Craig Unger on the U.S. and Saudi Arabia: Frenemies 14 Years after 9/11

September 14, 2015

Last week marked 14 years since the attacks of 9/11, the reverberations of which will certainly be felt well into the future. But for all the impact and tragedy of the attacks, there is still so much that remains unanswered, and unanswered for. Here to lend some insight is American journalist Craig Unger, whose bestselling books include House of Bush, House of Saud, a book that explores the relationship between the Bush family (including its various advisors and functionaries) and the Saudi royal family.

Unger’s work drew attention to several unresolved questions about the Bush administration’s response to the attacks, and how we found ourselves mired in a global military project known as the War on Terror. In conversation with Josh Zepps, Unger looks at the radical religious ideology of the Saudis, its ongoing and confusing alliance with the U.S., and the complications brought on by conflicts with Iran and ISIS.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, September 14, 2015. 

This week’s episode is sponsored by Casper, the online mattress retailer that’s disrupting how you buy a premium quality mattress. You can get 50 bucks off your purchase by visiting Casper dot com slash point and using promo code point. 

I’m Josh Zepps host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry this weekend. It was 14 years since the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. On this week’s episode, we’re going to go back to September 11th, 2001, to look at its causes and consequences and specifically the role that Saudi Arabia played and still plays in the ideology of jihadism and terrorism. Craig Unger is a journalist and the author of The New York Times best selling book, House of Bush, House of Saoud, exploring the relationship between the Bush family and the Saudis. His work was featured in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit nine one one. 

He’s written for The New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair. He was editor in chief of Boston magazine, deputy editor of The New York Observer. Craig, thanks for being on point of inquiry. Thanks for having me. 

So in the wake of 9/11, I think what became famous, particularly through Michael Moore’s film and through your book, was the facilitation of the escape from the United States of a bunch of prominent Saudis. 

Even when airspace was still in lockdown, what do we know about that? 

Well, it was quite extraordinary, and to me, it was a kind of event that embodied this very bizarre relationship the US has with the Saudis and the Bush family in particular had with the Saudis. This was at a time, remember, when American airspace was in lockdown as never before. Not since the days of the Wright brothers had been there, been so little flying in American airspace. But the only people allowed to fly in the two days afterwards were members of the Royal House out and in even more striking members of the bin Laden family. 

Do we know anything about the rationale for why that decision was made? 

We do know that phone calls were made to the White House. Richard Clarke, counterterrorism czar. What we know is that this was a disaster for in public relations terms for Bandar, who was at the time the Saudi ambassador to the United States, was close, close friends with the Bush family. I mean, it is impossible to overstate how close they were. He would drop by unannounced at the country place in Kennebunkport and cook them brunch. He went on hunting trips with the elder George Bush. They were very close friends and he could drop by the White House and give advice to the younger Bush. So when he wanted the US to help all these Saudis leave, it happened. We do know that. 

So I had you on Huff Post Live last week and we were talking about the redacted pages in one of the 9/11 reports. This is not I don’t believe the 9/11 Commission report, but this is the Senate investigation into what happened in 9/11. 

And and Senator Bob Graham, who assisted in writing this portion of the report, this 28 page section that was immediately redacted and still has not been released, is now urging for it to be unredacted and has been horrified in that in the decades since that it still hasn’t been unredacted because he claims that it makes very close links between very powerful people in Saudi Arabia and the planning of 9/11. 

What do you know about those redacted 28 pages, if anything? 

Well, I have not read the 28 pages. What I do know in a broader sense of that, obviously, when we know the fifteen out of 19 hijackers were Saudis, but perhaps even more importantly, Saudi Arabia is a theocratic monarchy. I mean, this is where the contradictions are so bizarre. On the one hand, we’re the Guardian and two defenders of Israel. On the other hand, we’re defenders of Saudi Arabia, a theocratic monarchy. It’s religion is Wahhabi Islam is one of the more extreme variants of Islam and its most extreme form you. And it has given birth to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. So that in large part appears to be funded by the Saudi royal family and they give millions and millions of dollars to various Islamic charities. And after that, a certain BISAN teen operation takes place where it goes from one charity to another. And ultimately, some of the money ends up in the hands of terrorists. 

So I want to get to that deal that was made between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious clerics in just a moment. 

But before we get off the immediate wake of 9/11 business, what would you say to pragmatic Americans who say, look, it’s unlikely that the that the Saudi government itself knew about 9/11? 

Because why would they want to unleash something like that on an ostensible ally? So wouldn’t the prudent thing to do be to curry favor with the highest echelons of the of Saudi powerbrokers, allow their people to get out and make sure that you don’t wildly embarrass them by naming particular names in public in the Senate investigation? Because what you’re probably talking about is a few bad apples, not actually the royal family itself. 

Well, you know, this is a very slippery slope, but we do know that Saudi Arabia and our Sunni allies have had been the biggest funders of terrorism. And if you look at all the violent terrorist acts. Really the most extreme ones. And I’m talking about 9/11. I’m talking about the bombings at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the USS Cole, Paris, Madrid, Charlie Hebdo. All those come from Tunis. We have focused our ire on Iran an enormous amount and on sit down, Hussein. But when you look at where the actual violence has come from, it’s come from hobby extremists. 

And so among secularists and atheists, there’s often this sort of debate about should we regard all of Islam as being potentially problematic? The kind of, I suppose, Bill Marr, Sam Harris model, or should we be as nuanced as we can be about the particular strains of Islam that are most likely to be backward thinking and misogynistic and homophobic and then potentially actually terroristic and violent? And part of the problem here that I’m hoping you can help unpack is the spread from Saudi Arabia of this very strict version of Wahhabi Islam that has sort of crowded out any intellectual place in Muslim life, especially in more moderate Muslim countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, for a whole bunch of different pluralistic interpretations of Islam that existed prior to Saudi Arabia rising to power. 

Right. Well, there are many different variants of Islam. And I think it is we see the Wahhabi Salafists in Saudi Arabia. And that’s been really the most extreme form. And it’s given birth to al-Qaida. But we haven’t seen that throughout the entire Islamic world there. What, two or three? We live in a city here in New York with over a hundred thousand Muslims in New York City. And on a day to day basis, you just don’t see that kind of extremism. 

So Friedman wrote about this, Thomas Friedman, the columnist in The New York Times last week, where he was writing about how much hysteria there has been about Iran over the Iran deal in recent months and kind of pointed out that Iran is really not the bad guy in the Middle East at the moment. The bad guy is our friend, Saudi Arabia. 

And I just want to quote Friedman here. He’s he writes, Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernization of the Arab world and the Muslim world at large than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam, the Sufi moderate Sunni and Shiite versions, and imposing in its place the puritanical anti modern anti women, anti-Western, anti pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment. 

How did that deal come to be made between the House of Saud and the Saudi religious establishment that these essentially secular, hedonistic royal princes and kings would take money from the West petrodollars and then fund it into these incredibly radical clerics whose rules they don’t even live by? 

Right. Well, the Saudi. The history of Saudi Arabia goes back to a deal made with Wahhabi Islam. And essentially you had a Bedouin tribesmen who were warriors making deals with clerics. 

And it became the basis of the Saudi kingdom. We have gone along with that. 

I think too much. And I think we may be at a major turning point with regard to our relations with Saudi Arabia and their two major factors here. One, of course, is the Iran nuclear deal. And when you look at all the conflict, the regional conflict throughout the Middle East and the Sunni Shiite conflict, in many ways that’s a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And we’ve been on the Saudi side since 1979 after the Islamic revolution in Iran. We had been allied with Iran. And so now you may be seeing an historic rebalancing with the nuclear deal in Iran. 

You were in Iran last year. What what did you did that give you any particular insight? 

Well, I think it did in a way. And what you see is Iran has been left out of the Middle East in a way. They’ve been isolated. They’ve been thanks to the sanctions. And it goes back to 79 and the Islamic revolution. And I don’t think you’re going to have an enduring peace in the Middle East unless Iran is part of that equation. I think one of the major issues we’re seeing now, King Talamona, Saudi Arabia just sits in Washington with President Obama. And the question is, will the Saudis and Iran be able to live together? Can they come together and put together a structure for some sort of regional security? Do we want them to necessarily? Well, I think right now. I mean, we have all these ongoing wars in Yemen, in Syria and Iraq, and there has to be some stability in the Middle East. You know, I think it would be anything better than what we have now. 

It can’t get much worse. When you say that that when you were in Iran last year, you noticed that they have been essentially sidelined from the Middle East because of the effectiveness of the sanctions. 

Does that mean that the converse is true, that now that the sanctions are being lifted as part of the nuclear deal, that they will be wielding considerably more power? 

Well, I think they they’re now at the table in the eyes of Washington. And I think when King Salman was visiting President Obama, one of the key questions was, was Obama reassuring him that now we’re still friends with you guys and with the Gulf states? I mean, it’s also worth noting that this happens at a time when the price of oil has been plummeting. The price of oil had been up as high as I think one hundred and forty five dollars a barrel in around 2008. Now it’s around forty five dollars a barrel. So it’s lost two thirds of its value. It’s still going down. U.S. shale production has gone up, up, up. We are now a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia, and that changes the balance of things enormously. 

Yeah. What impact is that likely to have? 

And also looking forward to coming decades. We’re presumably going to have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as the impact of climate change becomes more and more deeply felt, then more and more costly. Is that. 

I sometimes wonder whether or not in the big, long, sweeping arc of human history, if you look across the course of centuries, whether or not Saudi Arabia will just be this weird country, that was a bunch of camels wandering around the sandy desert, and then all of a sudden oil became a thing. And for 100 years it was extremely rich. And then they didn’t invest in anything to sustain those riches. And then the world got off its addiction to oil and started using renewables. 

And by twenty one hundred, they were back to being a bunch of camels in the sand. What’s the Long-Term Prognosis here? 

I think that’s a real concern in Saudi Arabia. I mean, look, one of the interesting things here is just the the rise of shale oil production and oil production in the United States has gone up about 50 percent under Obama, and it’s getting cheaper and cheaper to produce shale. And that means that that’s dollar for dollar competitive with Saudi oil suddenly. So that we’re not going to need them. And they don’t have much of an economy. When you take away oil. 

And yet all of that money that they’re using to pour into indoctrinating their young people in this extremist strain of of jihadi Islam, that’s not just being used on Saudi young people, that’s being exported all over the world. Can you explain to us a bit about the relationship between Saudi ideology and the madrassas, religious schools all over the world? 

The money from these Islamic charity goes to madrassas, and they are, as you say, all over the world in Indonesia and Africa. It’s been a big factor in exporting the kind of Wahhabi extremism that’s led to al-Qaeda. And now to ISIS. 

Couldn’t we put pressure on the Saudis to stance that flow of money? 

Well, I think now I mean, that’s one of the interesting things that will start happening is now I think we’re in a stronger position with regard to the Saudis. 

If you can remember, back 40 years ago, we were desperate for their oil. The price of oil was going through the roof. People were on long lines at gas stations. It was the fuel for the great engine of commerce in the West. Now we are we are in a position where in 2019, the United States will be a net exporter of oil so that we are not going to be dependent on them. And the question is, how will we lose that leverage? I don’t think you’re going to see in a snap your fingers kind of way. But the balance of power, I think, is shifting in the Middle East. And it would be great if we could use that in a way that would create some sort of regional Security Council and some of the wars in Yemen and Iraq and Syria. 

What do you make of the response of Saudi Arabia and some of the other Gulf states to the refugee crisis that’s coming out of Syria? It’s been noted that, of course, you know, as Germany takes in 800000 Syrian refugees, Saudi Arabia has taken zero. 

Right. Right. Well, I guess I’m not sure why is there that. 

And when you know, it’s interesting how we overlook so many abuses with Saudi Arabia because of our our need for their oil over the years. And they’ve just been one of the great abusers of human rights in many, many ways, especially with regard to women, with regard to executions. I mean, their main square in Riyadh is on this chop chop square. 

That says a lot about them. And I think when you when you see the Saudi royals in the United States, the discrepancy between this very rigid political theology they have and their extravagant behavior is beyond hypocritical. And it’s been that way for decades to Saudis themselves, not observe that hypocrisy. 

Well, you know, I don’t know what. I’ve never actually been to Saudi Arabia. I tried to go. I’ve never been given a visa. So I don’t know what they know on the inside. But, you know, it was I did among the my sources for some of these books. And they have private planes. They have hundreds of limos. They take over a whole hotel room when King Salman was in Washington just last week. He didn’t have a floor at the Four Seasons. He had the entire hotel. Every single room was rented by his contingent. And that’s still been going on for decades. And the extravaganza is rather too opulent. 

And even though we don’t necessarily know how much everyday Saudis know about this, we do know that it’s a source of enormous frustration for radical Islamists, Saudis who’ve gotten out of Saudi Arabia. Right. I mean, bin Laden used to go on and on about the hypocrisy of the Saudi rulers who are unethical, amoral puppets of the United States. Absolutely. Yeah. 

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How did the relationship between the House, Assad and the Bush family in particular get kicked off? 

Well, when George H.W. Bush was vice president, he was approached by Prince Bandar, who is then a grad student at at Johns Hopkins, and at the time, the Saudis had been demonized in the United States and suddenly Bandar was lobbying the vice president on states. He was again, he was just a grad student, illegitimate son of the of the king, who ended up becoming a Saudi ambassador to the United States. And he began lobbying for the United States to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. And the Israel lobby was very much against it. But it was pushed through in the Reagan administration and vice president with George Bush, George H.W. Bush and Bandar became close, close friends. 

Why do you think you have a sense of what that relationship was, was like? It seems like such unlikely bedfellows. 

Well, in May and May, maybe so. But I you know, I think one thing I wrote about is how the Saudis would send young billionaire Saudis and members of the royal family, and they sent them to Texas, among other places, to meet with up and coming politicians. And they understood that access is very, very important, consciously cultivated these relationships. The Bushes did that as well. I mean, that’s one of the ways they got into power. So they became very, very close friends. And actually they went on hunting trips together. They they also had enormous shared business interests. I mean, obviously, both Saudis and Texans have oil in common. They did business together at the Carlyle Group, which became a more multi, multi-billion dollar private equity firm. 

And there you saw, I called it the House of Bush, by which I mean both George Bush’s James Baker, Richard Darman, the various members of their Bush’s cabinets. And you had members of the Saudi royal family and the bin Laden family. Sollom bin Laden is a half brother of Osama bin Laden. They were multi multibillionaires in Saudi Arabia. So the building construction company is sort of the equivalent of Halliburton for Saudi Arabia. So they were all business. 

Do you think that I mean, this is probably impossible to answer until we see all of the redacted pages and so on, until the Freedom of Information requests that are successful about the intelligence leading up to 9/11. But to what extent do you think that Saudi power structures were aware that something was cooking? 

Well, I don’t know how high up it went. I mean, you have some things have been reported that Prince Bandar, his wife, for example, gave money to a charity and some of that money was funneled to some of the hijackers. And there’s a very slippery slope when people turn a blind eye to it and they may pretend they don’t know. It’s unclear, too, whether it’s the royal case or the royal family buying protection effectively. That is, do the the Wahhabi terrorists. Are they running a protection racket? And they just say, give us some money and then we’ll leave you alone. Or do they honestly do members of the royal family actually believe in it and, you know, somewhere closer to the militant clerics than others? 

So one of the other reasons why Saudi Arabia is useful to us, in addition to being a source of of oil wealth, the world’s largest source of crude oil, I suppose, even though we don’t buy a lot of it ourselves, is that they help us with tactical counterterrorism. I think this is a bit of a conundrum for us national security folks, that although they are the source of the big picture ideology that is that is causing all of this terrorism. They are very helpful in uncovering conspiracies and disrupting particular terrorist plots. Does that make them an invaluable partner of some kind? 

Well, I think it might in operational terms, but I think clearly they like to. This feels like a movie I’ve seen too many times. It is, you know, the famous line from Casablanca round up the usual suspects. And so the real question is, are they doing that or are they genuinely trying to wipe out terrorism? 

And they have a very contradictory role here. There are they are sworn defenders of Wahhabi Islam. They are a theocratic monarchy. That is their role on life. And yet here they are. Their biggest ally is us, the Great Satan. And they’ve also effectively become an ally of Israel at the same time when any good member of al-Qaida ism can go for that. 

Yeah, I was going to ask you about that weird relationship that has emerged between between Israel and Saudi Arabia, saying I’d wide. Is this is this purely, I suppose, pragmatic or do you see it lasting? 

No, I think it is pragmatic. And I think it again, this is where Iran comes into the picture again and again and again, because if we are and Israel is trying to get rid of Assad and Assad is backed by Iran and and supported by Hezbollah, which is that is supported by Iran. So if we are fighting them, we risk ending up helping ISIS. Right. Tactically, our planes, our jets that we sell to Saudi Arabia ends up providing air support for al-Qaida and ISIS. 

What do you make of the changing face of terrorism? 

I wonder whether or not now, 14 years after 9/11, we are less worried than we were in the aftermath of that tragedy about huge, spectacular mega terrorism events and more concerned now about Charlie Hebdo. So what we saw happen on the French Belgian train, lone wolf attacks by people who have been inspired by this Saudi brand of extremist Wahhabism and who want to wage individualized war against the West should just show that impact. How we think about Saudi Arabia and Islam, possibly. 

But I think if you if you look at where ISIS is focusing its attention, it’s less on these spectacular 9/11 kind of things, but more on getting territory in Iraq and Syria, establishing a real foothold in Iraq, in Syria and Yemen and so forth. 

Are you broadly optimistic or pessimistic about the way that Saudi Arabia is likely to unfold? I mean, I think about what a noxious regime it is in Riyadh, but then I look at what’s going on in Syria. 

And I think, well, is that any better? 

I mean, what happens to Saudi Arabia if Saudi Arabia two collapses? 

Right. Right. I guess I’m not sure if I’m optimistic at all. It’s because of the Iran nuclear deal that is that I think for the first time you have Iran. I mean, shutting them out of the picture, which is unrealistic because all these conflicts we’re talking about involve Iran. And it’s a nation with more than 80 million people with more than triple the size of Saudi Arabia. They’re very well educated, industrious people. And I think they have to be part of. They have to be engaged if there is to be any meaningful solution in terms of regional security. 

And do you think they will be? Are they going to become is the Iran deal the thin edge of the wedge to bring Iran into the responsible community of nations? 

Well, that’s certainly what some of us hoped for. And I think I think Rouhani would like to go farther than that. He’s solidified his base in Iran, which is something I mean, it’s more than previous pragmatic Mattick presidents have been able to do. And what what will be interesting, once the sanctions are lifted, you’re going to have tens of billions of dollars of deals flowing from the West to Iran and so forth, so that we know that Iran, for example, wants to buy. Dozens and dozens of jets from Boeing and Airbus, those kind of deals. And I think they’re going to have an impact on a race. And what the West wants to control is they don’t want that money. 

We don’t want that money going to Hezbollah. But the question is, will it go enough to the Iranian people and loosen things up a bit? There are a lot of people think a lot of people in Iran see the Iran nuclear deal as sort of a poison pill for the regime, that they had to do it to survive. But it’s going to open the door to Western culture and gradually the regime will lose its power. 

Do you think it’s possible for the regime to lose its power in a in a sufficiently smooth and gentle way that you have a kind of a perestroika or a glasnost or whatever, and then it gradually fades into into irrelevance? Or is it going to have to be through another violent revolution? Because, you know, there are two ways that this could that this could go right. Either all of this new opening up, if Iran does what you just suggested and it makes the regime fade away or it does what Netanyahu and opponents of the Iran deal fear it will, which is actually embolden the regime and may increase and enhance its its control and its grasp on power, in which case the only way to get rid of it is through some kind of violent overthrow. 

Right. You know, I obviously I don’t know how this is going to play out. But I do think once they’re locked, there’s a lot of trade between the West and Iran. I think it does lessen the possibility of military action that people rarely bomb their trading partners. It just doesn’t happen that much. And I think if if Iran becomes addicted to the West economically and culturally to some extent, then it might lessen the power of the regime. 

So lastly, Craig, on this anniversary of 9/11, what do you think the take away and sort of lesson should be for America and for foreign policy in particular, as we think about, but what we should learn from that horrible event? 

Well, I think what’s so tragic about 9/11 was the extent to which some of it may have been avoidable if we had not turned a blind eye to what was really going on. And I think our relationship with the Saudis back then. Very few Americans were aware that here they were the defenders of Wahhabi Islam. And then here we are were supporting exactly the forces who came back to attack us. 

Craig, I talk to you. Thanks so much for being a point of inquiry. Thanks for having me. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.