The Saudi Connection
How billions in oil money spawned a global terror network
Saudi largess encouraged U.S. officials to look the other way, some veteran intelligence officers say. Billions of dollars in contracts, grants, and salaries have gone to a broad range of former U.S. officials who had dealt with the Saudis: ambassadors, CIA station chiefs, even cabinet secretaries.
Washington's unwillingness to confront the Saudis over terrorism was part of a broader strategic failure to sound the alarm on the rise of the global jihad movement. During the 1990s, the U.S. intelligence community issued a series of National Intelligence Estimates--which report on America's global challenges--on ballistic missile threats, migration, infectious diseases; yet the government never issued a single NIE on the jihad movement or al Qaeda.
Propaganda. Saudi officials argue that their charities have done enormous good work overseas and that the problems stem from a few renegade offices. They say, too, that Riyadh is belatedly cracking down, much as Washington did after 9/11. "These people may have taken advantage of our charities," says Adel al-Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to the crown prince. "We're looking into it, and we've taken steps to ensure it never happens again."
To understand why the Saudis would fund a movement that now terrorizes even their own society, some history is in order. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was born of a kind of marriage of convenience between the House of Saud and the strict Wahhab sect of Islam. In the 18th century, Mohammed ibn Saud, a local chieftain and the forebear of today's ruling family, allied himself with fundamentalists from the Wahhab sect. Over the next 200 years, backed by the Wahhabis, Saud and his descendants conquered much of the Arabian peninsula, including Islam's holiest sites, in Mecca and Medina. Puritanical and ascetic, the Wahhabis were given wide sway over Saudi society, enforcing a strict interpretation of certain Koranic beliefs. Their religious police ensured that subjects prayed five times a day and that women were covered head to toe. Rival religions were banned, criminals subjected to stoning, lashing, and beheading.
The Wahhabis were but one sect among a back-to-the-roots movement in Islam that had limited attraction overseas. But that began to change, first with the flood of oil money in the 1970s, which filled Saudi coffers with billions of petrodollars. Next came the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1979. Most ominously for the Saudis, however, was a third shock that same year: the brief but bloody takeover by militants of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Threatened within the kingdom, and fearful that the radicals in Tehran would assert their own leadership of the Muslim world, the Saudis went on a spending spree. From 1975 through last year, the kingdom spent over $70 billion on overseas aid, according to a study of official sources by the Center for Security Policy, a Washington think tank. More than two thirds of that amount went to "Islamic activities"--building mosques, religious schools, and Wahhabi religious centers, says the CSP's Alex Alexiev, a former CIA consultant on ethnic and religious conflict. The Saudi funding program, Alexiev says, is "the largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted"--dwarfing the Soviets' propaganda efforts at the height of the Cold War. The Saudi weekly Ain al-Yaqeen last year reported the cost as "astronomical" and boasted of the results: some 1,500 mosques, 210 Islamic centers, 202 colleges, and nearly 2,000 schools in non-Islamic countries.