When protection money fails

Posted: Nov 10, 2003 12:00 AM

The Saudi royal family can only be thinking, "What good is protection money if it doesn't protect you?"

The al-Qaida attack during the weekend in Riyadh is the latest sign that the kingdom's corrupt deal with Islamic extremists has broken down. The Saudis have been the foremost funders of extremism and terrorism abroad, with the implicit understanding that Osama bin Laden and Co. would "behave," i.e., practice their murderous mayhem only against the infidels. The bloodshed on Saudi soil now shows that the royal family's policy, in the words of Talleyrand, was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.

Whether the House of Saud responds by turning decisively against the extremists will help determine the long-term success of the U.S. war on terror, and whether the royal family survives or meets an unsightly end in "chop-chop square" (the site of public beheadings). There would be poetic justice in the Saudis getting consumed by the forces of hatred they have done so much to stoke and to appease, but a Taliban-style regime in Riyadh would be a catastrophe.

All that is necessary to know the priorities of the royal family is this: The murder of 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11 wasn't enough to get them to do anything serious to stop their support for Islamic extremism overseas. And that support is not in doubt. In congressional testimony, David Aufhauser, a top-level Treasury Department official, has called Saudi Arabia "the epicenter" of terrorist financing. It was only the bombings in Riyadh this May that moved the Saudis, creating, in the words of Aufhauser, "a sea change."

But even a sea change hasn't been enough. According to Aufhauser, Saudi cooperation on financing issues even since May has been "halting, lacking all initiative ... and sometimes insincere." Typical of the Saudi two-step -- announce great changes, but don't implement them -- was a new initiative to crack down on terrorist-tainted Saudi charities. The Saudis announced it with all the PR fanfare they could muster last year, but didn't take any steps to make it happen until pushed by U.S. officials.

The Saudi attitude is: Why do anything about terrorist money-flows when you can lie instead? The slick Saudi spokesman Adel al-Jubeir lives by that ethic. Not so long ago he said, "We have not found a direct link or support from the Saudi charities to terrorist groups." But the Saudi-funded International Islamic Relief Organization, the Benevolence International Foundation and many other groups have all been implicated in terrorist financing.

Saudi denial helps the extremists. Witness the very picture of Saudi backwardness: Prince Naif, who has blamed 9/11 on "Zionists." As recently as the end of last year, Naif was denying there was any al-Qaida presence at all in Saudi Arabia. How quaint. Since May, there have been Saudi anti-terrorist raids all over the country.

The latest bombing will prompt Saudi apologists to say Saudi Arabia is by definition our ally in the war on terror since it too is targeted by al-Qaida. But it is possible to be a target of radicals and accommodate them as well. Saudi Arabia is a classic state." Like the Pakistani government and the Palestinian Authority, it faces a radical opposition and often responds by trying to co-opt it.

The United States must insist that the straddle end. It is possible for the Saudi royal family to crack down on extremists. It has done it before when its survival was at stake. Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, rode to his mastery of Arabia on the back of the murderous Ikhwan, a kind of precursor of al-Qaida. When in the 1920s the Ikhwan didn't know when to stop its raiding, the British made it clear to Saud that he had to pulverize the Ikhwan or lose British backing.

Today the Saudis face a roughly similar choice. If they choose wrong, eventually chop-chop square will beckon.

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