KING'S RANSOM: How vulnerable are the Saudi royals?
by SEYMOUR M. HERSH
Issue of 2001-10-22
Since 1994 or earlier, the National Security Agency has been collecting
electronic intercepts of conversations between members of the Saudi Arabian
royal family, which is headed by King Fahd. The intercepts depict a regime
increasingly corrupt, alienated from the country's religious rank and file,
and so weakened and frightened that it has brokered its future by
channelling hundreds of millions of dollars in what amounts to protection
money to fundamentalist groups that wish to overthrow it.
The intercepts have demonstrated to analysts that by 1996 Saudi money was
supporting Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and other extremist groups in
Afghanistan, Lebanon, Yemen, and Central Asia, and throughout the Persian
Gulf region. "Ninety-six is the key year," one American intelligence
official told me. "Bin Laden hooked up to all the bad guys-it's like the
Grand Alliance- and had a capability for conducting large-scale operations."
The Saudi regime, he said, had "gone to the dark side."
In interviews last week, current and former intelligence and military
officials portrayed the growing instability of the Saudi regime-and the
vulnerability of its oil reserves to terrorist attack-as the most immediate
threat to American economic and political interests in the Middle East. The
officials also said that the Bush Administration, like the Clinton
Administration, is refusing to confront this reality, even in the aftermath
of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
The Saudis and the Americans arranged a meeting between Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld and King Fahd during a visit by Rumsfeld to Saudi Arabia
shortly before the beginning of the air war in Afghanistan, and pictures of
the meeting were transmitted around the world. The United States, however,
has known that King Fahd has been incapacitated since suffering a severe
stroke, in late 1995. A Saudi adviser told me last week that the King, with
round-the-clock medical treatment, is able to sit in a chair and open his
eyes, but is usually unable to recognize even his oldest friends. Fahd is
being kept on the throne, the N.S.A. intercepts indicate, because of a
bitter family power struggle. Fahd's nominal successor is Crown Prince
Abdullah, his half brother, who is to some extent the de-facto ruler-he and
Prince Sultan, the defense minister, were the people Rumsfeld really came to
see. But there is infighting about money: Abdullah has been urging his
fellow-princes to address the problem of corruption in the
kingdom-unsuccessfully, according to the intercepts. "The only reason Fahd's
being kept alive is so Abdullah can't become king," a former White House
adviser told me.
The American intelligence officials have been particularly angered by the
refusal of the Saudis to help the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. run "traces"-that
is, name checks and other background information-on the nineteen men, more
than half of them believed to be from Saudi Arabia, who took part in the
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "They knew that once we
started asking for a few traces the list would grow," one former official
said. "It's better to shut it down right away." He pointed out that
thousands of disaffected Saudis have joined fundamentalist groups throughout
the Middle East. Other officials said that there is a growing worry inside
the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. that the actual identities of many of those
involved in the attacks may not be known definitively for months, if ever.
Last week, a senior intelligence official confirmed the lack of Saudi
co÷peration and told me, angrily, that the Saudis "have only one
constant-and it's keeping themselves in power."
The N.S.A. intercepts reveal the hypocrisy of many in the Saudi royal
family, and why the family has become increasingly estranged from the vast
majority of its subjects. Over the years, unnerved by the growing strength
of the fundamentalist movement, it has failed to deal with the underlying
issues of severe unemployment and inadequate education, in a country in
which half the population is under the age of eighteen. Saudi Arabia's
strict interpretation of Islam, known as Wahhabism, and its use of
mutawwa'in-religious police-to enforce prayer, is rivalled only by the
Taliban's. And yet for years the Saudi princes-there are thousands of
them-have kept tabloid newspapers filled with accounts of their drinking
binges and partying with prostitutes, while taking billions of dollars from
the state budget. The N.S.A. intercepts are more specific. In one call,
Prince Nayef, who has served for more than two decades as interior minister,
urges a subordinate to withhold from the police evidence of the hiring of
prostitutes, presumably by members of the royal family. According to the
summary, Nayef said that he didn't want the "client list" released under any
The intercepts produced a stream of sometimes humdrum but often riveting
intelligence from the telephone calls of several senior members of the royal
family, including Abdullah; Nayef; Sultan, whose son Prince Bandar has been
the Saudi ambassador to the United States since 1983; and Prince Salman, the
governor of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital. There was constant telephoning
about King Fahd's health after his stroke, and scrambling to take advantage
of the situation. On January 8, 1997, Prince Sultan told Bandar about a
flight that he and Salman had shared with the King. Sultan complained that
the King "barely spoke to anyone," according to the summary of the
intercept, because he was "too medicated." The King, Sultan added, was "a
prisoner on the plane."
Sultan's comments became much more significant a few days later, when the
N.S.A. intercepted a conversation in which Sultan told Bandar that the King
had agreed to a complicated exchange of fighter aircraft with the United
States that would bring five F-16s into the Royal Saudi Air Force. Fahd was
evidently incapable of making such an agreement, or of preventing anyone
from dropping his name in a money-making deal.
In the intercepts, princes talk openly about bilking the state, and even
argue about what is an acceptable percentage to take. Other calls indicate
that Prince Bandar, while serving as ambassador, was involved in arms deals
in London, Yemen, and the Soviet Union that generated millions of dollars in
"commissions." In a PBS "Frontline" interview broadcast on October 9th,
Bandar, asked about the reports of corruption in the royal family, was
almost upbeat in his response. The family had spent nearly four hundred
billion dollars to develop Saudi Arabia, he said. "If you tell me that
building this whole country . . . we misused or got corrupted with fifty
billion, I'll tell you, 'Yes.'. . . So what? We did not invent corruption,
nor did those dissidents, who are so genius, discover it."
The intercepts make clear, however, that Crown Prince Abdullah was insistent
on stemming the corruption. In November of 1996, for example, he complained
about the billions of dollars that were being diverted by royal family
members from a huge state-financed project to renovate the mosque in Mecca.
He urged the princes to get their off-budget expenses under control; such
expenses are known as the hiding place for payoff money. (Despite its oil
revenues, Saudi Arabia has been running a budget deficit for more than a
decade, and now has a large national debt.) A few months later, according to
the intercepts, Abdullah blocked a series of real-estate deals by one of the
princes, enraging members of the royal family. Abdullah further alarmed the
princes by issuing a decree declaring that his sons would not be permitted
to go into partnerships with foreign companies working in the kingdom.
Abdullah is viewed by Sultan and other opponents as a leader who could
jeopardize the kingdom's most special foreign relationship-someone who is
willing to penalize the United States, and its oil and gas companies,
because of Washington's support for Israel. In an intercept dated July 13,
1997, Prince Sultan called Bandar in Washington, and informed him that he
had told Abdullah "not to be so confrontational with the United States."
The Fahd regime was a major financial backer of the Reagan Administration's
anti-Communist campaign in Latin America and of its successful proxy war in
Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Oil money bought the Saudis enormous
political access and leverage in Washington. Working through Prince Bandar,
they have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to charities and
educational programs here. American construction and oil companies do
billions of dollars' worth of business every year with Saudi Arabia, which
is the world's largest oil producer. At the end of last year, Halliburton,
the Texas-based oil-supply business formerly headed by Vice-President Dick
Cheney, was operating a number of subsidiaries in Saudi Arabia.
In the Clinton era, the White House did business as usual with the Saudis,
urging them to buy American goods, like Boeing aircraft. The kingdom was
seen as an American advocate among the oil-producing nations of the Middle
East. The C.I.A. was discouraged from conducting any risky intelligence
operations inside the country and, according to one former official, did
little recruiting among the Saudi population, which limited the United
States government's knowledge of the growth of the opposition to the royal
In 1994, Mohammed al-Khilewi, the first secretary at the Saudi Mission to
the United Nations, defected and sought political asylum in the United
States. He brought with him, according to his New York lawyer, Michael J.
Wildes, some fourteen thousand internal government documents depicting the
Saudi royal family's corruption, human-rights abuses, and financial support
for terrorists. He claimed to have evidence that the Saudis had given
financial and technical support to Hamas, the extremist Islamic group whose
target is Israel. There was a meeting at the lawyer's office with two F.B.I.
agents and an Assistant United States Attorney. "We gave them a sampling of
the documents and put them on the table," Wildes told me last week. "But the
agents refused to accept them." He and his client heard nothing further from
federal authorities. Al-Khilewi, who was granted asylum, is now living under
The Saudis were also shielded from Washington's foreign-policy bureaucracy.
A government expert on Saudi affairs told me that Prince Bandar dealt
exclusively with the men at the top, and never met with desk officers and
the like. "Only a tiny handful of people inside the government are familiar
with U.S.-Saudi relations," he explained. "And that is purposeful."
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the
royal family has repeatedly insisted that Saudi Arabia has made no
contributions to radical Islamic groups. When the Saudis were confronted by
press reports that some of the substantial funds that the monarchy routinely
gives to Islamic charities may actually have gone to Al Qaeda and other
terrorist networks, they denied any knowledge of such transfers. The
intercepts, however, have led many in the intelligence community to conclude
The Bush Administration has chosen not to confront the Saudi leadership over
its financial support of terror organizations and its refusal to help in the
investigation. "As far as the Saudi Arabians go, they've been nothing but
co÷perative," President Bush said at a news conference on September 24th.
The following day, the Saudis agreed to formally cut off diplomatic
relations with the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. Eight days later, at a
news conference in Saudi Arabia with Prince Sultan, the defense minister,
Donald Rumsfeld was asked if he had given the Saudis a list of the September
11th terrorist suspects for processing by their intelligence agencies.
Rumsfeld, who is admired by many in the press for his bluntness, answered
evasively: "I am, as I said, not involved with the Federal Bureau of
Investigation that is conducting the investigation. . . . I have every
reason to believe that that relationship between our two countries is as
close, that any information I am sure has been made available to the Kingdom
of Saudi Arabia."
The Saudis gave Rumsfeld something in return-permission for U.S. forces to
use a command-and-control center, built before the Gulf War, in the pending
air war against the Taliban. Over the past few years, the Saudis have also
allowed the United States to use forward bases on Saudi soil for special
operations, as long as there was no public mention of the arrangements.
While the intelligence-community members I spoke with praised the Air Force
and the Navy for their performance in Afghanistan last week, which did much
to boost morale in the military and among the American citizenry, they were
crestfallen about an incident that occurred on the first night of the war-an
incident that was emblematic, they believe, of the constraints placed by the
government on the military's ability to wage war during the last decade.
That night, an unmanned Predator reconnaissance aircraft, under the control
of the C.I.A., was surveilling the roads leading out of Kabul. The Predator,
which costs forty million dollars and cruises at speeds as slow as eighty
miles an hour, is equipped with imaging radar and an array of infrared and
television cameras that are capable of beaming high-resolution images to
ground stations around the world. The plane was equipped with two powerful
Hellfire missiles, designed as antitank weapons. The Predator identified a
group of cars and trucks fleeing the capital as a convoy carrying Mullah
Omar, the Taliban leader. Under a previously worked-out agreement, one
knowledgeable official said, the C.I.A. did not have the authority to "push
the button." Nor did the nearby command-and-control suite of the Fifth
Fleet, in Bahrain, where many of the war plans had been drawn up. Rather,
the decision had to be made by the officers on duty at the headquarters of
the United States Central Command, or CENTCOM, at MacDill Air Force Base, in
The Predator tracked the convoy to a building where Omar, accompanied by a
hundred or so guards and soldiers, took cover. The precise sequence of
events could not be fully learned, but intelligence officials told me that
there was an immediate request for a full-scale assault by fighter bombers.
At that point, however, word came from General Tommy R. Franks, the CENTCOM
commander, saying, as the officials put it, "My JAG"-Judge Advocate General,
a legal officer-"doesn't like this, so we're not going to fire." Instead,
the Predator was authorized to fire a missile in front of the
building-"bounce it off the front door," one officer said, "and see who
comes out, and take a picture." CENTCOM suggested that the Predator then
continue to follow Omar. The Hellfire, however, could not target the area in
front of the building-in military parlance, it could not "get a signature"
on the dirt there-and it was then agreed that the missile would attack a
group of cars parked in front, presumably those which had carried Omar and
his retinue. The missile was fired, and it "obliterated the cars," an
official said. "But no one came out."
It was learned later from an operative on the ground that Omar and his
guards had indeed been in the convoy and had assumed at the time that the
firing came from rocket-propelled grenades launched by nearby troops from
the Northern Alliance. A group of soldiers left the building and looked for
the enemy. They found nothing, and Omar and his convoy departed. A short
time later, the building was targeted and destroyed by F-18s. Mullah Omar
Days afterward, top Administration officials were still seething about the
incident. "If it was a fuckup, I could live with it," one senior official
said. "But it's not a fuckup-it's an outrage.This isn't like you're six
years old and your mother calls you to come in for lunch and you say, 'Time
out.' If anyone thinks otherwise, go look at the World Trade Center or the
Pentagon." A senior military officer viewed the failure to strike
immediately as a symptom of "a cultural issue"-"a slow degradation of the
system due to political correctness: 'We want you to kill the guy, but not
the guy next to him.' No collateral damage." Others saw the cultural problem
as one of bureaucratic, rather than political, correctness. Either way, the
failure to attack has left Defense Secretary Rumsfeld "kicking a lot of
glass and breaking doors," the officer said. "But in the end I don't know if
it'll mean any changes."
A Pentagon planner also noted that some of the camps the bombers were
hitting were empty. In fact, he added, it became evident even before the
bombing that troops of the Northern Alliance had moved into many of the
unused Taliban camps. The Alliance soldiers came up with a novel way of
alerting American planners to their new location, the officer said: "They
walked around holding up white sheets so when the satellites came by they're
saying, 'Hey, we're the good guys.' "
The American military response has triggered alarm in the international oil
community and among intelligence officials who have been briefed on a still
secret C.I.A. study, put together in the mid-eighties, of the vulnerability
of the Saudi fields to terrorist attack. The report was "so sensitive," a
former C.I.A. officer told me, "that it was put on typed paper," and not
into the agency's computer system, meaning that distribution was limited to
a select few. According to someone who saw the report, it concluded that
with only a small amount of explosives terrorists could take the oil fields
off line for two years.
The concerns, both in America and in Saudi Arabia, about the security of the
fields have become more urgent than ever since September 11th. A former
high-level intelligence official depicted the Saudi rulers as nervously
"sitting on a keg of dynamite"-that is, the oil reserves. "They're petrified
that somebody's going to light the fuse."
"The United States is hostage to the stability of the Saudi system," a
prominent Middle Eastern oil man, who did not wish to be cited by name, told
me in a recent interview. "It's time to start facing the truth. The war was
declared by bin Laden, but there are thousands of bin Ladens. They are
setting the game-the agenda. It's a new form of war. This fabulous military
machine you have is completely useless." The oil man, who has worked closely
with the Saudi leadership for three decades, added, "People like me have
been deceiving you. We talk about how you don't understand Islam, but it's a
vanilla analysis. We try to please you, but we've been aggrieved for years."
The Saudi regime "will explode in time," he said. "It has been playing a
delicate game." As for the terrorists responsible for the September 11th
attacks, he said, "Now they decide the timing. If they do a similar
operation in Saudi Arabia, the price of oil will go up to one hundred
dollars a barrel"-more than four times what it is today.
In the nineteen-eighties, in an effort to relieve political pressure on the
regime, the Saudi leadership relinquished some of its authority to the
mutawwa'in and permitted them to have a greater role in day-to-day life. One
U.S. government Saudi expert complained last week that religious leaders had
been allowed to take control of the press and the educational system.
"Today, two-thirds of the Saudi Ph.D.s are in Islamic studies," a former
Presidential aide told me. There was little attempt over the years by
American diplomats or the White House to moderate the increasingly harsh
rhetoric about the U.S. "The United States was caught up in private
agreements"-with the Saudi princes-"while this shit was spewing in the Saudi
press," the former aide said. "That was a huge mistake."
A senior American diplomat who served many years in Saudi Arabia recalled
his foreboding upon attending a training exercise at the kingdom's most
prestigious military academy, in Riyadh: "It was hot, and I watched the
cadets doing drills. The officers were lounging inside a suradiq"-a large
pavilion-"with cold drinks, calling out orders on loudspeakers. I thought to
myself, How many of these young men would follow and die for these
officers?" The diplomat said he came away from his most recent tour in Saudi
Arabia convinced that "it wouldn't take too much for a group of twenty or
thirty fundamentalist enlisted men to take charge. How would the kingdom
deal with the shock of something ruthless, small, highly motivated, and of
There is little that the United States can do now, the diplomat said. "The
Saudis have been indulged for so many decades.They are so spoiled. They've
always had it their way. There's hardly anything we could say that would
impede the 'majestic instancy' of their progress. We're their janissaries."
He was referring to the captives who became Úlite troops of the Ottoman
"The policy dilemma is this," a senior general told me. "How do we help the
Saudis make a transition without throwing them over the side?" Referring to
young fundamentalists who have been demonstrating in the Saudi streets, he
said, "The kids are bigger than the Daddy."
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