Jamal Khashoggi’s most well known reportage was a series of interviews he conducted with Osama bin Laden in the 1980s and 1990s. It is therefore somewhat ominous that in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, the manic-depressive and ultimately confused US response to the murder may lead to the rise of a new Osama bin Laden from the same Saudi soil from whence came the original.
Bin Laden rose to prominence in the 1980s as a top commander of the Arab Mujahideen that went to Afghanistan to fight Soviet troops and the pro-Moscow Afghan government. While bin Laden was born into a wealthy Saudi family, he cultivated millions more as the CIA paid him and his fellow Mujahideen to wage war against the Soviets. So entrenched was front line American politics and culture with the Mujahideen that the film Rambo III portrayed the all American fighter teaming up with the Mujahideen in a fight against communist forces.
Of course by the late 1980s the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan. At this point the US ceased to care about overthrowing the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan – the socialist government that had ruled the country since 1978’s leftist Saur Revolution and would continue to rule from Kabul until 1992. It was at this time that bin Laden, a former recipient of US funds and weapons grew increasingly sceptical of America’s influence in the wider Muslim world. While some would argue that bin Laden betrayed his US benefactors while bin Laden’s supporters say that the US loss of interest in Afghanistan in the 1990s was a “stab in the back”, a point of no return was reached when bin Laden organised his Mujahideen fighters to form the secretive al-Qaeda terror group.
Throughout this period in both Afghanistan and Sudan, bin Laden’s thoughts, views and even his activities were documented by Jamal Khashoggi although after bin Laden was accused of masterminding the 9/11 terror atrocities, Khashoggi lost contact with the terror kingpin.
It helps to remember that during the 1980s, the US was an ally to both Saudi Arabia and to the Mujahideen yet by the 1990s, bin Laden had come to speak out against America while also criticising the Saudi Kingdom’s strong ties to Washington.
Today, US ties with Saudi Arabia remain stronger than ever as Donald Trump’s family and de-facto Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman enjoy a close relationship. And while Trump has been criticised by the domestic opposition for not making stronger statements implicating top Saudi officials in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Trump increasingly appears to be indecisive over what position to take over the matter.
On the one hand, by criticising Saudi Arabia and its leadership, Trump might earn some domestic applause in the midst of a hotly contested election season. Yet Trump has also remained adamant that he does not want to risk losing the the copious funds the US takes in through sales of weapons and other goods to the cash rich Kingdom. If however, Trump is forced to both say and do something punitive against Riyadh, the long term effects on the Saudi-US relationship could be deeper and wider than they might at first appear.
While there is little doubt that for economic and geo-strategic reasons the strong US-Saudi partnership will continue for the foreseeable future, if one of Mohammad bin Salman’s more energetic supporters becomes offended or disgruntled by the US apparently not showing the proper amount of respect towards Mohammad bin Salman and moreover if some members of Mohammad bin Salman’s inner circle are subject to sanctions, such a targeted individual could become the next bin Laden. Thus, at a time when Mohammad bin Salman has admitted Saudi Arabia’s past role in funding terror groups and has vowed to change course, some of his more pugnacious supporters could ironically return to terrorism as a result of what would be perceived as an American “stab in the back” to the Saudi Arabian Kingdom and to Mohammad bin Salman personally.
While Turkey’s regional position as an opponent of Saudi Arabia is taken from a position of honesty, transparency and historical continuity, any US sanctioning of even minor pro-Mohammad bin Salman officials would be seen by many of the Crown Prince’s young supporters as a stab in the back. It is already known that Saudi Arabia has the ability to spread terrorism throughout both the region and the world and this makes the rise of a new bin Laden figure seeking to “avenge” being “disrespected” by Washington all the more frightening.
While Osama bin Laden was known for his Salafist views on Islam when by contrast Mohammad bin Salman is known for promoting what he calls “moderate Islam”, the danger of the US igniting a bin Laden style terrorist backlash over its mixed messages and threats to its Saudi ally is nevertheless incredibly severe.
The most prudent solution therefore is for the US to follow Turkey’s lead and wait until the investigations into the Khashoggi murder are concluded before making any rash decisions. Turkey has long made its position via Riyadh known loud and clear while Ankara continues to take the moral high ground in terms of geopolitical responses to Khashoggi’s grim end. By contrast, as a country with little moral high ground in geopolitics, the US must bite its collective tongue and respect Turkey’s methodical investigation. If the US continues to act in a geopolitically manic-depressive manner, the long term risks of a new bin Laden emerging increase exponentially.