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Obama to Visit Saudi Arabia, Key Source of Funding for Growing Jihadi Militarism in Middle East

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Despite Saudi Arabia’s funding and arming of militants in Syria, Iraq and beyond, President Obama is set to visit the kingdom this week to meet with King Abdullah. It’s the only Middle Eastern or Gulf nation on Obama’s overseas itinerary. Many analysts say the conflict in Syria has grown into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia’s links to jihadist groups go back decades. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi. The 9/11 Commission Report identified Saudi Arabia as the main source of al-Qaeda financing. And in 2010, WikiLeaks published U.S. diplomatic cables which identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups. Members of Congress and human rights organizations have also been calling on Obama to address the kingdom’s treatment of women, religious minorities and political activists. We are joined by Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. Cockburn wrote The Independent’s recent five-part series examining the resurgence of jihadists across the Middle East, “Al-Qa’ida’s Second Act: Why the Global 'War on Terror' Went Wrong.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: “Al-Qaida, the Second Act. Why the Global 'War on Terror' Went Wrong.” That’s the name of the new five-part series published in the U.K.'s Independent newspaper that examines the resurgence of jihadists across the Middle East. A key part of the series examines how Saudi Arabia has openly backed militant groups in Syria, Iraq and other countries. Many analysts say the conflict in Syria has grown into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia's history of backing jihadist groups goes back decades. Fifteen of the 19 September 11th hijackers were Saudi. The 9/11 Commission Report identified Saudi Arabia as the main source of al-Qaeda financing. And in 2010, WikiLeaks published U.S. diplomatic cables which identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite this record, Saudi Arabia remains a close U.S. ally. President Obama is heading to Saudi Arabia this week to meet with King Abdullah. Saudi Arabia is the only Middle Eastern or Gulf nation on Obama’s overseas itinerary. Members of Congress and human rights organizations have also been calling on Obama to address the kingdom’s treatment of women, religious minorities and political activists.

To talk more about Obama’s visit to the oil-rich kingdom, we go to London to speak with Patrick Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent who wrote the five-part series on the resurgence of al-Qaeda. One of the pieces is called “Is Saudi Arabia Regretting Its Support for Terrorism?”

So, can you answer that question, Patrick Cockburn, and also talk about it in the context of President Obama meeting with King Abdullah?

PATRICK COCKBURN: The Saudis have got rather nervous at the moment that—having supported these jihadi groups, that are all either linked to al-Qaeda or have exactly the same ideology and method of action of al-Qaeda, so they’ve introduced some laws saying that—against Saudis fighting in Syria or elsewhere. But it’s probably too late for this to have any effect. The al-Qaeda-type organizations really control a massive area in northern and eastern Syria at the moment and northern and western Iraq. The largest number of volunteers fighting with these al-Qaeda-type groups are Saudi. Most of the money originally came from there. But these people now control their own oil wells. They probably are less reliant on Saudi money.

Will President Obama’s visit make much difference? It’s doubtful. I mean, it’s a rather extraordinary relationship, which doesn’t get much attention, between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Saudi Arabia is one of the few theocratic absolute monarchies on Earth, and therefore it was always absurd to be allied to Saudi Arabia in a bid to introduce secular democracy in Syria or Libya or anywhere else. So, probably, they will come out with comforting statements, and the Saudis will be saying to Obama, “Well, look, we’re taking measures against the jihadis now, so let’s step up our attempts to overthrow Assad in Syria.” But in practice, the groups that they’re supporting are closely linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, the main al-Qaeda group. So I don’t think things are going to change very much.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010. In a December 2009 memo, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. She writes, quote, “While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority. Due in part to intense focus by the [U.S. government] over the last several years, Saudi Arabia has begun to make important progress on this front and has responded to terrorist financing concerns raised by the United States through proactively investigating and detaining financial facilitators of concern. Still, donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Patrick Cockburn, that was a U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 released in 2010. Could you explain why you think the U.S. has been hesitant to act against Saudi Arabia in the way that it has against other countries in the Arab world following 9/11, and especially following these revelations?

PATRICK COCKBURN: It’s pretty extraordinary, given that so much of what happened on 9/11 can be traced back to Saudi Arabia. Why hasn’t there been a greater reaction in the U.S. and the rest of the world? Well, the Saudis have cultivated people in Washington, government in Washington. There are enormous arms sales by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia. The arms on orders—on order at the moment are worth a total of $86 billion—fighter aircraft, helicopters, everything else. And they’ve also spent money cultivating former diplomats, officials, academics and so forth. And therefore, there hasn’t been—though I find this rather amazing—more pressure on Saudi Arabia or on the U.S. government to stop Saudi Arabia supporting jihadi movements. It’s not just money. It’s, I mean, a lot of it, propaganda of a satellite television, which is anti-Shia, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, hate propaganda. So long as they have these methods of propaganda, they can probably raise men and money to send to Syria and Iraq and elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick, this trip that President Obama—accompanied by Secretary of State John Kerry, to show the significance of it—in the United States is being seen as a reconciliation trip, the U.S. wanting to improve its relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially frayed when Saudi Arabia wanted the U.S. to be tougher on Iran—interestingly, Saudi Arabia sharing the same view as Israel on this issue. Can you talk about that in the context of the role Saudi Arabia is playing in the world?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, I mean, last year, there was difference between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. over the support of al-Qaeda-type organizations in Syria, which in turn are destabilizing Iraq. Saudi Arabia was eager for Obama to launch a military assault on Syria last August after the use of poison gas in Damascus. They were vocally upset when the U.S. didn’t do this. They have pushed for a U.S. war with Iran, going back several years. King Abdullah is quoted by—on a diplomatic cable as saying, “Cut off the head of the snake.” So they’ll try to ensure that they’re at one with the U.S. in trying to bring down Assad and opposing Iran.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Patrick Cockburn, you’ve also pointed out that these Islamist groups, violent Islamist groups, have proliferated since 9/11, and especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Could you explain what the distinction is, if any, between al-Qaeda and all of these offshoot groups, and if the hesitation on the part of the U.S. has to do with the fact that these new groups operate regionally rather than in the West?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, I think that they draw too great a distinction—I mean, Washington draws too great a distinction between people who have a direct operational link to the remains of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda in Pakistan and other groups that have the same ideology, operate in the same way, have the same methods. And you could see that in Libya, when—where the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was killed by jihadis, who were not, in fact, al-Qaeda, and he seems to have thought, and the people around him thought, were not as dangerous as al-Qaeda. And tragically, he and they were proved wrong. You can see that in Syria at the moment, that the largest group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is not in fact part of al-Qaeda—it used to be. There’s a new group, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the official representative, but there isn’t much difference between these groups. They’re all pretty well the same. They are extraordinarily bigoted. They’re extraordinarily brutal. They kill Shia or any other nonfundamentalist Muslims who fall into their hands. So, pretending that one group, simply because it’s funded by Saudi Arabia, is not the equivalent of al-Qaeda, I think, is self-deception—and self-deception which may well have disastrous results, you know, as happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which eventually produced the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2011, Democracy Now! spoke to former Senator Bob Graham and asked him about how part of the 9/11 Commission Report remains redacted.

BOB GRAHAM: The suppressed pages were in the Congressional Joint Inquiry. We worked diligently throughout 2002 to gather as much of the information as we could and to make recommendations. We had an 800-plus-page report, one chapter of which, which related primarily to the role of the Saudis in 9/11, was totally censored. Every word of that chapter has been denied to the American people.

AMY GOODMAN: What about that, Patrick Cockburn? You know, Bandar Bush, of course, as he was called, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, sitting out on the Truman Balcony with President Bush the day after the 9/11 attacks. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. And then Bandar Bush, the former U.S.—Saudi ambassador to the U.S., being one of the major forces behind the forces, the rebel forces in Syria?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, it’s sort of—it’s amazing. And, I mean, it’s had a very unfortunate consequence by not going after the very obvious roots of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, in terms of money and political support and so forth. This has enabled al-Qaeda to grow again. I mean, al-Qaeda, I worked out on the map, now controls an area in northern Syria and northern Iraq which is about the size of Great Britain. Al-Qaeda was rather a small organization at the time of 9/11. Since then, we’ve had the war on terror. We’ve had vast resources poured into this, increase in intelligence and security services, rendition, torture, everything else. And at the end of it, al-Qaeda and its affiliates are far larger than they were in—at the time of 9/11. I mean, this is a pretty extraordinary situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, I just want to clarify, Bandar Bush was the nickname for him. His name was Prince Bandar bin Sultan. He’s now Saudi Arabia’s intelligence minister. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Patrick Cockburn, that’s right, he’s the intelligence minister now, but as you point out in one of your articles, he’s no longer in charge of Saudi Arabia’s policy in Syria. Could you explain what you think the impact of that decision will be, and whether Saudi policy with respect to the rebels is actually changing?

PATRICK COCKBURN: I mean, it’s a very good question, and I think we’re going to maybe see the answer over the next week. Maybe one of the things it will be interesting to see, what comes out of Obama’s visit. Bandar bin Sultan’s policy in Syria failed somewhat disastrously. He wanted to get rid of Assad; they failed to do that. Instead, we’ve had these jihadi, al-Qaeda-type organizations grow enormously. And they now, sort of really the whole way from Baghdad to the Mediterranean, they control much of the territory. Now, the Saudis are—seem to be taking a slightly more diplomatic line, but what they’re saying is: “We shall support jihadis, who are different from al-Qaeda but will still be able to overthrow Assad. We’ll do this from Jordan.” But will this really happen? And if they do fund a anti-Assad army there, would it just be a mercenary army that has no real support within Syria?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to move onto a segment next on Iraq. And earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of openly funding the Sunni Muslim insurgents in western Anbar province. He told France 24, quote, “I accuse them of inciting and encouraging the terrorist movements. I accuse them of supporting them politically and in the media, of supporting them with money and by buying weapons for them.” If you could, finally, comment on that, as well as your final comment in your recent piece, saying, “All the ingredients for a repeat of 9/11 are slipping into place, the difference today being that al-Qa’ida-type organisations are now far more powerful.”

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, the Iraqis have felt for a long time, but didn’t say so openly, that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf monarchies were an essential prop to al-Qaeda in Iraq through private donations, through hate preachers, anti-Shia preachers, and finally they’ve come out and said it. And they have a lot of evidence also from suicide bombers who were captured before they blew themselves up.

On the other question, yes, definitely. I mean, you know, these drone attacks in Yemen and Waziristan, these declarations of victory, I think, just divert attention from the fact that you look at the map, that al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-type groups, that are no different from those that followed Osama bin Laden, now control a large territory. They have large revenues from oil wells. They have lots of experienced people. At the moment, they’re fighting against Assad and the Iraqi government. But they don’t Ike the governments of the West anymore. They’re not ideologically committed to only one enemy in their home countries. So if they do want to start making attacks in the West again along the lines of 9/11, they’re far better equipped militarily and politically, financially and any other way than they were when the attacks of 9/11 were originally made.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Cockburn, we want to thank you for being with us, Middle East correspondent for The Independent, just concluded a five-part series on the resurgence of al-Qaeda, including that piece, “Is Saudi Arabia Regretting Its Support for Terrorism?” President Obama is visiting Saudi Arabia on Friday along with Secretary of State John Kerry.

When we come back, two women, a U.S. soldier and an Iraqi feminist, join together for the right to heal on this 11th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Stay with us.

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