Al Qaeda’s Surprising Origins

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’

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

The Bush administration has profited politically in the wake of
9/11 by stoking the misperception in the Western media that al
Qaeda and Wahhabism are practically one and the same. But in
reality, Osama bin Laden and his Asiri brethren hold no more love
for the Saudi rulers in Riyadh than the rebels in Chechnya do for
Moscow or the white separatists in Montana and Idaho do for the
White House. The difference is al Qaeda’s global reach and the
threat the group poses to the longstanding U.S.-Saudi
oil-for-security pact.

Clearly, Saudi internal politics matter to the world — even if
their complexities can’t be summed up in a sound bite on Fox TV
News. Whatever comes of the growing upheaval in Saudi Arabia —
whether an emerging social reform movement gains ground, religious
conservatives tighten their grip on the populace, or civil war
breaks out — the consequences for the rest of this oil-addicted
planet will also be dramatic.

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