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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired November 16, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET


Jon Snow, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Jon Snow, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we bring together leading journalists to examine media coverage around the world.
The bombing in Riyadh last weekend is intensifying pressure for reform in Saudi Arabia as the Saudi royal family faces the growing reality of terrorism from within.

The blast took place in a compound in the capital. At least 17 people were killed and more than 120 were wounded. Most of the dead were Arabs. Al Qaeda are claiming responsibility for the attack. So how are the ruling regime dealing with this?

To find out, I've been speaking to the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who was until last year head of his country's intelligence.


Ambassador, you're not only the ambassador to the United Kingdom, but you're also somebody who has a strong intelligence background, and you were in charge of intelligence in the kingdom. Do you have a kind of profile of the kind of person who will have committed this atrocity?

PRINCE TURKI AL-FAISAL, SAUDI AMB. TO U.K.: I believe we in the kingdom are in the process of making such a profile, because, as you know, for us, these experiences are rare, and although we've been the victims of terrorism for many years, the recent events and the frequency of the attacks has made us go into a more detailed study of the enemy we are facing.

Generally speaking, these people are young.

SNOW: Saudi.

AL-FAISAL: Saudi. Many of them from well-to-do middle-class background. And they seem to be people who are inclined to be receptive to inspiration and type of calling. People seeking a cause.

SNOW: Are they definitely al Qaeda?

AL-FAISAL: Well, so far they have been proven to be al Qaeda. Those who were arrested and interrogated have confirmed that they are al Qaeda. Those who died unfortunately didn't speak for themselves. But al Qaeda spoke for them through the Web sites and the various electronic media that they publish their material on.

SNOW: But this particular attack came on the heels of quite a lot of arrests and you recovered a lot of weapons and plots. What do you think happened in this instance?

AL-FAISAL: Well, I think attacks like this, when someone is willing to kill themselves and either put on explosives themselves or drive a car full of explosives, there is practically no way you can prevent them from exploding themselves, whatever measures you take, whether it is the high ceilings around compounds or the reinforced positions around these housing projects that have been attacked. Someone coming through with a car determined to explode that car will do that.

SNOW: The fact that the victims were largely Arab and certainly Muslim, what does that mean?

AL-FAISAL: It means that these people are in a state of desperation. They realize that they're being hunted, and hunted successfully. They're under a great deal of pressure, not just from the authorities but even from society.

SNOW: Or do they want to discourage non-Saudi Arabs from coming into work?

AL-FAISAL: That could be the case, but I think it is more a question of choosing the softest target available, if you like, and not caring whoever was inside that target, whether it was an Arab or an American or a British or Japanese or whatever.

And in this case, as it were, making a hit, an explosion, and making a point.

SNOW: When the United States says basically al Qaeda wants to take over the Saudi kingdom and run their entire operations from Saudi, is that an estimate that you accept?

AL-FAISAL: We have been saying that for some time in the past. The very first target of al Qaeda has always been the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Osama bin Laden's diatribes and publications and wherewithal has been directed mostly at the kingdom.

So it is not a surprise nor a secret to us that al Qaeda's main aim is to disrupt the situation in Saudi Arabia.

SNOW: But for a time they attacked outside the kingdom. They didn't attack you so much, and of course ultimately they attacked the Twin Towers. Were you in a sense tipping them the wink and saying, look, you know, don't attack us, but if you're going outside, that's nothing to do with us.

AL-FAISAL: I wish people would be more accurate in their recounting of that. They attacked the Twin Towers, yes. They attacked American embassies in Nairobi and Algiers, but they also attacked Saudi Arabia the first time in 1995. And their activities against the kingdom from 1995 until the recent attacks has been continuous, whether it is in attempts to smuggle weapons and ammunition and explosives or in failed attempts that the police interrupted beforehand.

So we have not been, as it were, giving them the wink, if that is the right expression, and saying don't attack us in the meantime. Why would we do that? As I said, Saudi Arabia was the first and major target and their aim was to overturn the situation in the kingdom.

SNOW: Well, when you say why would they do that, the suggestion has been that actually there are people within the Saudi establishment, maybe even in some parts of the royal family, at some level, who (AUDIO GAP) past had some degree of sympathy for Osama bin Laden and the.

AL-FAISAL: Believe me, Mr. Snow, that if there had been such people, they would have been put under arrest and be in jail in Saudi Arabia.

SNOW: But can you be certain that no money, for example, is getting from former Saudi sources into al Qaeda coffers?

AL-FAISAL: Absolutely.

SNOW: It used to.

AL-FAISAL: Not from formal Saudi sources, never. Al Qaeda was established in 1990, and bin Laden, as it were, came out of the closet in 1993, when he first attacked Saudi Arabia publicly. And since that time, 1993, any banking or financial transactions connected with bin Laden or with al Qaeda has been prohibited, and his personal fortune was, how do you say it, embargoed in the kingdom and kept from him, so there has never been any support for al Qaeda.

SNOW: And when you met him in your capacity as somebody who was having to handle intelligence, which was many years ago now, but when you did, was that in order to try and discover what he wanted or put him off or.

AL-FAISAL: I met him before he became what he became later on. I met him in the 80's, when he was someone who was trying to help the Afghan jihadine (ph) defend against the Soviet invaders, like many hundreds and perhaps thousands of other not only Saudis but even British and other nationalities.

So in those days, he was, as it were, on the right side and a good guy. He turned bad when he formed al Qaeda in 1990, and I have not seen him, not since he established al Qaeda in 1990.

SNOW: From your own experience of trying to work against al Qaeda and against Osama bin Laden, what do you now make of the American-led war on terrorism? I mean, is this really the right way to go about it? Are we setting about al Qaeda the right way?

AL-FAISAL: Well, I think there are two things that have to be kept in mind. There is the fighting al Qaeda as a group of terrorists who do terrible things and so on, and therefore setting up police and military action against them.

The other thing is, you have to fight al Qaeda in its etiology, because what bin Laden did with his support of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is that they have established a cult, a religious cult, and you cannot fight religious cults with simply police work or military means. You have to go at their etiology, at how they appeal to people and recruit them and so on.

And I think there has been a lacking in that sense, not just on the part of Americans, but on the part of the world community.

SNOW: But that, though, is looking for people within Islam to assist you. I mean, mullahs.

AL-FAISAL: Absolutely. And it is within the deferment of Islam that al Qaeda's etiology is being fought right now, and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) rely on it, particularly within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The revulsion and the opposition to al Qaeda and its methods is in the astronomical figures, whether it is in the popular field or among the sheikhs and the clerics and the various religious authorities in the kingdom.

SNOW: As we speak now, would you describe al Qaeda as still in the ascendent, or in the descendent? I don't mean just in the kingdom. I mean generally, as a force in the world.

AL-FAISAL: I wish I could tell you, Mr. Snow. I don't know. Although I can tell you that within the kingdom, they have antagonized everybody by their actions. Members of al Qaeda have been turned in by their own families to the authorities, whether it is by the father or the mother or the brother or sometimes even the sister and the younger siblings.

And therefore, they have lost whatever connection they may have had with any particular group in the kingdom.

SNOW: One final question then. To what extent is the war on Iraq been a help or a hindrance in fighting al Qaeda?

AL-FAISAL: I think it has not been so much of a help, because it has opened another front with al Qaeda as a religious cult can recruit people for a new cause, which is in this case Iraq, and we've seen with all the activity taking place in Iraq that al Qaeda has been operating inside Iraq now, and with all of the testimony and the releases of the press from the American forces and from the British, there is a definite al Qaeda presence in Iraq which is finally a venue for their activities and perhaps even welcome in some of the areas of Iraq.

SNOW: Prince Turki Al-Faisal, thank you very much indeed for talking with us.

AL-FAISAL: Thank you very much.


SNOW: We've just heard from the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom. When we come back, we hear from the journalists covering that story.

Don't go away.



Earlier on in the program we talked to the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom about the impact of last week's bombing in Riyadh which left 17 dead. Well, now let's hear from the journalists covering that story.

I'm joined now in Washington, D.C. by Michael Isikoff, investigative reporter for "Newsweek." And on the line from Riyadh is Raid Qusti, Riyadh bureau chief for "Arab News."

Raid, you first. I mean, to what extent are you assisted by people like Al-Jazeera, who are already covering this story? I mean, is it easy for you to talk to Saudis about such an appalling event?

RAID QUSTI, "ARAB NEWS": Yes and no. What has happened indeed is unimaginable.

Unfortunately, it's sad that we journalists here in Saudi Arabia are not getting as much access as we want. I'll give you a small example to that.

When it happened, midnight, and I and a colleague, we went to the compound, the bomb blast site, and we wanted to get in, and we were prevented. Saudi TV, believe it or not Saudi Arabian Television, the crew were there and they wanted to get into the bomb blast area. They also were prevented.

It was only through tough procedures and various calls, calling high officials, were we granted access, and even when we were allowed access to the area, we were forbidden from taking photos.

SNOW: Right. Michael, quite clearly you would have been in a rather different position. You probably knew even more than poor, old Raid did, who was standing at the gate.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, "NEWSWEEK": Well, I don't know about that. I think we probably knew about the same amount, actually.

Reports were very sketchy. I did make a phone call the night of the bombing to somebody who works with Saudi security, and it was clear, I think, even from their perspective, that the situation was very confused and not at all clear what the casualties were and who the perpetrators were.

SNOW: There's a difficulty here, though. This is a fairly closed society, and we are kind of overnight not only asking them to tighten up on terrorism, but also to tell us about it.

ISIKOFF: Exactly, and that's also what makes it so hard for anybody, either inside or outside the kingdom, to get a gauge on exactly what the dimension of the problem is.

I mean, prior to -- you know, it was less than -- 7 or 8 months ago, the official word out of the kingdom is that there was hardly any al Qaeda presence inside Saudi Arabia. In fact, Prince Naif, the chief of the Saudi interior minister, had been repeatedly quoted as saying that. And suddenly in rapid succession since the May 12 bombing in Riyadh, there has been this series of attacks, and 600 people arrested. You had gun battles last week in Mecca and Riyadh. It makes you wonder just how many of the terrorist cells there are operating inside Saudi Arabia, how much support they have, and because it's such a closed society, we really are sort of clueless on that.

SNOW: Raid, can you assist in any way? Given that you are working on the ground in Saudi Arabia, are you able as a journalist now to begin at least to piece together a picture of how serious the internal terrorist threat is in Saudi?

QUSTI: Yes, I can, and I'll be frank with you, Jon.

Over the past several years the Saudi press has opened up to a great extreme. We've made tremendous efforts and we've made tremendous leaps in opening up. We're now tackling tough topics that were taboo just several years ago.

Notice that the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) bomb blast that took place in 1996 was not covered live by Saudi Arabian television. The May 12 terrorist attacks, Saudi Arabian television crew, they were there. They went inside. Viewers all over the kingdom were watching the bomb blasted area. The same thing happened at the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) compound, the Saudi Arabian television crew were there. Everyone was seeing the devastation, the rescue operations taking place.

So the media has opened up, and we're aware of that and we're thankful for that.

SNOW: Well that, Michael, surely is at least a plus, that incidents which as recently as perhaps a couple of years ago might have actually never been reported are now being represented to the Saudi people.

ISIKOFF: Sure. I mean, that's, you know, that's modest progress, but it really doesn't get to the question that I was addressing, which is just what is the dimension of the terrorist threat in Saudi Arabia?

We don't know. If we were having this discussion a year ago, you would have had official Saudi representatives on camera telling you that there was no threat at all, that the September 11 hijackers, 15 out of the 19 from Saudi Arabia, that was an aberration, that Osama bin Laden deliberately recruited from Saudi Arabia and these were all sort of fanatics who were well outside the mainstream and didn't represent any segment of Saudi society at all.

Now suddenly we are seeing these increasing attacks inside the kingdom and it just leaves us, you know, with this open question, you know, how many of these people are there?

SNOW: Raid, on this program we've been talking to the Saudi ambassador here in London, who of course, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, used to be the head of intelligence in Saudi Arabia. Now, for example, are you getting access to the head of intelligence presently in Saudi Arabia?

QUSTI: Not as easy as I would want to, no, and that's very sad. Journalism in our country, though as I mentioned earlier, we have made tremendous leaps, there are still so many restrictions. The red tape is there, and it's hampering our efforts, it's hampering our work.

SNOW: Well, of course, they, the Saudi authorities, presumably fear you will hamper their work.

QUSTI: In one way or another, we're the Saudi public. We are the voice of the public. Journalism all over the world is the same, is reporting the facts and then reporting the truth as is. So any hampering of the truth and hampering access to the truth is just as bad.

I'm not ruling out that things haven't improved, because they have, but we would want more hardships and red tape to be removed.

SNOW: Well, Raid Qusti, that's a pretty good plea to end with. Raid Qusti, in Riyadh, Michael Isikoff in Washington, thank you both very much.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Jon Snow in London. Thanks for joining us. The news continues on CNN.



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