Al Qaeda's Surprising Origins

Ethnic rivalries in Saudi Arabia may have as much to do with 9/11 as hatred of the U.S.

| March / April 2004

We thought we had it down -- a virulent form of Islamic fundamentalism called Wahhabism, heavily supported by the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia, is the ideology of al Qaeda. If it weren't for the influence of extremist Wahhabi clerics on the young minds of 15 of the 9/11 hijackers who came from Saudi Arabia (out of 19 total), the Twin Towers might still be standing. Right?

Not so fast. Like most stories of international political intrigue, it's not that simple. It turns out that Osama bin Laden and a majority of the 15 Saudi hijackers were members of a persecuted minority within Saudi Arabia, the Asiris, with close ties to Yemen and a deep hatred of the Wahhabi establishment, reports John R. Bradley in the British political and cultural magazine Prospect (Sept. 2003).

Tribal and regional loyalties have always been stronger than national identity in Saudi Arabia. After all, the Saudi kingdom is not even 80 years old. King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud cobbled the country together largely by paying off tribal sheikhs and marrying off his daughters. Since that time, the al-Saud family has maintained its weak hold on power through an elaborate patronage system and an oil-for-security pact signed with the United States in 1945. Rising population and falling oil prices have put serious economic pressures on that system in recent years, testing regional leaders' allegiance.

And the Asiris, perhaps more than any other regional group, have long resented the Saudi rulers, who are Bedouin tribesmen from the al-Najd region to the north. A mountainous region in the south, Asir was originally part of Yemen and was for centuries a Sufi theocracy with dreams of redeeming Islam. 'Most people of Asir know by heart a particular Hadith, or saying of the Prophet, to the effect that the final triumph of Islam will be brought about by the people of southern Arabia,' Bradley writes.

The House of Saud's weakening grip on power, coupled with a history of tribal rivalries and ill treatment of the Asiris, has made the region a natural recruiting ground for Osama bin Laden. As Bradley puts it: 'Not only because he shares their Yemeni-Saudi tribal roots, but also because, again like him, they resent being ruled by a clan which, they believe, does not enforce its Islamic authority with sufficient rigor and, in many cases, lives by double standards. By attacking the U.S. guarantors of Saudi security and survival, these tribal Saudis were targeting the historic Saudi-Wahhabi alliance.'

Of all the tribes in Asir, the al-Ghamdi tribe has provided most of Al-Qaeda's foot soldiers and stands at its strongest base of support. 'Five, possibly six, of the Saudi hijackers were al-Ghamdis,' writes Bradley. 'The cave in Afghanistan where the plan for September 11 was hatched was named the 'al-Ghamdi house.' The man visiting bin Laden in a widely-circulated video in which he reflects on the 'victory' of September 11 was called Sheikh al-Ghamdi. At least three, and possibly four, of the al Qaeda cell who carried out the May 12, 2003, attacks in Riyadh were al-Ghamdis.'