It's a Family Affair
by Stephen Schwartz
United States military and intelligence forces have intensified the hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. With U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visiting Afghanistan over the weekend of February 29, new attention has been focused on the long and uncontrolled frontier region between that country and west Pakistan, in which many believe Bin Laden is hiding.
A report by Iranian official media that Bin Laden had already been captured has been dismissed as false.
Bin Laden is joined as a target of the search by Mullah Omar, the former head of the Taliban dictatorship. As a native of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar may enjoy more significant opportunities to hide among the local population. But the inch-by-inch effort to locate both men has been reinforced by technological innovations.
Pakistan has lent military assets to the campaign, reportedly having accounted for more dead and detained members of al-Qaida than any other support of the U.S.
And in what appears as a major new development, U.S. personnel are now interrogating the relatives of captured terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan about the possible location of the wanted men, noting that the same tactic assisted in the location and arrest of Saddam Hussein.
The latter point is especially interesting, because it points, at least implicitly, to the missing element in the effort to apprehend Bin Laden.
Bin Laden is a Saudi. Why not interrogate his numerous Saudi relatives about his probable whereabouts?
Disclaimers about his relationship with his family have been issued for years, insisting that he is an outcast from the wealthy clan because of his extremism. As every American paying attention also knows, similar protests have been broadcast far and wide by the Saudi authorities, who claim they have no connection with al-Qaida and, indeed, are as much a target of its violence as the U.S. And the Saudi authorities claim that, having deprived the terrorist boss of his passport some years ago, they no longer have anything to do with him.
Nevertheless, the evidence of numbers and other facts cannot be denied.
First, of course, there is the matter of the 15 out of 19 suicide hijackers on September 11, 2001, who happened to be Saudi subjects. They were not Palestinians or other products of poor Arab societies, much less residents of refugee camps.
Second, it has been reported that a quarter of the detainees at the U.S. camp in Guantanamo are Saudis.
Third, al-Qaida itself is a Saudi phenomenon through and through. Its ideology, Wahhabism, is the state form of Islam in the kingdom.
Fourth, none of the identified Saudi founders and funders of al-Qaida has been arrested by authorities in the kingdom. The rich Saudis whose money went to create the organization continue walking the streets of Saudi Arabia unmolested.
Fifth, al-Qaida activities against the Saudi kingdom all have ambiguous aspects. Al-Qaida has never attacked a single representative of the Saudi ruling family, or a single institution of the Saudi state. One might think that the thousands of Saudi princes and princesses who travel and live abroad would provide a rich field of targets for al-Qaida, but they do not. In the Riyadh bombings last year, the terrorists used government vehicles and wore official uniforms. While this could have represented diversionary camouflage, it could also have indicated that support for the atrocities came from within the ruling structure.
Sixth, notwithstanding claims in Western media, Bin Laden does not call for the overthrow of the kingdom, only for changes in its policies. And some al-Qaida figures have argued that terrorism inside Saudi Arabia is a liability, to that it is better to attack U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.
Dissident sources both inside Saudi Arabia and abroad argue that Saudi authorities know much more about Bin Laden and his whereabouts than they have been willing to admit to U.S. representatives. Some even say the Saudi government knows where he is hiding.
In addition, Saudi reluctance to follow through on the necessary investigative and related measures that would shut al-Qaida down has become a matter of absurdity. It took the U.S. and the Saudis many months after September 11 to finally agree on curtailing the activities of the al-Haramain Foundation, a Saudi-based charity found to have been involved in support for al-Qaida. Other such organizations, such as the Muslim World League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, and the International Islamic Relief Organization -- all of them official Saudi agencies -- have been shown to be complicit in the financial basis of terrorism.
President Bush should have made it clear on September 12, 2001, that the U.S. would settle for nothing less than a full and transparent report of Saudi involvement in al-Qaida. Bizarrely, many Americans seem to accept the notion that there is no way to obtain such an accounting. But such disclosure by the Saudis cannot be avoided, unless Americans are willing to live with a hole in our history when it comes to the horror of September 11. Such a gap would be bad enough in terms of understanding why so many died needlessly and cruelly, but it would be deeply immoral if based on a wish to remain polite with Saudi authorities that may have supported, or at least ignored the preparation, of such an act.
Interrogating relatives of terrorists as a way to locate Bin Laden is a great idea; but the process should begin with Bin Laden's own family, on Saudi territory, conducted by U.S. investigators.