Friday, July 20, 2007

Loose Saudi cannons in Lebanon

Former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri

Loose Saudi cannons in Lebanon
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - More than 10 years ago, Lebanese comedian Wassim Tabbara staged a brilliant satire called Sleep on My Silk about Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. He showed Hariri having just returned to Lebanon in the 1990s from a fruitful career in Saudi Arabia (where he had made billions). Hariri was known at the time as Saudi Arabia's No 1 man in Beirut.
He is shown telling a wealthy Saudi sheikh about the terrible economic conditions in Lebanon, but tales of the economic misery were not enough to get the sheikh to donate to Lebanon. Hariri adds that if Lebanon falls, "Then there is no longer Bhamdoun or Aley for you!"
This was a reference to the two summer resorts that wealthy Saudis have frequented over the years for gambling and pleasure in Lebanon. Stunned by the reality, the sheikh begins to weep. "No more nightclubs for you!" More sobs. "No more casinos for you!" The sheikh falls apart in tears and starts writing out blank checks to the Lebanese prime minister.
Much has changed since then, yet much remains the same. Lebanon is still strongly allied to Saudi Arabia, thanks to Hariri's son and political successor, Saad. The Saudis invested heavily in the elder Hariri's Lebanon in the 1990s and have worked relentlessly since his assassination in 2005 to prevent the country's disintegration.
Nowadays, however, Saudi Arabia is exporting more than gamblers, tourists and investors to Lebanon. It is - unwillingly - sending terrorists and suicide bombers to Lebanon, particularly to the formerly sleepy city of Tripoli, where a radical Islamic fanatic group called Fatah al-Islam is waging war against the Lebanese Army.
Last week, Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz released his latest report on the assassination of Rafik Hariri. He confirmed that the suicide bomber who murdered the premier was not Lebanese - nor Syrian. Rather, he came from a "hot district", which probably is a reference to Saudi Arabia.
Most terrorists in radical Islamic groups from the Persian Gulf region come from Saudi Arabia. We find fewer suicide bombers from Kuwait, or any from Oman, the United Arab Emirates or Qatar.
The bomber, according to Brammertz, had spent only about four months of his life in Lebanon and nearly 10 years in a "rural area", possibly the mountains of Afghanistan. After all, hundreds of Saudis lived there when working with the United States to combat the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. This sheds light once more on Saudi jihadis in Lebanon.
Coinciding with the Brammertz report were other stories from the Naher al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Saudi journalist Faris bin Khuzam, writing for the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, put the number of Saudi jihadis in Lebanon operating from Naher al-Bared at 300. He claims they were "lured" into a battlefield "other than the one they wanted", saying that they had plans to fight the Americans in Iraq, and ended up in Tripoli.
The reason, he explained, is tight security on the Syrian border (in addition to the Saudi one) preventing them from making a breakthrough into war-torn Iraq. Instead, they found their way into Lebanon and stayed for what initially seemed to be a temporary transit period. "Gradually the pendulum shifted," Khuzam wrote, adding that "they were told that the road to Jerusalem runs through here [Naher al-Bared]". He concluded, "They chose the Saudi dream that Osama bin Laden could not fulfill."
The secretary general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Beirut, Sultan Abu al-Aynein, confirmed this tale, saying that 23 Saudi jihadis had been killed in Naher al-Bared, all members of Fatah al-Islam. They are buried in a collective grave in the battered refugee camp.
Other members of Fatah al-Islam who have surrendered to Lebanese authorities confirmed that 43 Saudi jihadis were in Naher al-Bared. The Lebanese weekly Al-Kifah al-Arabi said more than 50 people (mostly Saudis) were arrested by Lebanese authorities, while another 45 were still fighting.
Government authorities believe that more Saudis can be found in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Still some claim that Saudis in Lebanon can be divided into two groups: Fatah al-Islam and al-Qaeda. The first are found strictly within the Naher al-Bared camp and have almost been exterminated by the Lebanese Army, after two months of heavy combat. The Saudis in al-Qaeda are in silent cells, however, scattered all over Lebanon. They are a time-bomb that could explode at any moment.
In May, investigative US reporter Seymour Hersh gave a groundbreaking interview to CNN International's Your World Today, discussing the combat in Naher al-Bared. Hersh's comments caused an uproar in the US, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon because he blamed the US administration, the Saudis and the cabinet of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora of creating and arming Sunni fundamentalist groups such as Fatah al-Islam.
The purpose was to use them against the Iran-backed all-Shi'ite group Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Shi'ites have an armed wing, the reasoning went, so why shouldn't the Sunnis as well? In March, Hersh penned an exceptionally detailed essay in The New Yorker called "The redirection", saying that the US was supporting Sunni fanatic groups to counterbalance the spread of Shi'ite Islam - and the power of Iran - in the Arab world.
Part of the strategy was increased US-Saudi planning to undermine Hezbollah in Lebanon. Another way was to encourage Sunni extremists in the region, who, although anti-American, are equally anti-Shi'ite. Hersh pointed out that this was identical to the Saudi-US strategy of the 1980s, when they armed and supported bin Laden to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The architects of this policy are US Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, and former ambassador and current Saudi National Security Adviser Prince Bandar bin Sultan. They are responsible for the "redirection" toward fostering Sunni fanatics, and more recently for the creation of Fatah al-Islam to combat Hezbollah.
Hersh said, "The idea [is] that the Saudis promised they could control the jihadis, so we [US] spent a lot of money and time ... using and supporting the jihadis to help us beat the Russians in Afghanistan, and they turned on us. And we have the same pattern, not as if there's any lessons learned. The same pattern, using the Saudis again to support jihadis."
Fatah al-Islam, and the Saudis within it, rebelled against Siniora and the US, just as bin Laden did after US troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia in 1991. The Saudis, Hersh said, were telling the Americans, "We've created this movement, we can control it. It's not that we don't want the Salafis to throw bombs, it's who they throw them at - Hezbollah, [Iraqi Shi'ite cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr and the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran."
In his CNN interview, Hersh added, "The enemy of our enemy is our friend, just as the jihadi groups in Lebanon were also there to go after [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah. We're in the business of creating in some places, Lebanon in particular, sectarian violence."
All of this was dismissed as something of Hersh's imagination in March, but today, with the increasing number of Saudis showing up in Lebanon - and Iraq - it seems Hersh was not so wrong after all.
In Iraq, it was revealed by US officials that 45% of all foreign militants fighting the Americans come from Saudi Arabia. Contrary to what has been said in the past, only 15% come from Syria and Lebanon combined, and a relatively high 10% from North Africa. This was revealed in the Los Angeles Times, quoting a senior US official whose name remained anonymous.
He stressed that 50% of all Saudi fighters in Iraq arrive as ready-to-explode, indoctrinated suicide bombers, claiming that in the past six months, 4,000 people have been killed or injured in Iraq by these Saudi jihadis.
These words were echoed by Sami al-Askari, a senior adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He said, "The fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia has strong intelligence resources, and it would be hard to think that they are not aware of what is going on," claiming that clerics at Saudi mosques were encouraging citizens to wage a holy war in Iraq against Shi'ites.
The Saudi government acknowledges some of these realities. General Mansour Turki, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, commented: "Saudis are actually being misused. Someone is helping them come to Iraq. Someone is helping them inside Iraq. Someone is recruiting them to be suicide bombers. We have no idea who these people are. We aren't getting any formal information from the Iraqi government. If we get good feedback from the Iraqi government about Saudis being arrested in Iraq, probably we can help."
It is a pity indeed for all those familiar with contemporary Saudi history that the terrorists in Lebanon and Iraq carry the name "Saudi". This means that they are named after the founder of the oil-rich kingdom, King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, a heroic Arabian Bedouin who was anything but a terrorist, described often as a gentleman who wanted to develop his country at any cost.
He toyed with the idea of working with the Nazis during World War II, then shifted to the Americans during the era of president Franklin Roosevelt. Since then, Saudi Arabia and the US have worked together to combat a variety of enemies: communism, Nasserism, Khomeinism and terrorism. Hersh insists on portraying them as silent partners once again in combating Nassrallahism in Lebanon.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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