Divided kingdom that became a cradle for determined killers

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The Independent Online

Our fleets and aircraft may be heading for the land and sea close to Afghanistan but, in the days to come, the attention of diplomats and intelligence agents is likely to be focused on an ally whose citizens – perhaps as many as 12 of them – were among the 19 hijackers who slaughtered more than 7,000 people: Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are not handing out visas to journalists right now – and why should they when their enquiries would reveal a kingdom that is ever more dangerously balanced between religious extremists and the royal family which first invited American troops to Saudi Arabia more than 11 years ago? At least six of the hijackers aboard the four jets come from Saudi Arabia, most from middle-class, even wealthy families. Some of them are followers of Safar Hawali, a dissident cleric who has repeatedly demanded – like Osama bin Laden – that US forces be withdrawn from the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia's internal tensions are becoming more transparent as the full story of the attacks is pieced together. If the Taliban government in Afghanistan – itself a Saudi creation funded with millions of dollars by the now-fired head of the Saudi secret police, Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud – is hiding Mr bin Laden, what of the Saudis whose intelligence service was so poor it had no idea six of its citizens were planning an attack on the US? In private, most Saudis acknowledge the growing strains – if not open hostility – between the Saudi ulema (religious authorities) and the royal family.

"This has always been a problem and we know the sensitivities that exist now," an old Saudi friend remarked yesterday. "Hawali is a fanatic and I had an argument with him once. He has no idea of compromise. His mind is made up about everything. But every country has its fanatics and mad guys. You had them in Lebanon. They exist in Chechnya and Pakistan." None of those countries, however, can boast six – perhaps 12 – of its citizens among the suicide crews who killed so many thousands in America this month.

Hamza Alghamdi was from Baljurchi, in the Saudi province of Baha, the same town from which Ahmed Alghamdi and Ahmed Alhaznawi – both named as hijackers – came. The Saudi newspaper Al-Watan published a report this week that a man named Hamza Saleh Alghamdi had left home for Chechnya and then telephoned his parents to ask them to forgive him and pray for him. His father insists that the photograph of Alghamdi published by the FBI is not that of his son.

So is this a case of yet another stolen passport being used to create a false identity for the hijackers? Hani Hanjour, the hijacker who piloted the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, came from the Saudi hill resort of Ta'if. Like the Lebanese family of Ziad Jarrahi, who apparently piloted the airliner that crashed in Pennsylvania after a revolt by passengers, Hanjour's parents insist that he must have been an innocent passenger on the plane.

The brothers Wail and Waleed M Alshehri came from Khamis Mushayt near Abha, the city where Safar Hawali preaches. Ahmed Alnami was also from Asir province – Abha is its capital and he appears to have been a prayer leader in its mosque.

Despite this clear evidence that Saudi Arabia has been a cradle of determined killers, no debate has been opened in the kingdom as to how – or why – these young men, all of whom were in their twenties, would form a suicide squad. To ask this question would open the schism within Saudi society and demonstrate the power of the ulema, the same religious leaders whom Mr bin Laden has always claimed were on his side. The most recent rift between the ulema and the Saudi government came over, of all things, insurance – with the religious leaders claiming it is un-Islamic. Instead of opposing the powerful religious elite, the government allowed policies to be issued by "offshore" companies with representatives living in the kingdom.

Fearful that the US will discover the deep-seated friction within Saudi society, the Saudis have effectively neutered American efforts to interview men arrested for suspected bombings. Prince Turki al-Saud has made no comment since his dismissal last month. As usual, the Saudis want to keep a very thick Arab robe tied tightly around their own dissidents – lest the world discovers that Afghanistan only nurtures what Saudi Arabia produces.

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