Mecca: You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Today is Eid al-Adha, culmination of the pilgrimage to Mecca, now marred by yet another tragedy that has left hundreds dead in a stampede. (Earlier, it was a crane collapse.) In a new photo gallery, I offer some commentary on the stupendous transformation of Mecca in our time. If you haven’t followed it closely, and (like me) you don’t have any plans to visit Mecca anytime soon, the images (and the numbers) may astound you. The effect on Islam? Unpredictable. Follow this link.

Mecca photo gallery

Chas Freeman’s Saudi fable

The other day, I brought this January 2004 quote from Chas Freeman, just named to head of the National Intelligence Council (NIC):

The heart of the poison is the Israel-Palestinian conundrum. When I was in Saudi Arabia, I was told by Saudi friends that on Saudi TV there were three terrorists who came out and spoke. Essentially the story they told was that they had been recruited to fight for the Palestinians against the Israelis, but that once in the training camp, their trainers gradually shifted their focus away from the Israelis to the monarchy in Saudi Arabia and to the United States. So the recruitment of terrorists has a great deal to do with the animus that arises from that continuing and worsening situation.

I offered this as evidence for Freeman’s view of the roots of anti-American terrorism—his thesis that terrorism is America’s punishment for supporting Israel. But some readers saw it as real evidence that terrorists are recruited through a bait-and-switch process. Bait: Fight the Israelis. Switch: Kill fellow Saudis and Americans. So I decided to check whether Freeman’s story held water. Did the television show related to him by his “Saudi friends,” and which he related to us, actually report what he said it did? After all, Freeman told this anecdote in Washington, on a panel in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and he drew rather far-reaching conclusions from it. So it should hold water, right?

Freeman told the anecdote on January 23, 2004. He prefaced it by saying that he had visited Saudi Arabia “a week ago.” The episode described to him by his “friends” would have been the dramatic broadcast on Saudi TV1 (state television) on January 12. Lasting 67 minutes, it featured several anonymous Saudi members of “terrorist cells” (their faces were shadowed) who gave brief details of how they were recruited, followed by commentary from Saudi experts. The program was a big deal, and was much commented upon by the Saudi press and foreign wire services. (Examples: Associated Press, BBC, and Agence France-Presse.) The official Saudi Press Agency provided a very detailed report, and the Foreign Broadcast Information Service prepared an exhaustive account of the program (both here).

And guess what? There is nothing in the program to substantiate Freeman’s “bait-and-switch” version of it. In almost thirty short segments in which the terrorists described their recruitment, only one made reference to something said by a recruiter on Palestine: “I sat with them and heard them speaking about jihad, the duty of jihad, and jihad as an individual duty [fard ayn] that has become incumbent on every Muslim for almost 50 years, since the Jews entered Palestine.” But another recruiter used this message: “We want to establish an Islamic state and carry out the prophet’s tradition [Hadith]. He says with great pride: The prophet removed the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula.” Some recruiters talked about the afterlife: “We ask them: What are we doing here? What do we get in return? And, they say it is in return for paradise.” Then there was Afghanistan: “Two so-called mujahidin, who were in Afghanistan, came to me and told me stories about jihad, conquest, Afghanistan, the rewards of the steadfast, the graces bestowed on mujahidin, and the glory of jihad.” Recruiters incited recruits against Saudi authority: “They only speak against Saudi rulers and men of religion. They concentrate all their efforts on Saudi Arabia.” And they plied recruits with various radical fatwas and books.

Nothing in the program suggests that the recruitment of these terrorists had “a great deal” to do with Palestine, or much to do with it at all. Palestine was one message in a barrage of messages directed by recruiters toward recruits, and not in any particular order or priority either. There is not a shred of evidence for the “bait and switch” thesis in the program. Judge for yourself.

And yet the notion is out and about in America, thanks to Chas Freeman. He didn’t see the television program; he said he was relying on his “Saudi friends.” If so, he obviously didn’t perform any due diligence on what they told him, before repeating it on Capitol Hill and drawing far-reaching conclusions from it (“the heart of the poison” and all that). It’s not hard to see how this might serve some Saudi public relations interest. But can the United States afford to tolerate this kind of method at the top of the National Intelligence Council? And isn’t the only explanation for this shoddy approach to evidence a combination of political spin and uncritical reliance on foreign “friends”—the most dangerous infections for any intelligence organization?

Freeman is hailed by some as a “contrarian” and “gadfly.” After checking out this one episode, he looks to me like a shill or a sucker. Get your red pencils sharpened for those National Intelligence Estimates.

Update, late afternoon, March 10: Put the red pencils away. This announcement is just in: “Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.”

FDR-Ibn Saud

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, which took place on board the U.S.S. Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt. The summit is regarded as the beginning of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. In this photo, the king is speaking to the interpreter, Colonel William A. Eddy, USMC (at the time, U.S. minister plenipotentiary to Saudi Arabia). Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USN, the president’s aide and chief of staff, stands to the left. The anniversary will be marked today by surviving crew members of the ship, in an event in Florida, held under the auspices of the newly-formed “Friends of Saudi Arabia.” Grandsons of Roosevelt and the Saudi king will attend.

Eddy, a legendary Arabist, gave the canonical account of the meeting, in a pamphlet published in 1954. There he wrote:

The guardian of the holy places of Islam, and the nearest we have to a successor to the caliphs, the defender of the Muslim faith and of the holy cities of three hundred million people, cemented a friendship with the head of a great Western and Christian nation. The meeting marks the high point of Muslim alliance with the West.

I won’t even begin to unravel that. One of the low points came a couple of months later, with Project Switch, an OSS plan to steal the contents of Ibn Saud’s toilet (to get a read on his health). Eddy was an enthusiastic part of the scheme, but the records suggest it was scuttled. (Anthony Cave Brown told the story in his history of ARAMCO.)

We are awash in biographies of FDR and Ibn Saud, and Leahy too is the subject of a biography. (He opposed the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, which usually gets him a footnote.) But Eddy’s story has yet to be told in a comprehensive manner. Born in Lebanon to missionary parents, fluent in Arabic, he personified the Arabists of the old school. After a career in education, intelligence, and diplomacy, he joined ARAMCO (of course), and finally retired to Beirut. Here’s a short bio centered on his military exploits (with a very dashing photo of him). His papers are in Princeton, and I urge someone young and smart to pick up the thread.

More photos: Ibn Saud boards the Quincy, and chats with Roosevelt.

Update: Here’s a report of today’s commemoration. Participants also included the veterans of the U.S.S. Murphy, which brought Ibn Saud to Egypt.