Saudi alarm at identity of hijackers : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread


Saudi alarm at identity of hijackers By Roula Khalaf Published: September 18 2001 19:13 | Last Updated: September 18 2001 19:23

Abdelaziz al-Omari has been listed by the US as one of the suspected hijackers of the United Airlines Flight 175 that crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center last week.

Not so, says Alsharq al-Awsat, a leading Saudi daily. Earlier this week, the newspaper published an interview with a man with the same name and date of birth but who insists his passport was stolen in 1995 in Denver, Colorado.

"I'm not the one who hijacked and blew up the plane because on that day I was in Riyadh and I still am," he told the newspaper. "I say this in all honesty and to protect the reputation of my dear country."

About half the suspects in the suicide attacks on the US have names of families from Saudi Arabia - in addition to Osama bin Laden, who was born in the kingdom but was stripped of his nationality in 1994.

This concentration has been greeted with alarm in the kingdom, a key US ally that has been struggling to balance strong US ties with rising anti-US popular sentiment.

Similar stories casting doubt on the Saudi nationality of other suspects have appeared in recent days in the Saudi press, underlining the kingdom's eagerness to distance itself from the attacks.

Ghazi al-Gosaibi, Saudi ambassador in London, says one of the supposed hijackers died two years ago, another one was in Jeddah at the time and a third was helping the FBI.

Whatever the US investigation reveals about the identity of the suspects, Saudi Arabia faces tough choices. The attacks in the US and strong Saudi backing of US retaliation could have domestic ramifications, reviving government concerns about domestic opposition.

Saudi Arabia's Islamist opposition rose in reaction to the 1991 Gulf war and the arrival of US troops on Saudi soil. It accused the regime of corruption and questioned its Islamic credentials. The voices of opposition, however, subsided in recent years after Crown Prince Abdullah, a staunch Arab nationalist with a reputation for honesty, took over running the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom.

But Saudi Arabia had been warning for months that the threat of terrorism has been heightened by popular disillusionment with US policies in the region - particularly Washington's anti-Iraqi stance and, more recently, its apparent backing for Israel's campaign to crush the Palestinian uprising against occupation. A spate of recent attacks against foreigners was officially blamed on disputes over the illegal alcohol trade but analysts have suspected political motives.

"If Saudi Arabia is seen to be going blindly behind the US this would undermine further the legitimacy of the regime," warns Mai Yamani, research fellow at London's Royal Institute for International Affairs. "They are stuck between the US and the people."

Concerns over stability might partially explain the little noticed change at the Saudi government's intelligence agency two weeks before the attacks on the US. Prince Nawaf, brother and close adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah, took over from Prince Turki al-Feisal, who had held the post since the 1980s.

Prince Turki has sought unsuccessfully to rein in Afghanistan's radical Taliban movement, which is harbouring Mr bin Laden, and to persuade it to provide information about Saudi nationals in his network.

Diplomats say the US is aware Saudi Arabia will have to tread cautiously in its support for the US. The kingdom's need to highlight the independence of its policies led to tensions with the US over the investigation into the 1996 Khobar bombing, which killed 19 US servicemen.

"We're aware of the anti-western feelings in elements of the population and we know how difficult it is for the government to address these points; we don't want to make it any more difficult," says a European diplomat.

Saudi newspapers highlighted last week that the eradication of terror should also be directed against Israeli policies, which one publication accused of "state terrorism." Western diplomats say pressure has been exercised on Israel in recent days to restrain its military action and facilitate Arab backing for the US.

Mr al-Gosaibi says the US has stressed it will operate in a coalition and members expect to be consulted before action is taken. "If this happens, Saudi Arabia will share its judgement with the US on any proposed course of action," he says. "If, however, the United States decides to take unilateral action, military or otherwise, with no consultation, Saudi Arabia will not feel responsible for the consequences of such action."

A potential participation in a coalition against other Muslim countries - Afghanistan is the current focus because it harbours Mr bin Laden - could have the benefit of ridding Saudi Arabia of a big headache. On the other hand, if bin Laden associates should survive attacks by a coalition that includes Saudi Arabia, they might turn their wrath against the kingdom. So far, Mr bin Laden's focus has been solely on the US.

"An attack on Afghanistan that is a botched coup and that does not get rid of the problem will backfire on all conservative regimes in the region," warns a Gulf official. "And if many civilians are killed there will be a religious backlash and accusations of double standards, which are already there because of Israel."

-- Martin Thompson (, September 18, 2001

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