Comment: Dealing with Al Qaeda Terrorism
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April 5, 2004-As the traditional and modern worlds compete in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah, Osama bin Ladens birthplace, the battle lines are far from clear-cut. Every evening, as the sun begins to sink beneath the horizon on the Red Sea, across the city, muezzins begin the call for the Maghreb prayer, the fourth of the Muslim day. In the main souq market of the Al-Balad old town area, with its adjacent remnants of traditional large houses, built of coral and East Indian redwood, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who arrived in Jeddah in 1916 to assist the Arab struggle against the Ottoman Turks, would still find much that was familiar, today. As the stalls of the souq are shut for prayer, some minutes walk away on King Abdul Aziz Street, an electric billboard on a high-rise building brightens against a dark sky. The promotion of Japanese electronics is the incongruous backdrop to a mosque with its dusty foreground that is the centuries old site for public executions.
The battle between the traditional and the modern is played out in many Islamic countries. In Malaysia, the majority Muslim population recently rejected the Islamist party and retuned the multi-ethnic governing party to power with a sweeping majority. In neighbouring Indonesia, a quarter century of dictatorship has radicalised some of the population and has given birth to terrorist groups while in the Philippines, the current troubles on the southern island of Mindanao date back to Spanish rule. In Central Asia, the explosion of violence last week in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan which holds 5,000 political prisoners, cannot be isolated from the incendiary local conditions, while the dictatorship of President Islam Karimov wishes to present it as part of the fight against global terror. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980 was the catalyst for radicalising Islam in Pakistan while the rapid modernisation of life in the Middle East appears to some to conflict with the faith that is being thought in the schools.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran which was a reaction against the modernisation and corruption of the deposed Shah who was viewed as a stooge of the Great Satan, America. The leader of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeni arrived back from exile in Teheran on a Boeing 747 -a powerful symbol of American technological achievement. Today, the muttawa religious police in Saudi Arabia-formally known as the Committee for Preventing Vice and Enforcing Virtue- generally travel in air-conditioned vehicles built by non-believers. Coming to terms with the modern world including rights for women, is a problem for some and clearly feeds resentment and terrorism. The lack of any credible form of democracy in many of these countries is also a key issue. The Malaysian example shows that a country where views across the spectrum are represented in the political process, provides an antidote to terrorism.
As to Saudi Arabia, apart from the large-scale arrival of American forces in 1991, the other watershed event in the countrys modern history was the 1979 seizure by hundreds of armed militants of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Following five years of rapid economic modernisation, the Saudi Government was given the message that economic prosperity alone could not buy the support of its people. However, the balancing act of appeasing conservative sections of the society as economic development proceeded has been an issue for Saudi rulers since the 1920s. In the early twentieth century, Abdul Aziz Al-Saud who was known in the West as Ibn Saud, the father of King Fahd and founder of Saudi Arabia in 1932, had enlisted the support of the Ikhwan, a fierce fighting group from Central Arabia whose spiritual guide was Abdul Wahhab who had promoted a very stern version of Islam in the eighteenth century. By 1926 when Jeddah, Mecca and Medina, the principal cities of the Hejaz region of Western Arabia, had fallen to Ibn Saud, Abdul Wahhabs version of Islam had spread through much of Arabia. While the Ikhwan was disbanded because of its extremism, the adherents of the Wahhabbi interpretation of Islam have maintained a strong influence in Saudi Arabia since that period and until 2001 through the Taliban, in Afghanistan.
It has been said that the arrival of American forces in the country of Islams two holy cities Mecca and Medina, was a defining event for Osama bin Laden. However thats too simple an explanation. He was undoubtedly aware long before 1991 that American military personnel had been stationed in the Kingdom for decades and were engaged in training Saudi military personnel in Jeddah. As far back as 1944, the United States began construction of an airfield at Dhahran in the Eastern Province, as a staging base for anticipated military flights from Europe to the Far East theatre of operations. Besides, bin Laden was likely to have been also aware of the military construction projects with an American connection, of his family construction company, the Saudi bin Laden Group. Bin Ladens turning point appeared to have taken place in Afghanistan during the campaign against the Soviet occupation. The terrorist campaign that began against Saudi Arabian based American forces in 1995 was also directed against the Saudi Government.
However, as to bin Laden, the use of Western technologies and wealth that accumulated from the use of these technologies, is hard to square with his rejection of the non-Islamic world. Americans had discovered oil in Saudi Arabia in 1938 and bin Ladens father Mohomed who was a close associate of Ibn Saud had used Western technology and expatriates extensively in building the modern Saudi Arabia.
More than a decade after the entry of American forces to protect Saudi Arabia and prepare for the expulsion of the Iraqis from Kuwait, its not surprising that there are reports of ambivalence in Jeddah towards its most infamous son. To put it simply, U.S. support for or tepid opposition to Israels policy post 1967 of colonising the West Bank with settlements has been disastrous for Americas standing in the Arab world. As a policy to improve Israels security, it also has been an abject failure. Americans may well be bewildered that its past assistance to Saudi Arabia is not given a greater weight than its Israeli policy. The reality is that as with individual personal relationships worldwide, one negative issue can totally overwhelm so much that is positive. We in Ireland are also familiar with past ambivalence to violence in particular in the 1970s and 1980s from people who would have abhorred particular atrocities but who nevertheless admired the perpetrators because they had conviction in their cause.
Saudi Arabia nevertheless has good reason to be thankful for American support in the period leading up to the Gulf War. On Saturday August 3rd 1990, the day following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Cable News Network (CNN) reported that 180,000 Iraqi troops were massing on the border with Saudi Arabia. Just to the south of the frontier, the oil fields that provided Saudi Arabia with its immense wealth were under imminent threat. On the same day in Washington D.C., Secretary of Defense Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Powell briefed the then and current Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar (son of Prince Sultan, the third in line to the Saudi throne) on the greatest threat to the Kingdom, in its history. The succeeding days were tense and uncertain. Then on Thursday August 8th, the large-scale deployment of American military to Saudi Arabia was announced in Riyadh and Washington. Apart from the threat to both the Saudi and global economies that the seizure of the oil fields would have entailed, a population of nearly 20 million people was largely dependent on its water supply on vulnerable desalination plants on both the eastern and western coasts of the country. In the desert region where daytime August temperatures can exceed 45 degrees Celsius, the prospect of a human disaster of gigantic proportions was not in the realms of fantasy. In Jeddah, residents stockpiled water and food as the build-up to the Gulf War proceeded. There was a fear that missiles would be launched from the Sudan, an ally of Iraq.
In the current war, consistency is as absent as in every human conflict. Both sides can support their views with a rich arsenal from history. However, it can mean very little to the poor Mexicans who relied on the remittances of their relatives who were working the September 11th morning shift in the Windows on the World restaurant of the World Trade Center, to Afghani and Iraqi civilians whove lived through hell for decades and other victims of terrorism. A just settlement of Israeli-Palestinian issues will have a greater long-term impact in the war against extremism, than any number of cruise missiles. The challenge for America and the West is to both wage war against extremism through intelligence, legal and military means where necessary while maintaining an equally serious parallel effort to find a lasting settlement in the Middle East. Then the deadly intolerance of bin Laden will get little support.
Finally, there is one Muslim nation with as distinct a culture as that of the Palestinian people, which was also shamefully treated when the Ottoman Empire was carved up. A short letter from the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in November 1917, to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, committed the British government to the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people, in Palestine. The letter, which became known as the Balfour Declaration, was issued without any regard for the rights of Palestinians. Then in the aftermath of the First World War, the maps of modern Turkey, Syria and Iraq were produced without any regard for the Kurdish people. Today, Kurdish Muslims struggle to keep their culture alive in Muslim Turkey, the ally of the West while in northern Iraq, Kurdish Muslims rejoice that President Bush brought them a freedom that that they could only dream of during Saddam's rule. The cold reality however, is that the plight of the Kurds will not bring the masses onto the Arab streets while with the issue of Palestine, the enemy is very clear. So while the Kurdish people may never have a homeland, the Palestinian people will at some future time have an independent state and at least there will be one excuse for extremism extinguished.
- Michael Hennigan
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