The following is an excerpt from Jamestown Correspondent Mahan Abedin’s interview with Jamal Khashoggi, A Saudi journalist and media advisor to the Saudi Ambassador to the UK, Prince Turki al-Faisal. He was previously editor-in-chief of the Saudi daily al-Watan. The interview was conducted July 7, 2004 at the Saudi embassy in London. The full text of the interview is available at http://www.jamestown.org/images/pdf/tm_002_014-ftinterview.pdf
Mahan Abedin: Could you give a description of the terrorism threat that now confronts Saudi Arabia?
Jamal Khashoggi: Okay, I see it as a problem not a crisis, but nonetheless it should be treated as a crisis. It is not a threat or an insurgency that can topple the government. However, it is a problem that affects the three most important assets of Saudi Arabia, namely Islam, oil and stability. The blow to our stability has been acutely felt, given that Saudi Arabia was previously renowned as one of the safest and most stable countries in the world. We were proud of this fact and are anxious to regain this reputation. More broadly, I see this threat not as a permanent fixture in Saudi Arabia but rather as a passing phase. It is only a matter of time before we overwhelm the forces of terror.
MA: It is interesting that you characterize the threat in a way that does not seem to pose an existential threat to the Saudi Royal family. Can we conclude from your assessment that your government sees this problem as a purely security matter and therefore will largely depend on the deployment of security measures to tackle the problem, or do you concede that there are deeper socio-economic and cultural forces at play here?
JK: I am not saying that we are going to rely on purely security measures to tackle this threat. The problem is that there are two sides of fanaticism in Saudi Arabia. There are violent and non-violent fanatics. The former are composed of al-Qaeda people and their allies. The latter while sharing the agenda of the terrorists, ultimately eschew violence on the basis that it is self-defeating.
MA: What is your government’s plan to deal with the terrorist crisis that engulfed the Kingdom in May last year?
JK: Exactly what they are doing right now. The Saudi government is employing security measures to destroy the terrorists. These include extensive intelligence gathering operations, interrogation of detainees and the identification and storming of safe houses. There have been a series of successes on these fronts. At the same time the government is tackling the forces and ideas that justify terrorism and radicalism. Here we are facing a more difficult problem as there is no real agreement in Saudi Arabia on the root causes of terrorism. Some people go to extremes and accuse all Islamic elements of promoting terrorism. I disagree with this assessment. Some go to the other extreme and limit the exponents of violence to a small collection of extremists. I disagree with this assessment also, as I think the real problem is somewhere between the two. I think we should leave no stone unturned in the search for the causes of terrorism in our country. This is not a foreign phenomenon, these terrorists have not come from outer space as some people in Saudi Arabia like to suggest. Clearly there are foreign influences on the terrorists, but this does not divest us from our responsibilities.
MA: At the same time some official people in Saudi Arabia have made statements and proposals that seem to reflect the gravity of the crisis. For instance does Prince Nayef’s recent announcement that the government may be willing to allow westerners to carry fire arms to protect themselves from potential terrorist attacks, indicate a division in the establishment as to the extent and gravity of the crisis?
JK: Carrying firearms in Saudi Arabia is allowed providing you have the appropriate license. This is our way of saying to our friends that we are considering all options to ensure your security. There are a small number of foreigners who have asked to be armed and they have been granted permission to carry firearms. However we do not envisage the widespread arming of the expatriate population.
MA: Okay, let us focus on the specifics of the terrorist threat. Why does your government insist that the slaying of Abdul Aziz Muqrin in June constituted a severe blow to al-Qaeda and the wider terrorist movement?
JK: It is a serious blow because he was a very significant leader. According to information gathered by our security Muqrin was a pivotal figure in the development of these terrorist networks. He was also an influential figure in the overall hierarchy of the terrorist structures. Muqrin worked tirelessly on behalf of al-Qaeda.
MA: What can you tell us about [Muqrin’s replacement, al-Oufi]?
JK: He was just a junior guard in a prison in Medina. He was merely a low ranking officer.
MA: Are you saying that all the news stories we have heard regarding his security background and connections are over-stated?
JK: They are well over-stated. Al-Qaeda does not have prominent people in its ranks. Their most prominent member is a former college tutor.
MA: Are you referring to al-Rashoud?
JK: Yes, Sheikh al-Rashoud.
MA: He was killed recently in a shoot out, right?
JK: No, he was not killed.
MA: How many people have you detained over the past 15 months?
JK: It is between 600-1000.
MA: How are they being treated?
JK: According to my information they are being treated in a humane way. They have access to their families and they are undergoing sessions with Islamic scholars in order to appreciate the errors inherent in their bloody interpretation of Islam.
MA: What kind of help [are you getting help from other countries]?
JK: Mainly intelligence.
MA: You are receiving intelligence from foreign countries on your own country?
JK: Look, this fight is a global fight. Al-Qaeda works both within and outside Saudi Arabia. Their logistical and communications networks transcend borders and continents.
MA: So you don’t make a distinction between al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda as the global terrorist phenomenon?
JK: Absolutely not. They are all the same people. We have concrete evidence that even on the media front the terrorists in Saudi Arabia receive extensive help from those outside the country. I am referring here to the design of websites, newsletters and the production of articles. This is an international phenomenon and our counter-terrorism strategy takes this into account.
MA: Is it true that the FBI have access to the files of the 600-1000 detainees you alluded to earlier?
JK: I don’t know. However if this is needed and both we and the Americans are going to benefit from it, I don’t see a problem with this. It is no secret that we work closely with the Americans, British and the French. In fact we are working with anyone who can help us defeat this horrible phenomenon.
MA: But part of the problem you face is that your counter-terrorism strategy must address the grievances of your people. One of these grievances is that your government has an exceptionally close relationship with the Americans. Therefore extensive security cooperation of this kind may have undesirable long-term consequences.
JK: Not at all. The Americans are not a grievance in Saudi Arabia. The grievances revolve around poverty, unemployment and access to resources.
MA: You are denying that the widely held perception in the Middle East that the U.S. is unduly biased towards Israel is not a grievance in Saudi Arabia?
JK: It is not an issue. We care about the Palestinians but we are reasonable people. We have had relations with the Americans for decades, just like many other Muslim countries. Therefore Saudi Arabia is by no means unique in this sense. Even the terrorists drive American cars!
MA: I have been told by reliable sources that up to 12,000 people have been detained and interrogated at the behest of the Americans. Is there any credence to these allegations?
JK: I don’t know. But I would say that it is in Saudi Arabia’s interest to leave no stone unturned in this fight against terrorism.
MA: Okay, what kind of numbers are we talking about overall [in terms of professional terrorists in Saudi Arabia]?
JK: The numbers are put below 500.
MA: And these are professional al-Qaeda people who are exclusively dedicated to fighting the Saudi regime?
MA: I have been told by a reliable source that there are several hundred detainees in al-Ruwais prison in Jeddah. The detainees are apparently former Mujahideen fighters…and they are not known to have promoted violence against the Saudi regime. Therefore should not the amnesty apply to these people as well?
JK: This is not true. I can say with certainty, because I covered the Afghan conflict as a journalist, that 99% of the Saudis who fought in that conflict have had no problems with our government. They returned to Saudi Arabia and were on the whole re-integrated into society. However the self-proclaimed Saudi Mujahideen who went to Afghanistan after 1996, were arrested not because they went to Afghanistan, but because they joined al-Qaeda. They gave their allegiance to an organization and a man whose aim is to overthrow the Saudi state. We should distinguish between Arab Mujahideen who went to Afghanistan from the mid 1980s to 1992, and those who made their way to Afghanistan after this date.
MA: Okay, let us focus on peaceful political reform in Arabia. Why can’t you extend the amnesty we discussed earlier to peaceful reformers in the Kingdom?
JK: There is no widespread detention of reformers in Saudi Arabia. The detained reformers you are referring to are basically three individuals. There is Dr. Abdullah al-Hamed, the poet Ali al-Dumaini, and the last person I can’t remember his name.
MA: Matrouk al-Falleh?
JK: Yes, that is right.
MA: There is of course Said bin Zubair.
JK: No, Said bin Zubair is not a reformer, he is al-Qaeda material.
MA: This is interesting insofar as it hints at interconnections between the peaceful and the violent reformers.
JK: There is no connection between them whatsoever. Please don’t confuse the two.
MA: [Moving on to Iran and Iraq. Do you think] Iran would hand over senior detained al-Qaeda people to the U.S. in return for the dismantling of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq’s organization in Iraq?
JK: I am really surprised that the Americans have not dismantled the Mojahedin-e-Khalq infrastructure in Iraq. This is really strange and the Americans need to explain their position. It is not right for any country to host its neighbor’s enemies. And we all know that the Mojahedin-e-Khalq is a particularly extreme terrorist organization and it is not right for Iraq to be hosting them. I don’t blame the Iranians for feeling frustrated on this issue.
MA: I have heard that the Iranian government has extradited numerous al-Qaeda people to Saudi Arabia in the past 30 months.
JK: Yes, they have.
MA: How are the Israelis involved in Iraq?
JK: The Americans are copying Israeli counter-insurgency tactics. Moreover there are reports that Israelis are on the ground in Iraq advising the American authorities. This is the most stupid thing that the Americans could have done. I will give you another example. For some time now Saudi Arabia has applied to join the WTO, but the Americans are putting pressure on us to end our boycott of Israel. Our boycott of Israel is driven by politics, not economics. We boycott Israel because they happen to be occupying Palestinian lands. As long as America does not reverse its Pro-Israel bias, it will continue to experience problems in the Middle East. The only problems we have with America revolve around Israel.
MA: Do you think the invasion of Iraq has heightened the terrorist threat?
JK: Yes, it has. It has not helped the Americans as they have made one mistake after another. They just love making mistakes.
To read the complete interview, visit http://www.jamestown.org/images/pdf/tm_002_014-ftinterview.pdf