The Daily Telegraph
September 27, 2001
Bin Laden's secret goal is to overthrow the House of Saud
By Paul Michael Wihbey
CONTRARY to much of the conventional wisdom about Osama bin Laden, the Saudi fugitive is hardly a madman. In fact, he has developed a stunningly deceptive regional war calculus that stands a reasonable chance of success.
Despite the massive build-up of allied forces, bin Laden's strategy depends on a set of well-conceived geopolitical assumptions that he fervently believes can turn Western military capability to his strategic advantage.
His strongest belief is that Saudi Arabia can be brought to its knees, the House of Saud deposed and a new theocracy, based on his version of a pure and uncontaminated Islam, can rise to power in the Arabian peninsula. Hoping to seize state power as Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran in 1979, bin Laden plans to use Afghanistan as a staging ground for self-declared leadership in exile. The overriding goal is to return to Saudi Arabia in triumph and put an end to the existing regime.
Such an accomplishment would dramatically tilt the Middle Eastern balance of power in favour of radical forces led by Iraq, Iran, Syria and, of course, the global terrorist network. Even before the attacks on New York and Washington, bin Laden's power was felt at the highest level of the Saudi regime. Several days before the September 11 attacks, the Saudi chief of intelligence, who held that post for 25 years, Prince Turki, brother of the Saudi foreign minister, was abruptly fired from his post.
Turki was hardly a man to be dismissed in such fashion; he was responsible for Saudi affairs with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Saudi liaison with American intelligence services. It seems that Turki was the first high-ranking victim of a power struggle between two competing factions in the Saudi royal family over how to deal with American requests to neutralise bin Laden.
Turki's removal from authority portended further upheaval within the ruling elite of the House of Saud. Only two weeks later, and a week after the attack on America, reliable reports strongly suggest that the ailing King Fahd flew to Geneva with a massive entourage and now remains secluded behind the heavily protected walls of private estates registered in the name of his European business partners.
To bin Laden, King Fahd's departure can only be considered a victory in his campaign to rid Saudi Arabia of the contamination of American rule through their surrogates in the House of Saud. With King Fahd's health maintained on a 24-hour medical watch, and the Saudi royal family divided between the conservative, religious faction of Crown Prince Abdullah and that of the defence minister, King Fahd's full brother, Prince Sultan, Saudi Arabia's future political course and, with it, the stability of the Gulf is about to be decided.
Bin Laden has waited for this since 1991, when he was cast aside by the Saudis for offering his fighting forces in defence of the kingdom against Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden is intimately aware of the fragility of the Saudi power structure.
He is the scion of a family, led by his father, Mohamed, that, in the mid-1960s, engineered the transfer of the Saudi throne away from the corrupt King Saud to the pious King Faisal. In effect, Mohamed bin Laden was a king-maker and his son grew up with an intimate knowledge of the personal proclivities and weaknesses of the senior members of the ruling elite.
He came to despise what he saw as a corrupt and malignant power structure indistinguishable from the American political system. Undeterred by deference and loyalty, he understood that the legitimacy of the Saudi royal family could be undermined by championing an alternative, indigenous religious ideology. Large numbers of young disaffected Saudis felt increasingly alienated by a regime that could neither defend itself by its own means nor maintain a standard of living that has dropped from $18,000 per capita in the 1980s to $6,000 in 2000.
With a deteriorating economic and political environment, bin Laden may decide that the time is approaching to activate the thousands of Saudi dissidents in the kingdom who form the core of his support, and thereby exploit the schism between Abdullah and Sultan to launch the destabilisation of the Saudi monarchy.
Militant protests and even subversive military action targeting oil terminals and pipelines, as well as attacks on civilian and military American assets in Saudi Arabia, could disrupt American war plans and force them to think again about targeting bin Laden, the Taliban and regional terrorist networks.
It is this scenario of internal Saudi confusion and political instability that bin Laden considers the soft underbelly of American strategy. The more it is seen that the Saudi royal family can no longer maintain internal cohesion and consensus within the royal family, the greater the probability that Saudi religious dissidents will heed the call of bin Laden and rise up against the regime.
Such a scenario provides a clear escape route for bin Laden from the closing ring of fire around Afghanistan. Should he be able to escape and seek refuge among the thousands of supporters in Saudi Arabia, he will no doubt be greeted as a Mahdi, whose arrival on the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia will mark a dramatically new geopolitical landscape.
The radicalisation of Iran by the ayatollahs pales by comparison. Possibilities of widespread regional conflict may emerge as the latest military equipment and the vast reserves of Saudi oil become available to facilitate bin Laden's strategic goal - to destabilise and undermine the Western economic system.
The author is strategic fellow at the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies in Washington DC