Saudis secretly funding Taliban

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The Independent Online
ON THE face of it, Nawaf Obaid's report looks like any other student thesis prepared for Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government.

Entitled "Improving US Intelligence Analysis on the Saudi Arabian Decision Making Process", it might have mouldered on the shelves of the State Department official who requested it.

But the young Saudi's detailed account of kingly indecision, American ignorance and secret Saudi funding for the world's most ruthless Muslim militia has enraged his country's government, by revealing the Kingdom's religious divisions and its secret support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Quoting Saudi government officials, army officers and members of the Saudi National Guard, Obaid, who toured the remote conservative villages of Saudi Arabia last year but is now staying in Geneva, concludes that "US analysts have underestimated, overlooked or misunderstood the nature, strength and goals of the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia, as well as the extent to which the secular leaders are beholden to this group".

Had US intelligence operatives "had a deeper understanding of the religious situation in Saudi Arabia", he says, they might have been able to prevent the 1996 bombing at Dhahran, which killed 19 Americans.

Until now, the Saudi dissident, Osama bin Laden, now in Afghanistan, has been blamed for the bomb.

The first part of Obaid's thesis details the covert pressure of Saudi preachers on King Faisal to order an oil embargo against the United States after the 1973 Middle East war, a step he eventually took "to pre-empt internal dissent and satisfy the growing frustration of the ulema (religious authorities)".

But it is the second half of his report, and its evidence of the immense power wielded by the most conservative elements in the Kingdom, that has so upset the Saudis.

He quotes a "senior official" at the Saudi ministry of justice - a member of the al-Shaikh family who have held the highest religious offices in the Kingdom - as saying King Fahd sought the help of his senior religious leaders before allowing US troops to land in Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait in 1990. "All the senior ulema were categorically against the idea," a court official is quoted as telling Obaid. "It was only after long discussions with the King ... that Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel- Aziz Bin Baz reluctantly gave his endorsement to the idea on condition that solid proof be presented as to the [Iraqi] threat."

The King was persuaded to admit the US forces after a meeting of the Saudi High Command at which General Saleh el-Mahya, the army commander, talked of the "pitiful lack of uniformed men" in his forces and General Ahmad Behery, the air force commander, said that, given the strength of Iraqi land forces, a Saudi air defence would be "futile".

US Defense Secretary Dick Cheney would later promise that US troops would not stay in Saudi Arabia "a minute longer than they were needed".

A meeting of 350 ulemas at Mecca eventually agreed to the temporary US military presence.

But to appease the ulema, King Fahd was forced to make concessions, increasing the authority of the Mutaween, the religious police who impose the strictest laws of Wahhabiism, a purist Islamic faith original expounded by Mohamed bin Abdul Wahab, whose descendants are now the powerful al-Shaikh family. For Wahhabis, only the strictest Islamic law is valid, while unbelievers are infidels, deserving punishment.

This same religious police would later create the Taliban's Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Suppression of Vice, which has made Afghan women prisoners in their own homes.

In Saudi Arabia, Obaid says, the US underestimated the ulemas' dissatisfaction when American troops stayed on.

Thus, the bombers who struck at US personnel, first in the capital, Riyadh, and then in Dhahran, "did not originate externally, but derived their theological and strategic underpinnings from the mainstream Wahhabi sect".

As resentment grew and Sheikh Salman al-Audah and Sheikh Safar al-Hawali demanded the withdrawal of US troops, Saudi security forces found that their followers tried to prevent their arrest.

According to a former interior ministry official, Obaid says, the region's governor, Prince Faisal bin Bandar, went to Riyadh "to seek ... assistance from the special forces of the Ministry of Interior". US intelligence officers "should have recognised the significance ... that this `extremist' group gained enormous popular support through propaganda that directly targeted US, French and British troops".

Obaid quotes a former senior Pakistani civil servant saying that in Afghanistan "the US provided the weapons and the know-how, the Saudis provided the funds, and we provided the training camps ... for the Islamic Legions in the early 1980s and then for the Taliban."

The Saudis and the US chose the Taliban, Obaid says, with the belief that they would be able to take over Afghanistan.

But it was the Taliban's supreme commander who would later demand "a removal of all US troops from Saudi Arabia". Ominously, Obaid adds, "this is the same call made by Wahhabi fundamentalists in the Kingdom before the Riyadh and Dhahran bombings. And if Mr bin Laden actually was behind these attacks, there is even more reason to fear Taliban-inspired terrorism."

Obaid goes on: "According to a high-ranking official in the [Saudi] ministry of justice, Sheikh Mohamed bin Jubier [current chairman of the Saudi Consultative Council], who has been called the `exporter' of the Wahhabi creed in the Muslim world, was a strong advocate of aiding the Taliban."

The connection should have been clear to US operatives in the region, as it was known that the Taliban were largely composed of Afghan refugees from Pakistani theological schools, whose clerics "received their degrees from Saudi Arabia and taught a strict form of Wahhabi theology and law".

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