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December 25, 2002

The story behind the story

Mort Zuckerman in the Jewish World Review writes about Who finances the fanatics?

The terrorist assault by suicidal Muslim fanatics stunned the nation and its leaders. To this day the fallout plagues America and the West. No, we're not talking 9/11. The date was Nov. 20, 1979. The place? Saudi Arabia. About 500 fundamentalists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site of Islam, and took 6,000 pilgrims hostage. It took two weeks for security forces to retake the mosque. Hundreds of pilgrims died. Sixty-three rebels were captured and beheaded.

The siege was a devastating blow to the House of Saud. It mocked their role as guardian of Islam's holy places and forced them to defend their religious legitimacy from the charge that they had failed to reject the self-indulgent temptations of western life. Saudi leaders were distressed. They understood the deep attachment of their people to their puritanical variant of Islam, Wahhabism. Once aroused, this was a force that could topple the regime. Their response? Co-opt the ideology of the Wahhabists and give Wahhabi clerics more control over the social, economic, and educational life of the kingdom. Even worse, the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs was given billions of dollars to export Wahhabism to the Muslim world. It financed fundamentalist religious schools known as madrasahs in Pakistan and built Wahhabist-oriented mosques from the Balkans to Indonesia to America, where 60 percent are Wahhabi-funded.

The result was the emergence of a militant form of Islam that today pervades much of the Muslim world. Wahhabism has effectively replaced communism as the root of anti-Western ideology. The Wahhabi lobby reminds one of the old Kremlin-style propaganda in its paranoid delusions, but it is far more pernicious, an unending stream of the most vicious anti-American, antisemitic bigotry.

Much of the funding for this toxic effluent comes from the wealthiest Saudis, through what they call "charities." Their purpose has been to fund the extremists in exchange for their promise not to direct their wrath against Saudi interests. The Saudi deflection of Wahhabism onto the world outside was clever, but it came at a price-the nourishment of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups hostile to the West.

A sea of Saudi money supports al Qaeda, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and other radical groups around the Muslim world. Canadian intelligence estimates that Saudi-based charities alone funnel between $1 million and $2 million a month to al Qaeda. In a recent report, the Council on Foreign Relations noted that "individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al Qaeda, and for years Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem."

Osama bin Laden grew up in a culture that fostered the belief that the very existence of the West is an affront to Islam. Bin Laden sees his destiny as uniting all Muslim lands and re-establishing the original caliphate of a millennium ago. In this messianic view, the U.S.-led forces that remained in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War a decade ago are a violation of Islam's sanctuary-and further proof of the corruption of the House of Saud.

All this raises grave questions about the future of U.S.-Saudi relations. For years, America's easy access to Saudi oil was guaranteed by its protection of the kingdom from foreign threat. For America, the deal has had costs unrelated to providing protection. We have been seen as backing a corrupt, authoritarian regime even as we have become targets of Islamic fanatics fanning out of Saudi Arabia, funded by Saudis.

The Saudi regime was slow to awake to this problem, illuminated most recently by an Arabian night's tale involving the wife of the influential Saudi ambassador to Washington. Briefly, Princess Haifa authorized checks in excess of $100,000. The money, the princess said, was to have gone to pay medical expenses of a woman she had never met; somehow, however, much of it wound up in the hands of a man who helped two of the hijackers who piloted United Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Saudi authorities deny any ties to terrorists.

But this re-emphasized the danger of unaccountable Saudi petrodollars sent out to charities in the rest of the world without control and little concern for what happens outside the kingdom. Pressure is growing on the House of Saud to end its Faustian bargain with fanaticism. The Saudis, in response, have announced measures to provide more oversight of money going into charities directly or through their banks. So far, so good.

The Saudis must realize that President Bush sees 9/11 as a wake-up call. He has turned those events into the mission of his presidency, really, the mission of his life. He will not shrink from putting pressure on anyone who does not disown and delegitimize extremists who kill. The Saudis so far have avoided finding themselves in the terrorists' cross hairs. They will truly regret it if they get into the cross hairs of America.

Ted Belman