Why aren't we looking into the Saudi role in San Bernardino attack?

Notably absent in Barack Obama's San Bernardino address was any mention of Saudi Arabia in the radicalization of shooter Tashfeen Malik, and perhaps her husband, despite what family members said. It is a too-common omission, Neil Macdonald writes.

Shooter Tashfeen Malik was radicalized in Saudi Arabia, her Pakistani family said

A candlelight vigil in San Bernardino, Calif., for the 14 people killed by a husband and wife team of radicalized Islamists. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

In the years following the 9/11 attacks, important American officials and politicians regularly declared that the mass murderers had sneaked into the U.S. through Canada.

The subtext was clear: Canada, which had declined to help invade Iraq, was soft on terror.

It was a massive, sprawling lie, but a convenient one. It played well with the anti-immigration crowd, and helped distract Americans from the nasty truth: that 15 of the 19 hijackers were citizens of an ally that has actually bankrolled terror: Saudi Arabia.

These men entered the U.S. directly and legally, on visas issued by the U.S. government, and some of them were supported once in America by Saudi consular officials.

That last bit of information remains officially suppressed by the White House, even though it's widely known to be in Congress's 9/11 report because, you know, it might embarrass the Saudi government, which must remain protected from the embarrassing fact that Saudi individuals, charities and clerics cultivate and fund extremism around the world.

(Ask Hillary Clinton. "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide," and its government is not doing much about it, she wrote in a leaked 2009 memo when she was secretary of state.)

George W. Bush, in his address to Congress a few weeks after 9/11 — several days after Osama bin Laden's relatives had been quietly hustled out of the country on a private jet — promised a "war on terror," but avoided any mention of the hijackers' nationalities.

He in fact referred to the Saudis only once, in a sympathetic reference to how their nation is plagued by terrorists, just like America.

The dark path

Likewise, seeking to soothe a frightened nation after the San Bernardino massacre last week, President Barack Obama promised Sunday to bring down America's explosive military fist even more severely in Iraq and Syria, and used the word "Muslim" 12 times, even going so far as to assert that extremist ideology is a problem Muslims must "confront without excuse."

Obama talked about how the U.S.-born Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, had gone "down the dark path of radicalization," but uttered not a word about the fanatical desert kingdom where the Pakistan-born Malik had spent most of her life, and where, by several accounts, she found that dark path.

Nor did he suggest a few realities that Saudi Arabia should be confronting without excuse.

Instead, like previous presidents, Obama continues to fawn on the hereditary Saudi monarchs, praising their wisdom and their efforts to prevent radicalization from spreading in the Middle East (diplomacy often requiring an absence of irony).

Saudi justice

The Saudis, meanwhile, are mostly interested in confronting dissent.

It was Saudi Arabia, for example, that led the effort to strangle the Arab Spring. Saudi troops helped crush Shia protests in Bahrain a few years ago, and are at this moment conducting an ugly, ruinous campaign in Yemen, with little regard for civilian life.

They are also energetically confronting criticism from within by hunting down and torturing, or killing, dissidents or apostates (abandoning Islam is a capital offence in the kingdom).

Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the two shooters. Pakistani-born, she grew up mostly in Saudi Arabia and married Farook just over a year ago. (California Department of Motor Vehicles/FBI)

And they famously inflict medieval punishments on moral transgressors, especially those who are not Saudi men.

In the days ahead, the Saudi justice system — a term to be used advisedly — is scheduled to execute a married Sri Lankan housemaid, a migrant worker.

She was convicted of adultery, and her supposed lover, also Sri Lankan, was given 100 lashes.

She, being a woman, and therefore in the Saudi system even more guilty, will be buried up to her breasts, and then a crowd of Saudi men will enthusiastically throw rocks at her head until she perishes from massive brain injury or a heart attack, whichever occurs first.


There are nine million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, and they are often treated as near slaves, passports seized, forced into indentured labour.

As for the women among them, here is what Human Rights Watch said in its 2015 report on the kingdom:

"Domestic workers, most of them women, frequently endure … forced confinement, non-payment of wages, food deprivation, and psychological, physical, and sexual abuse without the authorities holding their employers to account. Workers who attempted to report employer abuses sometimes faced prosecution based on counterclaims of theft or sorcery."

Yes. Sorcery.

Again, according to HRW: "In June, the ministry of justice announced that prosecutors had filed 191 cases of alleged sorcery — a crime punishable by death — between November 2013 and May 2014, including some against foreign domestic workers."

The punishment, of course, is death.

Usually, executions — more than 150 so far this year — are performed with a "godly" sword. In public, of course, for the entertainment of a self-righteous crowd. But there are also crucifixions and mutilations.

Saudi woman Fawzia al-Harbi, a candidate for local municipal council elections, sits next to one of her chaperones at a shopping mall in Riyadh last month. Saudi Arabian women are running for election and voting for the first time on Dec. 12, but their enfranchisement marks only a pigeon step towards democracy and gender equality in the Islamic kingdom. (Reuters)

Saudi women are treated better than immigrants, but are still severely oppressed, and treated like chattels of the male population.

If that all sounds like the modus operandi of ISIS, which the Saudis have been accused of having funded and armed before becoming a stout ally in the U.S. bombing campaign, well, the shoe does fit. 

The Saudis have actually threatened to sue anyone who makes the ISIS comparison, but objectively, it's not unreasonable.

The main difference is that the Saudis are extremists who managed to create a nation and have it recognized. And of course their king doesn't claim to lead a new caliphate.

It's almost a cliché to say this is all about oil, and the Saudi willingness to sell it, and sell it cheaply in unlimited quantities, to the West.

Because it is about oil. It's also about the Saudis' willingness to spend billions of that petro-revenue back in the West, signing contracts for military materiel that our governments are ecstatic to arrange.

If you're inclined to think otherwise, try this mental exercise: imagine if Cuba, or Russia, or Venezuela (or even Canada) had produced 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, and had remained a consistent leader in exporting murderous ideology, and radicals like Tashfeen Malik.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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