Brisbane, August 4, 2016 (Alochonaa):
It had to wait over a decade and nearly outlasted both the Bush and Obama administrations but now, at last, the 9/11 Report’s previously classified 28 pages can be viewed by the public (here). Ironically, the contents of the report was one of the worst kept secrets on Capitol Hill, and not only because congressional members had already spoken at length about it. Many former officials, including CIA officers, had long been insinuating what was in the report and the media had openly discussed the problems the report could cause in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. So, what was in the report? Did it contain any surprises?
Prior to the report’s release, the unofficial word was that it showed that the Saudi’s had been giving extensive covert support to Islamist terrorism in general, and that the Saudi security service and royal family had links to the 9/11 hijackers themselves. It was ostensibly for this reason – to cover up for the Saudis – that the report had to be shelved in the first place. After all, if it ever got out that the one of the world’s most violent, radical Islamist regimes supported violent, radical Islamism in places not limited to Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Chechnya, Pakistan, Kashmir or anywhere else that is not in the USA, the consequences could be grave (hypothetically, at least…we’ll get to that).
Yet Saudi support for global Sunni jihadism is not new or a secret. Granted, the information about Saudi Arabia’s support for jihadism is often concealed in places like books (thick ones too), and they require a library card, money, or an internet account to access, along with a respectable attention span, but it is still freely available information. People know, and the Saudi’s know people know, but confirmation that the Saudi security services or government officials helped the (mostly Saudi) gang of hijackers in the murder of thousands of Americans may have been a hijacking too far for the Saudi-U.S. relationship.
As public pressure mounted on Obama to release the classified pages, the Saudi’s fought back, hard. They lobbied, they waged ‘lawfare’ against the court actions of the 9/11 families, they tried to stop the passage of legislation that would allow those families to sue the Saudi government, and they tried to remind U.S. officials that Saudi Arabia’s support in the Middle East was not without conditions. Nonetheless, the classified pages were released. Delayed to the point of near irrelevance, heavily redacted, and their contents known in advance, the pages contain no surprises.
According to the 9/11 Report, the hijackers and their associates were linked in multiple ways with Saudi security agents, members of the Saudi royal households and the leading princes themselves. Saudi princes, including Prince Bandar, a man well-known for being very close to the leadership class of America and Great Britain alike, gave money to various Islamists groups in the USA and elsewhere, and have actively or coincidentally supported jihadist movements around the world. As mentioned, this was not actually a secret but joining the dots between the Saudis and 9/11 has never before been done in a publically released U.S. government document. In a more perfect world it would have been a game changer in the Saudi-U.S. relationship. This is not that world.
The Question Left Unanswered
The findings of the 9/11 Report, although unsurprising, highlight the danger in cosying up to so-called allies whose objectives in foreign and domestic policy only occasionally intersect with their partners. The handing of the classified pages, however, shows in stark relief the priorities of the American government, and invites us to ask a question which was not answered in the report and which is embarrassing to even have to ask – why should the U.S. government cover up for the Saudis? This is, naturally, the reason given for maintaining the secrecy of the special 28 pages but just why the Saudis get free reputation protection from American presidencies is unclear.
So, why are the Saudis special? The conventional answer is, “Became of the oil, you idiot.” A less aggressive answer would be, “Because of anti-terrorism cooperation, for assistance in the containment of Iran, for access to the Gulf, for oil price stability, and because their regime is one of the few remaining islands of stability in the region.” This makes the U.S.-Saudi relationship sound like a complex but necessary mix of the good, the bad and the ugly in an uncertain world. It is pure flattery for a failed and irredeemable policy. Here’s why the Saudi free ride makes no sense:
- The Saudis support Islamism and terrorist, and that’s a bad thing.
Saudi Arabia does not cooperate on anti-terrorism if it is not in Saudi Arabia’s interest (the 9/11 Report even includes phrases such as this from exasperated U.S. sources). That is logical enough, and we could expect nothing less, but the FBI and CIA sources in the 9/11 Report specifically claim on multiple occasions that the Saudis fund terrorism as a tool of foreign policy. Again, this is not a secret and most great powers do this at some stage, if not as systematically as world’s premier Islamist state. The problem is that Saudi Arabia’s support for terrorism has worked against American interests for decades.
There was a time when Saudi money and middle men were considered to be critical for undermining Soviet advances in Central Asia. Men like Osama Bin Laden were useful to the Saudis and the USA alike (there is no evidence the USA helped Bin Laden in the Afghan War but the Saudi’s certainly did) but whatever the merits of Western support for Saudi-funded Islamic extremism in Central Asia during the Cold War, it is an archaic and flawed policy for today. The blowback is real. As the Saudis spend billions to spread their radical Salafi ideology, the victim list grows to include Bangladeshi bloggers, Pakistani liberals and Afghan teachers, along with those killed by the international terror networks that recruit from the radical mosques and madrassas that now span the globe. Saudi Arabia has done a lot to weaponize Islamism, and the principle Western powers aid and abet the Saudi’s by covering up for them and providing them with the oil money to continue their operations. It is that oil money brings us to the next point.
- Saudi oil is a curse, not an asset.
Saudi Arabia does not simply give out free oil as a “friend” to the West. It sells it to make money so that the Saudi princes can uphold their dictatorship, keep their fast cars, multiple wives and hold decadent alcohol and prostitution-filled parties. Of course, the oil money is rarely enough and the princes do need to run various rackets to supplement their government stipends but, without oil, all would be lost.
Recognising the primacy of their position in the oil market, the Saudis have been manipulating oil prices for decades. Today they are flooding the oil market in an attempt to kill off the recovering American oil industry, see off Iranian competitors, destroy Third World competitors and maintain market share. Critically, the Saudis are undermining financial incentives to move towards renewable energy, forestalling hundreds of billions in regional investment, and they are bankrupting entire less developed countries by keeping oil cheap. Although cheap oil does have an upside, having a market controlled by the dictators in Riyadh for their own purposes does not suit Western economies, the developing world, or anyone else except the Saudis. And as they have amply demonstrated over the past year as they wreck economic havoc from Texas to Brazil, the Saudis and their oil wells answer to no one.
- Saudi Arabia is a source of instability, not its solution.
Sometimes, the word “stable” can be an insidious compliment. For instance, we may say that the Soviet Union was “stable” under the Stalinist regime and merely omit any mention of the millions of dead required to keep it that way. Similarly, we can say that Saudi Arabia is an island of stability if we wish to ignore the beheadings, the crucifixions, the persecutions of liberals, Shi’ites, non-Muslims and anyone who opposes the House of Saud. How stable the Saudi regime actually is can be debated (several regimes which are now extinct appeared stable just a season before the Arab Spring) but one thing is certain – the Saudis are exporters of instability.
Whether it is through disrupting developing economies, funding Islamist movement abroad, upholding unpopular dictatorship, or providing direct funding for terrorism, the Saudis have played their part in making the world less secure. There are, obviously, reasons why the Saudis do what they do. When the Saudis support an Islamist terrorist group in Syria, there are reasons. When the Saudis sent money to their own ostensible enemy, Osama Bin Laden (see the classified 28 pages), there were reasons. When the Saudis crush democratic movements at home or in neighbouring countries, there are always reasons. But these reasons are Saudi reasons, conforming to the logic of a dictatorship whose definition of “radicalism” does not include such staple fair as killing the homosexuals, the atheists, the liberals or anyone associated with Iran, just in case.
The Disturbing Implications of the Cover Up
Assuming for a moment that I am wrong about the nature of the Saudi regime, and the political consequences of Western democracies having such close associations with it, there is still something deeply worrying about the suppression of the 9/11. The first issue is that the U.S. government suppressed the report precisely because they thought the general public would be angry with the Saudis if they knew more about Saudi activities. The aim of successive U.S. presidents was to prevent public resistance to their policies by simply denying the public information with which to assess the morality and logic of the government’s actions. After all, as apathetic as the general public is about policy details that do not directly affect them, there is at least one powerful lobby group that is not happy to hear about Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of global jihadism – the 9/11 families. Clearly, the American government has valued the “friendship” of Saudi princes more than justice for 9/11 victims or simply the plain truth.
The second issue is somewhat more conspiratorial. Feel free to apply that tin foil to your head from here on in – it stops the government reading your mind (that was a joke, NSA eavesdroppers). As I said previously, the general practices of Saudi Arabia in supporting terrorism are well-known. The classified pages of the 9/11 Report merely contained the specifics of how Saudi officials were connected to the hijackers, thus opening up the path to more targeted lobbying and court actions against certain Saudi individuals or organisations. Given the relative banality of the information, it is possible that what really motivated American administrations to keep the 28 pages secret was simply the need to buy more time. Nothing throws future investigators off the scent of a crime quite like time.
No doubt the 9/11 Report merely scratched the surface of intelligence activities, both of the Saudis and of the American agencies investigating. Shelving the findings was just one of several steps in covering up for the Saudis and supressing the truth. We may only guess at what has since been uncovered in the many years of intelligence gathering since the Report was written, especially in light of the intelligences caches taken in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately, if both Democratic and Republican administrations were willing to hold back the findings of a congressional review for so long, there is no telling what other information they would be willing to sit on to protect their Saudi “allies.” Indeed, given that the U.S. administrations held back the 28 pages to protect the Saudi’s from public anger we can only assume that more incendiary information would lead to a greater imperative for denialism.
The story of 9/11 has barely begun to be told and more links are waiting to be found. Unfortunately, given the delay to this report, it looks as though we will have to keep waiting.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.
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