minority in their own country.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: There is no "but" when it comes to massacring innocent people. And if there is a religion that says "Go and massacre women, children, innocent people," I don't want to be in that religion.

LOWELL BERGMAN: With all due respect, when the Taliban massacred the Shia in Afghanistan, did Saudi Arabia withdraw support of the Taliban? Massacred women and children.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: The Taliban, when they did that, by the time- by the time we realized what they did, we already were in conflict with them. And they were already in control of most of the country, and we were trying to put that system back together.

But did America, all the West, all of it, break diplomatic relations with Saddam Hussein when they knew he bombed his people with chemicals in Halabja? If you are trying to tell me that we are not consistent, you succeeded. We are not consistent. But in politics, it's hard to be consistent all the time, and we are not alone.

NARRATOR: The Saudi government says it cut off official aid to the Taliban in 1998. But they did not cut diplomatic relations until last September this year. Earlier this year, when the Taliban threatened to blow up 2nd century Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, the Saudi government protested, but was hard pressed to object too strenuously. Wahhabi clerics have long carried out the destruction of religious sites in their own country.

VALI NASR, Political Scientist, Univ. of San Diego: Wahhabis don't believe in tombstones, don't believe in images being acceptable, don't believe in statues. They believe all of these are forms of polytheism.

NARRATOR: Then came September 11th. After the attack, Crown Prince Abdullah expressed his condolences to the American people, calling the attack "a terrorist act categorically rejected and disdained by divine religions." He promised to "cooperate in every matter conducive to revealing the perpetrators of this criminal act."

    Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I've signed an executive order that immediately freezes the United States financial assets of and prohibits United States transactions with 27 different entities.

NARRATOR: On September 24th, President Bush announced he needed help in identifying the sources of terrorist funding. The president spoke of terrorist groups, individuals and charities.

    Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Just to show you how insidious these terrorists are, they oftentimes use nice-sounding non-governmental organizations as fronts for their activities.

LOWELL BERGMAN: There have been many reports that Islamic charities, some based in Saudi Arabia, individuals-

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: Correct.

LOWELL BERGMAN: -in Saudi Arabia or outside of the country, but people with wealth, have put money into-


LOWELL BERGMAN: -these kinds of networks and made investments in it, if you will.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: You see, this is the least issue that I feel Saudi Arabia is vulnerable to.

LOWELL BERGMAN: But was there money going to bin Laden, to his operation?

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: No, not to bin Laden, but to organizations that are just as bad as bin Laden, but from other places- Egyptian, some of the Egyptian organizations, and son. And once it came to our attention, we stopped it.

LOWELL BERGMAN: But you know that there is the history of- it is said, of the Saudi government paying money to the PLO-

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: Correct.

LOWELL BERGMAN: -to various organizations.

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: Correct.

LOWELL BERGMAN: "Take some of our money"-

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: "And leave us alone."

LOWELL BERGMAN: "Leave us alone."

Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: That is a lovely story, but that's not true. Now, we might have paid people because of other reasons. For example, when the Palestinians were having problems with the Jordanians, we might have just say, "Take this, take that. Just disengage. Leave each other alone." We might've paid some people to switch from being revolutionaries to be nice citizens. But we have never paid it in the sense of, "Protect me, leave me alone."

NARRATOR: Now the Saudis are threatened by one of their own. Usama bin Laden is a son of the Saudi billionaire elite, and many of the hijackers come from apparently middle-class families. Now U.S. law enforcement wants the Saudis' help in investigating whether bin Laden's network may have received financial support from inside the Saudi ruling class.

But this is closed and secretive society, full of internal contradictions. What are they prepared to do? Can we depend on them?

LOWELL BERGMAN: What about the fact that 15 of the hijackers were Saudis, that there's been ample evidence that the Saudi money that's gone into charities and other organizations has fostered a form of fundamentalist Islam that's become a breeding ground for this kind of activity?

BRENT SCOWCROFT, National Security Adviser '89-'92: Sure, that goes on inside Saudi Arabia. Yes.

LOWELL BERGMAN: And outside.


LOWELL BERGMAN: Right. They export money-


LOWELL BERGMAN: -to promote this kind of world view-


LOWELL BERGMAN: -because they are strict Muslims-


LOWELL BERGMAN: -in the sense of Wahhabi- you know, close to the Taliban.


LOWELL BERGMAN: It seems almost like it's a schizophrenic society.

BRENT SCOWCROFT: We don't have any problem with Wahhabism, as long as it is not engaged in terrorism. We don't like their practices. We're not- we're not fighting Islam or any particular form of Islam. We're fighting terrorism. And you know, you can say the regime is- is two-faced. They pay off- they pay off the terrorists, they pay off the Wahhabis, they let the culture police free, and so on, to keep themselves in power. That's- you know, that- that may-

LOWELL BERGMAN: People tell us that.

BRENT SCOWCROFT: Well, it may- it may all be true. But should we throw up our hands in horror and say, "No, this is not a regime that we would be- should be comfortable with?" I don't think so.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. '99-'01: I think Saudi Arabia has a problem. And because of the unique closeness of relations between us and Saudi Arabia, we've got a problem with them, which we have to solve. The terrorists of Al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden are a direct threat not only to the United States, but even moreso to the House of Saud. And they have tried to deal with it by exporting it.

But for the time being - and I need to stress this - I think that any effort to undermine the Saudi royal family by the United States would backfire. It would create more anarchy, more chaos, and we need to be very careful about what we do in a situation which could- would not be benefited by additional instability in the region.

As for the long-term situation in Saudi Arabia, that's a significant problem to which I don't have an easy solution.

Saudi Time Bomb?

Martin Smith and
Lowell Bergman

Lowell Bergman

Ben Gold

Will Lyman

Scott Anger
Chris Buchanan
Gretchen Crary
Marcela Gaviria

Margarita Dragon

Christopher Durrance

Rory O'Connor

Scott Anger
Bill Head

Colin Clarke
Kevin Cloutier
Vincent Gancie
George Lang
Bruce Liffiton
Ben McCoy
Jack Rayzor

David Poole
Amy Bolton
Daniel Brooks
Chris Coughlin
Peter Eason
Ayaz Gul
Francisco Latorre
Steve Lederer
David Love
Anthony Rowland

Shahid Shamim

Askold Buk
Miranda Hentoff

Michael H. Amundson

Jim Sullivan

Emna Zghal
Mara Naaman

ABC News Video Source
AP/ Wide World Photos
CNN ImageSource
ITN Archive
OR Media
Pacific Mountain Network
Reuters Pictures
U.S. Department of Defense

Ibrahim Al-Abed
Hussain Al-Otaibi
Ayesha Butti
Ron Bagnulo
F. Gregory Gause
Bruce Lawrence
Robert Vitalis


Tim Mangini

M.G. Rabinow

Steve Audette

Michael H. Amundson
John MacGibbon

Patricia Giles

Stephanie Mills

David McMahon

Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Erin Martin Kane

Christopher Kelly

Jessica Smith

Jenna Lowe

Lee Ann Donner

Mary Sullivan

Lisa Palone-Clarke

Adrienne Armor

Douglas D. Milton

Tobee Phipps

Todd Goldstein

Sarah Moughty
Kimberly Tabor

Stephanie Ault

Sam Bailey

Wen Stephenson

Catherine Wright

Dana Reinhardt

Robin Parmelee


Michael Oreskes

Lawrie Mifflin

Judith Miller
Jeff Gerth
Tim Weiner


Ken Dornstein

Karen O'Connor

Sharon Tiller

Marrie Campbell

Jim Bracciale

Louis Wiley Jr.

David Fanning

A FRONTLINE coproduction with The New York Times and Rain Media, Inc.

© 2001

FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.

ANNOUNCER: There's much more to explore about this FRONTLINE/New York Times report at our Web site. Take a closer look at Haroun Fazul's story, a case study in how Islamic religious schools supported by Saudi money help turn graduates like Fazul into terrorists, key interviews with U.S. and Saudi officials, political analysts and religious experts, analyses of the money trail helping to finance global terrorism, and a collection of reports from The New York Times. Then join the discussion at PBS on line,, or write an email to, or write to this address. [Dear FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134]

Next time on FRONTLINE: There once was a monster in Hollywood who gobbled up the movie studios and the video chains, the theaters and even the TV networks. And the people throughout the land had to suffer bad films. But the monster kept eating up anything and everything that could make a profit until there was no profit left to make, even for the monster.

The Monster That Ate Hollywood - next time on FRONTLINE.

Saudi Time Bomb? is available on videocassette from PBS Home Video by calling 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

National corporate funding for FRONTLINE is provided by Earthlink and by NPR.

In Denver, Skopje, in Teheran, Omaha, in Istanbul, in Hong Kong, Belgrade, in Decatur, in Seattle, Beijing, in Pittsburgh, in Johannesburg, this is NPR News.

Additional funding is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

FRONTLINE is made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

home · introduction · interviews · analyses · haroun fazul · chronology
discussion · links & readings · reporting from the new york times
tapes & transcripts · credits · privacy policy · FRONTLINE · pbs online · wgbh

photo copyright © afp/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation