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The road to 9-11 began in Saudi Arabia. GlobalPost set out to understand how the kingdom has changed — and how it hasn't — on this 10th anniversary. In this seven-part series, "Saudi Arabia: The Road Beyond 9-11," GlobalPost hit the streets of Riyadh where some women now dare to get behind the wheel and travelled Highway 15 where Osama bin Laden recruited 12 of the 9/11 hijackers. The series goes inside the House of Saud's struggle against extremism — and its balancing act between a desire for reform and resistance to the revolutionary spirit of the 'Arab Spring.'

9/11 forces change to Saudi's global religious mission

The kingdom adjusts its international Islamic outreach.


Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to move against terrorist financing coming from the kingdom evaporated after Al Qaeda launched a violent insurgency in 2003. That year, Riyadh passed its first comprehensive anti-money-laundering legislation.

In 2004, it joined the U.S. in partially freezing the assets of Al Haramain, a Riyadh-based international charity linked to terrorist groups. It later arrested 40 individuals associated with the charity, according to a January 2011 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.

Riyadh's Kingdom Centre, also known as Al Mamlaka Tower, is Saudi Arabia's tallest skyscraper.
Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost

But the pace and scope of the Saudi crackdown on terrorist funding left questions. For example, despite reports that terrorist financiers were arrested and prosecuted, these actions were not a deterrent since they were not publicized in the kingdom. Also, there was no way to know if the arrested donors had given major or trifling amounts of money.


As late as December 2009, a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks complained that while Riyadh had aggressively gone after Al Qaeda funders inside the kingdom, "it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority." Donors in the kingdom, it added, “constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” including the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan.

Western diplomats in Riyadh, however, say that the Saudis have recently been more aggressive against terror funding. Last October on the Charlie Rose Show, Stuart Levey, then-undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the U.S. Treasury, said that “we’ve been very the last couple of years [in] developing a good partnership on looking at the financial network of Al Qaeda and money going out.”

But, Levey added, there were “continuing challenges because…[terrorist groups are] still trying to raise money in Saudi Arabia.”

The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), a Saudi organization promoting Islam worldwide that came under investigation by U.S. law enforcement after 9/11, was significantly affected by stricter Saudi financial controls, according to its secretary general Saleh S. Al Wohaibi.

In a 2010 interview at WAMY’s Riyadh headquarters, Al Wohaibi said the restrictions initially caused a 40 percent drop in the organization’s budget. Saudi citizens can no longer make bank transfers to the organization. Instead, they have to come to WAMY’s offices personally, make their contribution by cash or credit card, and get a receipt. The Interior Ministry now oversees all international money transfers by Saudi NGOs and charities.

Meanwhile, responding to the 9/11 backlash against the kingdom in the United States, the Saudis suspended the activities of their embassy’s Islamic affairs office and many of its staffers had to leave the country when Washington revoked their diplomatic visas.


One effect of the drop in Saudi funding for Islamic groups after 9/11 was that Salafis in some countries became more independent. In Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, more than 20 Salafi foundations had a relationship with Saudi Arabia, according to Noorhaidi Hasan, a scholar of the Salafi movement in Jakarta.

Now, he said, the foundations “are no longer depending on Saudi money, they are trying to be more independent. The money from Saudi Arabia has dried up significantly.”

The Saudi funding that still is coming is more widely dispersed. “Mainstream foundations and schools are getting Saudi money, it’s more open now...they are moving closer to the center,” Hasan said. “They are trying to make a balance because they don’t want to be blamed for being a sponsor of terrorism.”

In 2002, 202 people were killed when an Islamist terrorist group bombed a Bali nightclub.

Overall, Saudi support to Indonesian Islamic groups was meant “to Wahhabize Indonesian Muslims,” Hasan said. “But this mission is no longer as strong as before...Indonesians say, ‘We don’t need Saudis to tell us how to be good Muslims.’”

Utrecht University’s van Bruinessen, an expert on Islam in Indonesia, noted that the Saudis also had supported “an ideological counter-offensive” to terrorists by the Indonesian government by supplying “books written by Saudi authors in the Salafi jargon, giving lots of references to the Qur’an and hadith to show that terrorist activities are un-Islamic.”

Similar patterns have appeared among Salafis in Europe. Martijn de Koning of Radboud University, Nijmegen, an expert in Salafist communities in the Netherlands, said that they now “have their own networks, funding, students, lecturers, imams. So to a certain extent they do not need that much support anymore from Saudi Arabia.…the European movement is becoming...a little bit more independent from the Middle East.”

Saudi Arabia still sends religious scholars to Europe to give lectures, de Koning said, “but they are clearly more aware of their they sort of adjust their language a little bit.”

Several experts said that recruiting Muslims to study Islam in Saudi Arabia remains an important aspect of the Saudi mission. “I think at this moment there are about ten Dutch Muslims” at the University of Medina, de Koning said. Many Indonesians who study in the kingdom, van Bruinessen noted, “come back with a great sympathy for Salafism. Some become Salafi teachers.”

Eko Haryanto.
(Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

That is what graduate student Eko Haryanto plans to do. For the past seven years, he has explored the intricacies of Islamic law and theology at one of Saudi Arabia’s premier religious universities on an all-expenses-paid scholarship.

The 37-year-old Indonesian said in an interview that the Islam taught here is “true Islam because it follows the Sunna and the righteous path. And it’s applied here almost 90 percent. There’s no other country or government that applies this form of religion like the kingdom.”

He noted that the number of foreigners studying Islam in Saudi Arabia has “almost doubled” since he arrived, with the University of Medina hosting “almost a hundred students a year.”

Haryanto said he expects to be well-received when he goes home because “well-educated people are searching for the true path as it was applied in the ages of the Prophet [Muhammad]. So when they find the true interpretation of Islam, they follow it.”

(This work was supported by a 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California's Knight Program in Media and Religion.)