Saudis Blame U.S. and Its Role in Iraq for Rise of Terror

By JOEL BRINKLEY

New York Times

October 15, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 13 - Seventeen months into a shadowy terror campaign that has killed more than 100 people, numerous Saudis express less anger at the insurgents than at the United States for its invasion of Iraq, the signal event that they say touched off the attacks inside the kingdom.

In interviews over the last week, the Saudis condemned the terror attacks, aimed primarily at foreigners, but called them a small inconvenience that has not forced them to make significant changes in their daily lives. By contrast, they expressed unremitting disdain for the United States.

Many Saudis appear to have reached a form of intellectual accommodation with those carrying out the violence. When asked about the attackers' goals, they assigned varied motives but often one that is consistent with their personal, social or political concerns.

The interviews were with nearly two dozen Saudis, from a bejeweled prince of the royal court, sipping coffee at a cafe, to a truck driver wearing a frayed caftan, clutching a bag of onions at a local supermarket.

"The attackers want the government to give more money to the people," said the truck driver, Jaber al-Malky, 24. But Prince Mubarak al-Shafi said, "This certain sect of people is unhappy about alien ideas, particularly about the democracy that the United States wants from nations all over the world, especially Saudi Arabia."

Behind all this lies an ever more complex Saudi-American relationship. Its foundation, of course, is the shared need to buy and sell oil. But the fact that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi has become an issue in the presidential campaign, as has the accusation that the Bushes are too close to the royal family.

No one here seems to care about any of that. Instead Saudis unceasingly complain about American support for Israel and the war in Iraq, which they call unjustified, though Saudi Arabia allowed American troops to operate here during the war. Government officials also say they deplore the Bush administration's call for more democracy here. "It's none of their business," one of them said with scorn.

Saudi Arabia's leaders offer conflicting opinions on the local terrorists' motives. Within hours of each other on Sunday, the Saudi interior minister and a half brother of King Fahd offered polar analyses.

"Unemployment creates one of the cornerstones of terrorism, and the poor who cannot get food on their table resort to other means," the king's half brother, Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, said at a conference in Amman, Jordan. In Kuwait, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the interior minister, told reporters he doubted that unemployment was the reason for the attacks here, according to an account in the Arab News daily. The prince, Arab News added, noted that many arrested suspects were well-paid employees.

Saudi Arabia has a long history with terrorism, beginning when Islamic militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. After that, the attacks came years apart and never became a consistent part of the fabric of life here, until May 13, 2003, when 25 people died in three coordinated suicide attacks on residential compounds here. That started a terror campaign that continues. That first attack and many that followed were attributed to Al Qaeda.

Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said the Iraq war had spawned the attacks and added that most Saudis held that view.

Many of the attackers came back to Saudi Arabia after fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, he said, drawing on interviews with arrested terrorists. "They were angry that their dream," a fundamentalist Islamic state, "had been killed by America," General al-Turki said. "They wanted to spread their war against the United States and found that doing this was easier in their own country. But it wasn't until the invasion of Iraq that they could convince others in the country to share their goals. For that reason, the invasion was very important to them."

Now, the general added, "I think we are a step ahead of them."

Saker M. al-Mokayyad, a director at the Naif Arab University for Security Services, said, "The situation is stable now." But the attacks continue, at least on a smaller scale. On Sept. 26, a French engineer, Laurent Barbot, was shot dead on the street in Jidda. Ten days earlier a British resident, Edward Muirhead-Smith, was fatally shot in Riyadh. A Saudi wing of Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.

Even with the continuing casualties, representatives of American communities say they have adjusted to the new reality of living here. Foreign complexes now lie behind heavy barricades, and residents try to avoid walking in public places. Most foreign workers have sent their families back home. Foreigners warily do their shopping and errands early in the day "because mornings are safer," said Gene W. Heck, head of the American Businessmen's Group in Riyadh.

Meanwhile, "business is going on anyway," said David Cantrell, an American business leader in Dhahran.

Saudis say that they do not like the continuing violence, but that it has changed their lives very little.

"The situation is not normal, but nothing is different now for me," said Ayman al-Ghamdi, 27, the manager of a marble business. Capt. Awab al-Hamiai of the National Guard said simply: "Our lives have not changed at all."

The Saudis interviewed were in complete agreement in their views of the United States and the role the Iraq war played in spawning the insurgency.

The first attacks in May 2003 came just as the major combat was ending in Iraq, "and that is when it really hit home here, with all the images of collateral damage," said Khaled al-Maeena, editor in chief of Arab News. "How could America be so oblivious to our feelings?"

Saudis certainly had no love for Saddam Hussein, but "why couldn't they topple Saddam and install a new government without destroying the country?" Prince Mubarak asked.

The Saudis said they see the attacks here as revenge against foreigners and against the Saudi government for failing to stop the Iraq war.

"The war in Iraq was absolutely not justified," said Saad al-Qahtni, 34, a businessman.

That led to attacks here because the Saudi government "did not prevent America from invading Iraq without justification," said Fareed Saad al-Asmari, a banker.

Those were common refrains. The attackers have seldom explained themselves. But when insurgents beheaded an American engineer, Paul M. Johnson Jr., in June, they said it was in revenge for "what thousands of Muslims taste every day because of the fire from the American Apache" helicopter.

Saudis have long held animosity toward the United States for its support of Israel. That and the invasion of Iraq "makes most people here hate the United States," said Captain al-Hamiai.

And at the same time, for decades it has been a rite of passage for wealthy Saudis to send their children to the United States for college.

"We are grateful to the United States; most of us were educated there," said Prince al-Shafi. He and others said Saudis are picking other countries for their children now because of their anger, and because of the immigration obstacles they believe they and other Arabs face traveling to the United States since 9/11.

As a result, foreigners living here say they the country is turning ever more inward.

"This was always an introspective society, but now I think it is turning xenophobic," said Mr. Heck, who has lived here for 34 years. "And I think the government likes that."

Still, despite the new attitudes, strong Western influences remain ingrained.

Mr. Qahtni, the businessman, railed about "the alien influences" that he said he believed were damaging Saudi society. He was seated at a Starbucks, sipping a tall cappuccino.