A Terror Breeding Ground?

Saudis Try To Change Reputation As Haven For Terrorists

Last week, the Justice Department indicted an Arab-American named Ahmed Omar Abu Ali for plotting to assassinate President Bush.

He was handed over to U.S. authorities after being detained without charges for 20 months in a prison in Saudi Arabia.

The case is complicated by allegations of torture, but according to the indictment, it was while he was studying in Saudi Arabia that Ali made contact with al Qaeda. The kingdom's mosques and schools have been cited as a breeding ground for extremism.

The fact is, when many Americans think of Saudi Arabia, they think "terrorism." Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis and so is Osama bin Laden. Yet after 9/11, the Saudis vehemently denied that they had an extremist problem. And they continued denying it until homegrown terrorists, followers of bin Laden, attacked them.

The government's response was an unprecedented security crackdown. But Saudi reformers say it's not enough, that what Saudi Arabia needs is change. Correspondent Ed Bradley went to the secretive kingdom to take a look at Saudi Arabia's own war on terror.

The first thing you notice in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital, is the security. It's virtually everywhere.

The city is on guard against terrorist attacks. And so is the rest of the country.

A training exercise simulating the pursuit of terrorists was carried out for 60 Minutes by special forces troops, responsible for Saudi Arabia's internal security.

And in Saudi Arabia, basic training means counterterrorism training for the police as well. It's all part of an ongoing mobilization for war, between Saudi extremists and the Saudi government.

Crown Prince Abdullah is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, in charge of waging this war. 60 Minutes was invited to attend a royal reception by the crown prince for tribal elders. The subject was terrorism.

The crown prince's chief of staff described what was being said: "The point was to say that we are here with you in standing against terrorism. That everyone in our tribe is sending this message to you."

That message has been loud and clear ever since a terrorist attack a year and a half ago. It's an attack that most Americans never heard of, and most Saudis can't forget.

On May 12, 2003, multiple car bombs were detonated simultaneously at three different housing compounds for westerners, other foreigners and affluent Saudis in Riyadh.

The nighttime attack was sophisticated, well-coordinated, and the deadliest against the Saudi regime in 25 years. The next morning, the death toll stood at 35, including eight Americans. Though no one immediately claimed responsibility, there was little doubt as to who was behind it.

"Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden has targeted Saudi Arabia since the early 1990s. He declared us his sworn enemies. And he vowed to destroy the Saudi state," says Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign affairs advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah.

What was their goal? To overthrow the government?

"Yes. They want to destroy the government. They want to establish a system of government that is similar to what the Taliban had in Afghanistan," says al Jubeir. "And they want to take us back 500 years, but they won't succeed because our country is totally against them."

Ironically, it was the Saudi government itself that encouraged thousands of Saudis in the '80s to go to Afghanistan to fight the Russians.

"We Saudis ought to admit that was one of the biggest mistakes we participated in," says Suleiman Al-Hatlan, who writes an influential newspaper column in Saudi Arabia.

He says today's terrorism is a consequence of past government policy: "We sent young Saudis to be received by people like bin Laden and be brainwashed in Afghanistan. And finally, we are paying a heavy price. They are back to fight inside the country, inside Saudi Arabia."

The Saudi government's response to May 12 was an aggressive crackdown on suspected terrorist hideouts. For six months, the terrorists seemed to be on the defensive. But that November, the terrorists struck once again, this time at another housing compound in Riyadh, not home to Americans or Westerners. Seventeen people died, all of them Arabs or Muslims.

An Egyptian accountant, his wife and two children were killed. And a Lebanese woman was beheaded by a large piece of flying glass. The suicide bombers, driving a Jeep painted to look like a police vehicle, had shot their way into the compound, and detonated their explosives.

A Web site video actually shows the two suicide bombers who carried out the attack. They were members of "al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," the Saudi arm of bin Laden's terrorist organization. Their aim is to force Westerners out of the kingdom, destroy the Saudi royal family, and establish a strict Islamic state.

Saudi Arabia is already one of the strictest places on Earth. Islam was born there, and it's the state religion, one that prescribes the way of life for everyone, from the ordinary citizen, to the crown prince.

The Koran, Islam's holy book, is, in effect, Saudi Arabia's constitution. Saudi law states that education should "instill the Islamic faith," and that the role of the state is to "protect Islam." The state pays clerics to teach a form of Islam called Wahhabism which many critics say is puritanical, intolerant, and breeds extremism.

How widespread is Islamic fundamentalism and militant Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia?

"Since May 12, we discovered that extremism has unfortunately become a part of our everyday practice," says Al-Hatlan. "In schools, in mosques, almost everywhere you go to in Saudi Arabia."

Is Wahhabism breeding these extremists?

"I think Wahhabism participates in producing these extremists. Yes, I do believe," says Al-Hatlan.

But Dr. Saleh al-Sheikh disagrees. As minister of Islamic affairs and a senior Wahhabi religious leader, he has been investigating thousands of Saudi Arabia's clerics and teachers to determine whether they're disseminating extremism. So far, he says, only 150 have been removed. Approximately 1,000 are being retrained.

"By no means does this imply they all harbored ideas," says al-Sheikh. "We do not have statistics on how many actually harbored such thoughts. But the numbers are very small, and we can count them on the fingers of one hand."

"There is a widespread perception in the United States that Islam followed here is puritanical, is intolerant, that schools here preach hatred," Bradley says to al-Sheikh. "And because of that, the extremists that attacked the United States on Sept. 11 and the extremists who have been attacking here in Saudi Arabia this past year are a byproduct of Saudi society. You raised them."

"Look, if Saudi Arabia's teaching of Islam really produces extremism, then the outcome wouldn't be limited to just 15, 20, or even 100 people," says al-Sheikh. "If that were true, we would have produced tens of thousands of terrorists. These terrorists are a minority and are not the product of the Saudi educational system."

Mansour al-Nogaidan is a product of the Saudi educational system, but also one of its harshest critics. Before becoming a controversial columnist, he was a militant extremist and has first-hand knowledge of the terrorists' mindset.

"In their view, today's world is corrupt and has no morality," says al-Nogaidan. "As servants of God, they believe it is our duty as Muslims to change this world using any means possible. Even if that means killing children, shedding blood, or engaging in all kinds of barbarity to achieve that goal."

How widespread is the problem of Islamic and militant Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia?

"We are fundamentalists, in that we are a religious society, and the Saudi government is a religious government," says al-Nogaidan. "But the issue here is really about the absence of different views. The problem is complex; it's not just that we don't accept those who are not Muslim. First, we need to destroy the monsters within us that sow hatred for anyone who holds views different from ours, even Muslims from our own country.

"There is some criticism out there about the educational curriculum, that it teaches young people that other religions, other beliefs, other ways of life aren't acceptable," says Bradley.

"To an extent, this is correct. And we have assessed our curriculum. We have discovered that 5 percent of it is unacceptable - 10 percent of it is questionable," says al-Jubeir. "We have removed the 5 percent and we're working on the other 10 percent. We are working on introducing new teaching methods in order to be able to educate our students better, because our objective is to make them productive citizens."

But how could that exist in the schools? How could that have existed for so many years?

"Perhaps in this area we didn't do a good job," says al-Jubeir. "The question is, are we dealing with this issue? Yes, we are."

The other issue they're dealing with is the ongoing terrorist campaign, which escalated further last spring when a massive car bomb blew up a symbol of government authority - a police building in the heart of the capital.

Crown Prince Abdullah made a public display of outrage: "This is a warning that I proclaim from this place. That anyone who is silent, who is withholding information, that person is one of them, an accomplice. From now on, there'll be no mercy, except the mercy of God."

In spite of that warning, terrorist attacks have continued, and so has the government's battle to hunt the terrorists down and kill them. But according to Al-Hatlan, deadly force alone won't solve Saudi Arabia's problem.

"In many different ways, fighting terrorism is not only by going to the street and killing terrorists, but by facing the fact that there are seeds of terrorism in this country," says Al-Hatlan.

"Unless we try to create a new culture, unless we prepare our people to accept the diversity of ideas, the diversity of opinions, then we will be always dealing with extremism that will result, in one way or the other, to terrorism."

Last June, the Saudi government's war on terror won one of its most significant victories. Twenty-four hours after beheading an American contractor, the leader of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, Abdel Aziz al-Mukrin, was caught by Saudi police at a gas station and killed.

"We have destroyed the top leadership of the organization, and we are now in the process of dealing with the rest of them," says al-Jubeir.

"You say with some certainty that they are not today what they were before. Based on what evidence? How do you know that you're getting at them," asks Bradley.

"We've unraveled a number of cells. We've unraveled their safe houses. We have identified their supporters," says al-Jubeir. "We find that when we engage them, their ability to resist is not what it used to be. Our intelligence is getting much better so we're certain we have them on the run, and it's a matter of time and God willing, we will destroy them."