Washington and Riyadh: Fading Memory of 9/11?

by Emile Nakhleh

The terror attacks of 9/11 have become a distant memory in US-Saudi relations. Washington’s recent multi-billion American arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, its continued coddling of the Saudi regime, and the absence of American moral outrage over the immoral war in Yemen show that America hasn’t learned much from the attacks and that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni neighboring allies remain untouched by the dastardly terrorist deed.

Saudi Arabia pretends it has had nothing to do with the terrorist ideology that spawned 9/11. The Trump administration’s unwavering support of the Saudi and Bahraini regimes, despite their atrocious human rights records and bullying of Qatar and other independently minded neighbors, has empowered these regimes to do whatever they please without fear of retribution or rebuke from Washington. It’s as if 9/11 has not happened.

Trump’s continued romance with some Gulf Sunni potentates ignores their preaching of violent Sunni ideology, their financing of terrorist groups for years, and the views of their religious leaders that non-Muslims are “infidels,” “unbelievers,” “kuffar,” and “anti-Islam.” More importantly, this policy will undermine the long-term interests of the United States and endanger the safety and security of American citizens and interests in the region and elsewhere.

In the early 1990s, when Osama bin Laden started his terror campaign against the United States and its Sunni allies in the greater Middle East, he convinced many Saudi and other Sunni youth that “jihad” was justified not only against the United States but also against Sunni Muslim regimes, whom he viewed as the “near enemy.” Although he described America as the “head of the snake,” he denounced Muslim regimes in the region as equally venomous enemies of Islam. As “apostates,” they could be justifiably killed.

Bin Laden also argued that, based on a saying (Hadith) by the Prophet Muhammad on his deathbed that only one religion shall exist in Arabia, American “infidel” troops could not stay in Saudi Arabia after Saddam Hussein was evicted from Kuwait in 1991. That began his war against America, other Western countries, and their friendly Muslim regimes.

I spent most of my career in the US government tracking the spread of radical Wahhabi-Salafi ideology throughout the Muslim world, funded mostly by so-called Islamic nongovernmental organizations financed by Saudi Arabia. From villages in northern Nigeria to the Fergana Valley in Central Asia, Saudi-printed Korans and funded projects spread the well-oiled Salafi ideology among Muslim youth. My analysts and I warned senior policymakers about the long-term impact of this phenomenon, but the Saudis were never really confronted about it.

Regardless of the authenticity of this Hadith, Wahhabi-Salafi religious preachers in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere defended the bin Laden thesis, and many of them financed his violent operations. Several Saudi-funded Islamic NGOs across the Muslim world, directly and indirectly, proclaimed the bin Laden message as congruent with Wahhabi-Salafi teachings. This was then and still is the official Islam of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Religious Leaders Condoned “Jihad”

When I visited Saudi Arabia in 1996 shortly after the Khobar Tower terrorist bombings, several pro-regime Saudis told me, incorrectly, that the bombings did not kill Saudis, only non-Muslim foreigners. I interpreted that to mean that it was acceptable for the “jihadist” act to kill non-Muslims, but not Muslims. When I presented them with evidence that several dozen Saudis and other Muslims were killed in the bombings, one Saudi shrugged his shoulders and replied, almost dismissively, “Unavoidable collateral damage.” Since then, Muslim “jihadists” have killed more Muslims—Sunni and Shia—than non-Muslims.

The unpleasant fact is that on September 11, 2001, Sunni-driven and empowered terrorists attacked the United States, using a warped interpretation of Sunni Islam that justified their murderous actions. The radical interpretation that motivated them emanated from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Sunni states. Furthermore, thousands of al-Qaeda and Islamic State “jihadi” foot soldiers came from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other Sunni states.

Many pro-regime Sunni religious leaders in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have not disavowed the bloody actions by their followers. On the contrary, they viewed many such actions as lawful “jihad” and funded many of the “jihadi” movements. Much of the funding for these groups, including al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates and the Islamic State and the Baghdadi caliphate, came from Gulf business people, groups, members of some ruling families, and government funded organizations.

Repression in Bahrain

Some Gulf Sunni regimes, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have also exploited their coziness with Trump to erase the effects of the Arab Spring through illegal detentions, sham trials, and torture. They have transitioned from bankrolling terrorist organizations to suppressing their peoples, especially pro-democracy advocates, all in the name of fighting terrorism. Thousands of peaceful dissidents languish in Egyptian, Saudi, and Bahraini jails. Many others have been made to “disappear.”

The case of the Bahraini human rights lawyer, Ibrahim Sirhan, is the latest in the Bahraini regime’s sordid legacy of repression. According to his affidavit, Sirhan was ordered to go to the Bahraini security office because of a live television interview he gave on the human rights situation in the village of al-Diraz. During two weeks of vicious interrogation, he was severely beaten, tortured, and subjected to all kinds of dehumanizing mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Below is a sample of the interrogation:

Security Officer: “What did you say in the TV interview?”

Sirhan: “I only discussed the legal questions of human rights without getting involved in politics.”

Security Officer: “Forget about law and human rights. With the new American president everything has changed. Now we can do with you whatever we want.”  

Sirhan: “I don’t get involved in politics. I only give a legal opinion.”

Security Officer: “We know that, but then you asked for foreign intervention. Did you mean “Majian” Iran?” [a derogatory word describing Iran].

Sirhan: “I didn’t mean a specific country but the international community in general.”

Sirhan: “The officer started beating me and kicking me all over my body, including my genitals, and kept beating me until I fell to the ground. They picked me up and repeated the beatings after they had forced me to take off my clothes.” 

Security Officer: “You are a member of al-Wefaq, which means you are a dissident.”

Sirhan: “I work within the law, not against it.”

Sirhan: “They repeated the beatings, including slamming my head against the wall and threatened to attack me sexually if I did not cooperate.”

Sirhan: “A week later they ordered me to go to the Security Services office in Muharraq. After hours of interrogation, insults, and cursing me, my family, and my religion, they failed to recruit me to work for them. They finally let me go.”

Bahrain is not unique in the use of torture. Saudi Arabia is equally a serial violator of human rights and has used similar methods against the Shia in the Eastern Province, especially in the town of al-Awamiya. The Saudi regime’s repeated attacks this year have devastated the town and terrorized its Shia inhabitants.

The Trump Response

Despite their horrific human rights record, Gulf regimes have not shown any concern about Washington’s stance toward them. As far as they are concerned, the Trump administration has let both 9/11 and the Arab Spring slide. They view their relations with Trump in the context of business as usual. The Al Saud ruling family now believes that the Trump administration’s relationship, especially with the Crown Prince and soon-to-be-king, Mohammad bin Salman, is largely driven by Washington’s pursuit of short-term and mostly short-sighted interests and a pathological enmity toward Iran.

This belief has empowered the Saudi authorities to terrorize their citizens, persecute and torture their Shia communities at whim, bully Qatar and other independently minded states and groups, and maintain their illegal and barbaric war in Yemen. The recent arms sales to Bahrain and the use of sophisticated American weaponry against women and children in Yemen seem to tell the Gulf potentates that Washington has their back.

The Saudi regime is also heartened by reports coming out of Washington that Trump plans not to certify the Iran nuclear deal, despite the IAEA’s statement that Iran has complied with the required conditions. Riyadh believes that Trump keeps moving the goal post in order to ultimately abrogate the agreement altogether.

The Trump administration is kowtowing to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni members of the Gulf Cooperation Council without consideration of America’s long-term strategic interests and the safety of American civilians and military personnel in the greater Middle East. If Washington continues to cater to Saudi Arabia and its friends in the Gulf, the threat of more regional wars, for example between Saudi Arabia and Iran or between Israel and Hezbollah, will grow exponentially—something that neither Washington nor Riyadh needs or can afford.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Ask the Peace Corps, an entity of the United States Of America, for the map they surveyed and mapped, not Google who owes nothing to anybody.

  2. No- 9/11 was revenge by bin Laden for United States of America’s President Clinton ordering the missile attack that killed his wife and oldest son- that is what bin Laden said to me himself.

  3. I think something that is continuously overlooked is that “money rules the world”. So, Saudis and all those rich Gulf states can do whatever they want, as long as money is keep pouring into pockets of American/European businesses.

  4. But for Bin-Laden to carry out such a monstrous atrocity inside the USA, he had to have some inside help! Either he bought out help since his family was wealthy or he got paid to carry it out! You don’t believe everything he said to you in person. Do you?

  5. Better to believe a person in a position of responsibility such as he was than you who has no responsibility in what you say on line.

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