The War Nerd: Saudis, Syria, and “Blowback”


ON DECEMBER 19, 2013

saudi-blowbackPeople are saying that the Saudis are asking for big trouble by backing jihad against Syria’s President Assad.

According to the Daily Beast:

“Saudi Arabia is playing a dangerous double game—turning a blind eye to the jihadists flocking from Riyadh to Syria while assuring the West of its commitment to fighting terror.”

This is the famous “blowback” theory: Saudi Arabia itself will become a target when the Saudis fighting in Syria come home. There was serious “blowback,” we’re told, after a generation of Saudis, most famously a tall guy named Osama, went off to do jihad in Afghanistan, and it could happen again.

You’ll notice that this story has a certain poetic justice to it: Saudi shall reap what it sows, and the terror they inflict on others will be done unto them. Here’s a good tip on reading war stories: whenever they stink of poetic justice, don’t believe them. There is no poetic justice, just a lot of very prosaic injustice. What goes around doesn’t come around. Karma’s not a bitch, she’s a myth (or a mythess). The only blowback in Saudi Arabia comes from those giant beans they love to eat.
The blowback theory rests on the assumption that the Saudis are just rich idiots playing around with things too powerful for them to control. It’s easy to see them as bumpkins who just got lucky by finding the world’s biggest oil reserve under their desert. Those silly Saudis, huh? They just have no idea what they’re stirring up. This is the view of Saudi Arabia you get in the Daily Beast story:

“Saudi Arabian officials are doing little to try to stop [Saudi jihadis] flying out from the Riyadh airport—a further sign, say Western diplomats, of the Kingdom throwing caution to the wind when it comes to the Syrian civil war.”


Let’s try a different theory: that the Saudis know exactly what they’re doing. That they are, in fact, geniuses at exporting trouble while keeping the homeland quiet. What other Middle Eastern faction has held power as long as the House of Saud? They’re coming up on a century in control of the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, and in that century they’ve buried a lot of groups that looked a lot shinier and more modern, starting with the Al Rashidi, who were more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and adaptable than the Sauds. The Sauds crushed them anyway.

Then there was the rise of the Communists. Nobody even remembers that 50 years ago the Middle East was crowded with clever, university-educated Marxist Arabs who were going to sweep the bad old monarchies away. Now, the last Marxists in Syria are a very small, weird militia fighting with Assad against a tidal wave of Sunni jihadism.

The Ba’ath, who were going to secularize and modernize the Arab world, have seen their ideology vanish completely, so that even the guys fighting for so-called Ba’athists like Assad are openly fighting for their sect, not pan-Arab socialism.

The Middle East has been Saudi-ized while we looked on and laughed at those goofy Saudis who didn’t understand progress. No wonder they’re content to play dumb. If we took a serious look at them, they’d be terrifying.

And of all their many skills, the one the Saudis have mastered most thoroughly is disruption. Not the cute tech-geek kind of disruption, but the real, ugly thing-in-itself. They don’t just “turn a blind eye” to young Saudi men going off to do jihad—they cheer them on. It’s a brilliant strategy that kills two very dangerous birds with one plane ticket. By exporting their dangerous young men, the Saudis rid themselves of a potential troublemaker while creating a huge amount of pain for the people who live wherever those men end up.

Saudis have shipped money, sermons, and volunteers to Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Russia’s North Caucasus just as they’re doing now in Syria. It’s a package deal—to get the money, you have to accept the Wahhabism and the volunteers. And it works. The Saudi package is usually resented at first, like it was by the Afghans who were outraged to be told they were “bad Muslims” by Saudi volunteers.

But Afghan Islam has been Wahhabized over time. The same thing happened much more dramatically in Chechnya, where Saudi volunteers showed they were serious about war and religion, a nice change from the coopted quasi-Soviet imams the Chechens had known before. Saudis like Ibn al-Khattab, Abu al-Walid, and Muhannad (all noms de guerre) provided the only real jobs a young man could get in Chechnya, and in the process did a great job of miring the Chechens in an endless war that has killed something like 160,000 people while forcing Chechen women into Saudi-style isolation, eventually leaving Chechnya under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov, a second-generation death-squad commander who does most of the Kremlin’s killing for them. This is a typical Saudi aid result: A disaster for the recipients, the Chechens, and their enemies, the Russians, but a huge win for Saudi. Same thing is going on in the rest of Russia’s North Caucasus, especially in Dagestan, where the Boston Marathon bombers’ parents live.

And one aspect of that victory is the elimination of potentially troublesome young males who might have made trouble inside Saudi. Jihad is like the princess in those fairy tales: It draws all the daring young princes to undertake quests no underwriter would insure, and in the process gets them far away from home during their most aggressive years. Better yet from the Sauds’ POV, most of them die. The three biggest Saudi jihadis in Chechnya, Khattab, Walid, and Muhannad, all died violently. Khattab’s death, come to think of it, was genuine fairy-tale material: The Russians finally got him with apoisoned letter, impregnated with a toxin absorbed through the skin. That goddamn Umberto Eco stole the method for his Name of the Rose medieval pedantry-romp murder mystery.

All the aggression of these young Saudi alphas goes abroad—a method that worked very well for the Europeans during the 19th century. You export your risk, your testosterone, and let someone else deal with it. That’s what Syria has become for Saudi Arabia, a dumping ground for dangerous young men who contribute to the destruction of one of the last secular regimes in the Arab world.

When you look at it the way they do in Riyadh, turning Syria into something like Central Europe during the Thirty Years War is textbook foreign policy: stoking a war on some other country’s territory. Britain and America have a fair bit of practice in this way of making war, but in a much quieter way, the Saudis have been using money and religion to set regional rivals on fire. Syria is the latest victim, and it’s now burning up very satisfactorily. It not only distracts aggressive young Saudis, but contributes to the Saud’s main strategic goal: the destruction of Iran. Assad’s Syria was the only Arab state in alliance with Iran, and breaking it apart was a huge win in itself, as they see things in Riyadh. The Saudis, like the Israelis, are perfectly comfortable with jihadi chaos. What they can’t stand is a cohesive enemy state.

Go back a couple of decades and Saudi was facing armed invasion by one of those states, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Khafji, a Saudi town near the Iraq border, was captured by Saddam’s troops in a full-front armor attack in 1991.

Back then, things looked pretty grim for those poor, helpless old Saudis, and not just because their troops couldn’t fight. They were on the whole wrong side of history. Secularism, that was the wave o’ the future, and those pore ol’ Wahhabi just didn’t get it.

But the world was taking the Saudis too lightly, as usual. Twenty-two years after their troops fled Khafji, everything’s comin’ up Saudi. Nobody in the Middle East will even admit to being a secularist. All those clever Ba’athists are dead or on the run. Saddam is lying in his grave. Assad is fighting for his life in a little strip of coastal hill territory. That’s two out of the three regimes the Sauds worried about gone for good.

Iraq and Syria were, and continue to be, strategic victories at low cost—for Saudi Arabia. A very high cost for the people who happen to live in Iraq and Syria, but that really doesn’t bother the guys in Riyadh.

Ah, but blowback’s a bitch, the Daily Beast says:

“The Saudis are in jeopardy of repeating history, says an American intelligence official who declined to be named for the article. ‘There was blowback for the Saudis from jihadists fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s and that could happen again.’”

This is just nonsense. The Saudis who fought in Afghanistan did not cause trouble for their fellow Saudis. They caused a lot of trouble for many other places, and for foreigners inside Saudi Arabia—but not for their fellow Saudis. To really see how little blowback the Saudis experienced after their Afghan mission, you have to look carefully at the dates. If there was going to be blowback for Saudis from their export of jihadis to Afghanistan, it would have to have happened sometime between the Russian invasion (December 24, 1979) and the decade following the Soviets’ withdrawal, completed on February 15, 1989. So, we’re talking about blowback from 1980 to 2000. And there simply wasn’t any—for Saudis. Many people remember the carnage when the Grand Mosque was stormed, but that happened on November 20, 1979, a month before the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan. There was one way in which the storming of the Grand Mosque exemplified Saudi techniques: They managed to convince most of the world that the Iranian Shi’ites were behind it, even though it was actually the work of Juhayman al-Otaybi, descendant of a Wahhabi fighter who rode with Ibn Saud himself.

Between the Russian invasion and the millennium, there were virtually no terrorist attacks targeting Saudis inside KSA. For the whole of the 1980s, I can only find one incident—and that was a sad attempt to blow up some oil tanks in Jubail by Shia Saudis in 1988. Four Shi’ite men had their heads chopped off, and one oil tank burned for a few days. No Sunni Saudis were injured. Not much of a blowback.

The next major attack inside Saudi Arabia didn’t come until 1995, and once again only inflicted harm to outsiders, not Saudis: five US citizens, two Indian citizens, killed in Riyadh. No Saudis injured.

A year later, on June 25, 1996, someone detonated a truck full of explosives at the Khobar Towers, a housing complex full of American soldiers. 19 US personnel were killed, with hundreds more injured. It was a major attack, but note that none of the KIA were Saudi. And what made it even better as an example of the Saudis’ techniques of misdirection is that the Americans immediately decided that it couldn’t have been their Saudi friends and allies who set off the bomb. It had to be those evil Iranians and their Shia proxies, a group supposedly called “Saudi Hizbollah” that never pulled off anything even a fraction as big as the Khobar bombing before or since.

Everybody who was anybody wanted it to be Iran: the Saudis, Israel, and the Defense Department. Even though the evidence pointed more and more toward good ol’ Sunni Saudis of the Al Qaeda variety, official Washington held tight to the evil Persians theory. If you want a quick look at the confusion which ensued, check out this 2003 story from the New York Times, which says Al Qaeda is now suspected for the Khobar attack, then apologizes with a correction saying it was the Iranians after all.

The Saudis must have been thrilled they’d pinned it on the Persians. There’s only one country in the world that works harder than the Saudis at demonizing Iran, and that’s Israel, Saudi’s public enemy and secret lover. Israel and Saudi; it’s like a costume drama, a bodice-ripper, only with a Kevlar bodice and some serious ripping: “One wore a kippah, one a thobe; but the more they spoke of their hatred, the hotter burned their love!”

It wasn’t until 2007 that William Perry, Secretary of Defense at the time of the attack, said publiclythat it was Al Qaeda, not Iran, that bombed the Khobar Towers.

So let’s total up the number of Saudi Sunni killed in this “blowback” from the Afghan jihad. I’m no math whiz myself, but I think I can give a pretty exact figure: Zero. None.

In short, there was no blowback for the Saudis. Blowback by Saudis, and by Saudi-funded groups, Hell yeah, but blowback within Saudi Arabia, against Saudis (real Saudis, which means Sunni), nope. Nary a bit.

Some of the tall tales the Saudis told to cover up their own attacks on foreigners were so ridiculous you can’t believe any Western government took them seriously. But they did, because Saudi is a big tipper and the customer is always right, even when he’s telling lies like the ones that got William Sampson, a chemist working in Riyadh, tossed in jail, sodomized and tortured. Sampson was arrested for a series of car bombs that killed Westerners in Riyadh in 2000.

The Saudi Interior Minister, a hardline Wahhabi, claimed that the westerners were killing each other in a turf war over the trade in illegal beer. The basis for that claim was that Sampson and his friends used to meet at private brew clubs to have a few, play darts, whatever British expats do to pass the time until the contract ends.

So they tortured Sampson and six other expats into confessing. Meanwhile the car bombs were still going off, which—if this was your classic Agatha Christie—would prove they weren’t the killers, and they’d be released with apologies all round. They weren’t. Sampson did two and a half years in solitary and died of bitterness in 2012, cursing the Canadian government, which had decided the Saudis were telling the truth and Sampson was lying, to the very end. The Saudis never got around to admitting the bombs were theirs, but by 2003 there was so much jihadist violence going on in the Kingdom that it was fairly obvious it wasn’t a beer feud that killed those expats. But hey, they actually had Western governments believing it. Any alibi works when you’re Saudi Arabia.

The sudden onset of Saudi-on-Saudi ideological violence in 2003 doesn’t track with Afghan vets. It does track very clearly with something else that started in 2003. Raise your hand if you remember a big event that happened in 2003. And just like that major event, Saudi-on-Saudi violence peaked in 2005-2006, then tailed off. And most of the violence during this three-year surge consisted of a very belated crackdown on known Saudi Sunni terrorists by the authorities, who finally acted because their more excitable neighbors, enraged by the US invasion of Iraq, were targeting fellow Saudi Sunni for the first time. It took that huge provocation, right next door, to break down the taboo against Saudi-on-Saudi terror.

It’s not hard to understand why Saudis are so willing to inflict violence on outsiders and so reluctant to target other Saudis. I used to give English lessons to a Saudi police captain, and he gave me little glimpses of their security methods. One day he came late and explained it had been a hard day: “We have a murder case.” I asked if they’d caught the suspect. “No, he has fled. But we will take him.” I asked why he was so confident. “We are keeping his brother. He won’t let his brother rot in prison.”
It’s a beautifully simple system: Your whole clan stands hostage for you. In extreme cases like the one this police captain was discussing, that means one of your relatives is actually grabbed and imprisoned, but it doesn’t usually involve anything that dramatic, just the fear you’ll ruin all your siblings’ and cousins’ marriage prospects.

The next time I saw my cop friend, he was much happier. Just as he’d said, the murderer had turned himself in to save his brother. Everyone in Saudi society—everyone except the expendable foreigner servants and Shi’ites—is locked into huge clan and tribal networks. Those networks control your life from birth to death. Whatever you do reflects on the whole group, and the whole group can be held to account for your actions. But that’s only if you injure a real person—a proper Sunni Saudi citizen.
If you come from a world like that, you would naturally want to do your violence, like your drinking and whoring, across the border. And that’s why the Saudi authorities have every reason to let those dangerous young men fly out of Riyadh to make jihad in Syria.

Illustration by Brad Jonas