Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 14, 2015

Seymour Hersh, Saudi Arabia and the truth about al-Qaeda

Filed under: indigenous,Islam,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Since I don’t have access to retired intelligence agency officials either in the USA or Pakistan, I am not in a position to judge most of Seymour Hersh’s 10,000 word article in the LRB but I do want to weigh in on one paragraph:

A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. ‘The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money – lots of it. The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Laden’s imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing.’

As should be obvious, Hersh is repeating a claim that he has made for some time now and that is embraced by most of the left, at least that part of the left that views Saudi Arabia as behind al-Qaeda. The words “what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida” resonates with perhaps 30,000 articles that have appeared in places like WSWS.org et al. It is part and parcel of an analysis that Saudi Arabia used al-Qaeda as a proxy in Syria and that its ultimate goal was war with Iran, its Shi’ite enemy.

You can read a 2007 New Yorker article in which Hersh argues along those lines:

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Really? Hadn’t Hersh noticed that the USA had spent trillions of dollars installing and then bolstering a Shi’ite government in Iraq that had close ties to the Iranian clerics? Was Maliki a secret Sunni? Who knows? Since Hersh has a way of unearthing conspiracies, maybe there’s an article he wrote somewhere that identifies Maliki as a secret Sunni operative.

This is not to speak of Osama bin-Laden’s attitude toward US relations with Saudi Arabia. Has Hersh forgotten what turned bin-Laden against the USA? It was the presence of American (as well as British and French) troops in the spiritual heart of Islam that apparently led to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda was in fact a dagger aimed as much at the Saudi royalty as it was American interests. That is why, of course, Osama bin-Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991.

In addition, Hersh does not seem to be aware that the Saudis fought a pitched battle against al-Qaeda militants in May of 2005 that left 18 dead in a 3-day battle. Furthermore, the violence has continued up until this day. Just this month the Saudi police arrested a number of al-Qaeda members for their role in organizing a suicide bomb attack in Riyadh.

Maybe the confusion is that some Saudi businessmen have given money to jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, and that a number of the 9/11 terrorists had Saudi citizenship. If that is the criterion for judging “Saudis” to be behind al-Qaeda, then you might as well claim that “America” was aiding the Sandinistas since Tecnica brigades regularly brought tons of equipment to Nicaragua in the 1980s and even provided volunteers to government agencies—including me. I never would make such a claim myself but then again I don’t write for the New Yorker Magazine and other blue chip journals (except CounterPunch.)

Perhaps the confusion is over the actual national identity of bin-Laden and the 9/11 “Saudi” terrorists. Yes, it is true that they had Saudi citizenship but their relationship to the ruling families is not what it might appear.

The bin-Ladens were originally from Yemen and had a strong sense of identity with the Qahtani tribe that was based there and that resented the Adnan tribe that dominated the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Yemeni connection was very strong in al-Qaeda, according to Akbar Ahmad, the author of “The Thistle and the Drone”, 95 percent of al-Qaeda was Yemeni or Saudis who were born and raised in Yemen, particularly the Asir region. Ten of the 9/11 attackers were ethnically tied to the Asir tribes, including Mohammad Atta—the mastermind. The 9/11 Commission stated that a number of the men who formed the reserves for the attack were Yemenis as well.

If you want to learn more about the Yemeni connection, I strongly recommend Ahmad’s book that argues that tribalism rather than Islam explains the particularly violent revenge motif that runs like a red thread through Sunni-based jihadi movements globally. He explains that the tribes of Asir are largely nomadic and trace their origins to the Qahtanis.

The royal family in Saudi Arabia that was descended from the Adnans annexed the Asir region in 1934 through a bloody war that cost the lives of 400,000 people. The annexation was followed by an invasion of Saudi clerics who forced their Wahhabi beliefs on the conquered tribesmen. Ahmad’s description of the vanquished Asiri tribes is striking:

The Asir men wore skirt-like apparel revealing much of their legs, and they went without socks. Famously known as “flower men”, they kept their hair long and adorned it with flowers. Even their turbans were decorated with flowers, grass and stones.

An Asiri tribesman

Within decades the Asiri tribes were forcibly assimilated into the dominant Wahhabi/Adnan culture just like American Indians being forced to become “white”.

Although he was from a different part of Yemen originally, Osama bin-Laden’s father felt at home in Asir. He was there to lead a construction crew that was building highway 51 from the north into Yemen with Saudi funding. Although he got rich, the Asiris got nothing from the oil wealth that was lubricating Saudi society. In 1980 the province had only 535 beds for 700,000 residents. The Asiris regarded the Saudis as arrogant and resented their vulgar displays of wealth.

In 1979 the resentment boiled over into an armed takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. 127 Saudi cops were killed and 117 Asiri rebels died as well in the fighting. A further 63 were beheaded after being captured.

Like the Chechens, another conquered people, the Asiris soon found international outlets for their anger. In the 1980s it was the primary recruiting ground for foreign fighters joining the Afghan resistance. Many of them would go on to join the group that bin-Laden formed in 1988: al-Qaeda. In the following decade, these militants would form the backbone of the resistance to the Saudi royal family and its American backers.

I doubt that any of this would be of interest to Seymour Hersh who thrives on reductionist conspiracy theories but if you are in the least bit curious about such realities, I urge you to read Akbar Ahmad’s very fine study of tribal Islam.

2 Comments »

  1. Excellent post. I too have long been bored by the continuous repetition of “Saudi Arabia backs al-Qaida” based on things such as common nationality etc, when it is well-known that, as Louis points out, the aim of overthrowing the “apostate” Saudi monarchy was in many ways the exacr raison d’etre of al-Qaida. However, this research about the Saudi conquest of Asir and the fact that al-Qaida has its origins in that region gives a whole new perspective to this virulent anti-Saudi politics of al-Qaida.

    Comment by Michael Karadjis — May 15, 2015 @ 4:10 am

  2. I have Akbar Ahmad’s book. Most of what he wrote rings truer than right-left pundit stuff. (As a general rule, history that’s too easy and not messy is too good to be true. W/Ahmad there’s at least a hint of the roaring mess. And poor flower men!) I have not read Sy Hersh’s latest. After the Sarin “controversy”, I figured it would be pure 100 percent junk.

    Comment by mui — May 15, 2015 @ 1:28 pm


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