"Is This the Tip of the Iceberg?"

  • Share
  • Read Later
When lawyer Robert Jordan was heading for Riyadh to take up his post as U.S. ambassador, his friend former Secretary of State James Baker told him he'd witness interesting times. That proved to be an unfortunate understatement. On the eve of Jordan's arrival came the terrorist attacks on September 11 that caused deep American-Saudi strains over Saudi support for extremism.

In a TIME interview last week, Jordan offered up some rare praise for Saudi efforts to combat terrorism while saying the Saudis needed to do more in fighting extremism. He fretted that the hundreds of al-Qaeda terrorists recently arrested in the Kingdom could be "the tip of the iceberg". And he took a swipe at critics of Saudi Arabia back in Washington for being uninformed. If the U.S. turns its back on the Saudi royal family, he warned, the world might end up with a Taliban-style regime controlling one-fourth of global oil reserves as well as Islam's two holiest places.

A Texas chum of President Bush, Jordan had cause to speak his mind: he disclosed in the interview that after two years as America's top diplomat in Saudi Arabia, he will end his diplomatic career and return to his family in Texas next month:

On changes Saudi attitudes since September 11:

The scrutiny that they have undergone has caused them to realize more vividly that they are part of the world, that they can't be isolated. The reality of 15 of the 19 hijackers being Saudis is a traumatic thing for the society and government to accept. I think that they have now accepted it. They are beginning to realize that they need to focus on what fosters intolerance.

On Saudi reforms:

They have moved forward in a much more aggressive way toward a reform agenda, primarily economic reform. Crown Prince Abdullah has made it very clear that he is very anxious to become a member of the World Trade Organization. There is still a question whether some of the Crown Prince's statements advocating reform are really going to become reality. Or whether the inertia of a conservative society that relies on consensus allows that slowest-moving elements to stop or delay progress.

On the Islamic extremist threat to Saudi Arabia following the May 12 terrorist attacks in Riyadh:

The danger is probably much greater than we would have assumed it to be a year ago. When you find safe houses with tons of explosives and automatic weapons, you do ask yourself, Is this the tip of the iceberg, or have they now flushed out most of what is there? I think they are dealing with it in a professional and methodical way.

On Saudi Arabia's War on Terrorism:

The Saudi government has begun to do a good job in enlisting the support of the public, through statements that essentially said, Anyone who attempts to rationalize these kinds of acts of violence is just as guilty as the terrorists themselves. This was a shot across the bow to any sympathizers or religious figures who might try in the mosques or elsewhere to justify these kinds of attacks.

On Saudi cooperation with the U.S.:

We are now seeing excellent cooperation with United States in this fight here in the Kingdom. We have joint working groups on not only terrorists and operational issues, but also on terrorist financing. The Saudis are working night and day, literally shoulder to shoulder, with us in the same facilities. They are sharing to a much greater degree the results of interrogations and on a much more timely basis. The law enforcement people who report to me are reporting very positive results and very positive cooperation.

On catching al-Qaeda and choking terror financing:

They have had a wake-up call since May 12 [the bomb attack in Riyadh], not unlike our own Pearl Harbor, in which they have realized the immediacy and urgency of the threat, not just to others, but themselves. We are seeing a lot of gunfights, alot of flushing out of terrorists and safe houses. [Fighting terrorist financing] has lagged a bit. The terrorists really don't conduct much of their financing through the standard banking channels. The Saudis have regulated the banking system pretty thoroughly. What they have not regulated until recently is the system of charities. It is sort of like trying to stamp out crabgrass. As soon as you stamp one of them out, something springs up somewhere else under a different name.

On Saudi support for religious extremism:

The Crown Prince and a number of influential imams and other religious leaders have emphasized how important it is to not condone terrorism, that Islam even as practiced by the Saudis does not support terrorism or killing innocent civilians. In sermons lately from influential mosques, where the imam has condemned terrorism and preached in favor of tolerance, we have seen the closing of the sermon with, "O God, please destroy the Jews, the infidels and all who support them." This does not give us comfort that the message is getting across as effectively as we would like. We continue to have some concerns about the [school] curriculum. There are examples in the textbooks of a mindset, not necessarily an incitement to terrorism per se, that glorifies some of these jihadist concepts.

On Saudi Islam and terrorism:

We have expressed our concerns that any intolerant strain of Islam, when combined with some of these other societal factors, can germinate and lead to dangerous attitudes and conduct. But we have got to be very careful when we over-generalize about any particular religion. We have seen some intolerant strains in Christianity, Judaism and other religions around the world. It doesn't necessarily mean intolerance equals a breeding ground for terrorism.

On U.S.-Saudi relations:

There might have been a time when we viewed the Saudis pretty much as a gas pump and occasionally a strategic partner for military projection of force. We are now seeing a much more complex relationship. The President has made it very clear that Saudi Arabia is a very important ally. We saw the importance of this relationship as recently as the military action in Iraq. The Saudi government, quietly, discreetly, cooperated with us in a positive manner, providing the resources and assistance that we asked for. Some of the voices that come out of the woodwork anonymously are not necessarily fully knowledgeable of the work that is going on. We have to be very careful about pointing fingers when we are trying to work together with the Saudis to accomplish something very important. They need to be given credit for what they do right, and they also need to be given further encouragement for what more we would like them to do. We are working together for a common purpose, not always at the pace we would like, but at a deliberate pace.

On coddling the Saudis:

If you want to marginalize the Saudis, cut them off and turn your back on them, you are simply inviting another Taliban type of regime, or an isolated and deteriorating environment, in which terrorism becomes more likely, not less. I think no one would say looking at the history of the last two years that we have coddled the Saudis since 9/11. The Saudi leadership is trying valiantly to cope with some forces that have spun almost out of control in their midst.

On whether relations are unraveling:

We are going to have rough spots. We have weathered a lot of storms in the past. We continue to have an interest in a relationship with the largest oil-producing country in the world. As long as oil is as important a commodity as it is, there is a strategic value in having a relationship with that kind of source. Saudi Arabia is also located in a very strategically important geographical region. We also have a great interest — an increasing interest — in a relationship with what is essentially the Vatican of Islam. When people start talking about "re-evaluating the relationship," it is important to keep in mind what those national interests are.