America turns heat on 'soft on terror' Saudis
by Tony Allen-Mills, Nick Fielding and Hala Jaber
More than 60 American law enforcement and intelligence officials arrived in Riyadh yesterday to join the team investigating last week's suicide attacks on three residential compounds of western expatriate workers.
The sharp increase in the US counterterrorist presence followed warnings from American officials that Saudi Arabia was not doing enough to crack down on Islamic militant activity. The new arrivals included forensic experts, crime scene investigators, communications specialists and intelligence analysts.
The Saudi government portrayed the move as evidence of a new spirit of co-operation in the aftermath of the attacks that killed 34 people, plus nine suicide bombers, and stunned the Saudi capital. Investigators have yet to establish whether the bombers were linked to Al-Qaeda or represented militant Islamic opposition to the Saudi royal family.
American officials praised the Saudi government for what they described as important new steps in the pursuit of terrorists. John Ashcroft, the US attorney general, said he was "delighted with the indication that the Saudis are taking this very seriously".
Yet behind the expressions of mutual satisfaction lay a hornet's nest of American wrath and resentment.
Experts in Washington warned that a 50-year relationship that has formed one of the cornerstones of American policy in the Middle East may have become so damaged that no amount of belated co-operation will be able to repair it.
The Saudi failure to react to a series of American warnings last month that a terrorist attack was imminent spurred renewed calls in Washington for a radical reappraisal of relations with Saudi Arabia. Last week's attacks appear to have strengthened the hand of American foreign policy hawks who have long been convinced that evil lurks at the heart of the Saudi regime.
"There is a very large question mark over the behaviour of the Saudi authorities," said Laurent Murawiec, a French Islamic scholar who sparked an international incident last year by warning the Pentagon that Saudi officials were "active at every level of the terror chain". Murawiec added: "I think that American patience has worn very, very thin."
It was an intercepted e-mail from an Al-Qaeda suspect that first focused American attention earlier this month on the threat of a new bombing campaign.
As a result Cofer Black, a counterterrorism specialist with the CIA, was dispatched to Riyadh in mid-April to share American intelligence, indicating that an attack was "now just a matter of time". When that visit failed to produce results, Stephen Hadley, the US deputy national security adviser, was diverted to Saudi Arabia on May 3 during a trip to Moscow and Israel.
According to American officials, Hadley was instructed by the White House to meet Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, to stress American concern. Yet despite claims by Saudi officials that their government "did what was needed", bombers met little resistance when they attacked the Riyadh compounds.
"It is a travesty when nations such as Yemen and Pakistan are more helpful in the war on terrorism than the Saudis have been," said Dr Daniel Goure, a Pentagon adviser and expert on the Middle East. Stephen Schwartz, author of a study subtitled The House of Saud from Tradition to Terror, complained that Washington was "tiptoeing around reality".
Schwartz said: "The bombings in Riyadh are only the latest evidence that the Saudi government cannot and will not suppress extremists. Why should we wish to return to a role as happy courtesans of the most reactionary, benighted, oppressive monarchy in ancient history?"
Compounding American frustration was suspicion that the raids were carried out by a group of 19 suspected militants, almost all Saudi nationals, who fled two weeks ago after a shoot-out at a house where authorities discovered a massive arsenal of weapons and explosives. A supposedly surprise attack on the house by Saudi security forces failed to net a single suspect.
In the southern mountain village of Muslema, Othman bin Abdullah Al-Waleedy last week mourned his family's disgrace. After months without a word from Mohammad, his 27-year-old son, Al-Waleedy learnt last week that he was believed to be among the suicide bombers.
Villagers gathered over pots of Arabic coffee as Al-Waleedy spoke of his grief and disappointment at the destruction Mohammad had allegedly caused. Another son, Awad, said his brother must have been "brainwashed by evil people".
Others wondered how many more men like Mohammad were lurking in Saudi villages.
"To a nation that prides itself as a crime-free society, the attacks were a real shock in their ferocity, planning and ugliness," said Khaled al-Maeena, the editor-in-chief of Arab News.
With the Saudi economy under pressure from a population boom and the education system largely in the hands of Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalists, some American officials are wondering if the time has come for a previously unthinkable strategic break.
After years of dependence on Saudi oil, victory in Iraq has offered Washington a credible alternative.
The Pentagon's recent announcement that American troops will be withdrawn from Saudi soil was seen by analysts last week as the beginning of what may become a strategy of US disengagement from Riyadh in favour of build-ups elsewhere in the Gulf.
"We now have to distance ourselves - both in order to put pressure on them on the anti-terrorism front and secondly in case it all comes apart," said Goure.
Murawiec said last week that his original presentation to the Pentagon's defence policy board - in which he described Saudi Arabia as "central to the self-destruction of the Arab world" - had been "99% to 100% vindicated".
He added: "Saudi Arabia tried everything to prevent, then hinder the US campaign against Iraq. They failed, but made it clear they are an un-trustworthy and unreliable ally - that means they are no ally at all. The marriage of convenience between these two countries is in the acrimonious final phase before the divorce court."
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