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Feature Article
2021-09-01

The Taliban and Royal Support: a Change in Outlook?

Saudi Arabia's nearly complete silence in the wake of the rapid and astonishing collapse of the Afghanistan government is remarkable, given that the Kingdom was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban's control of the country before the 2001 US invasion. Further, the royal family has had controversial dealings with the Taliban and the al-Qa'ida leaders they sheltered in the past, and their involvement with the group is still a matter of ongoing contention. Yet, in light of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's efforts to moderate religious hardliners at home, would the Saudis now prefer to keep a Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan at arm's length?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Saudi had recognized and supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, for both political and ideological reasons. But even before they had established their rule in 1996, Riyadh was helping the Taliban financially, sending over $4 billion in aid to the Mujahideen in the 1980's. They shared the same ideological outlook of promoting Islamic fundamentalism; keeping the Soviets at bay (and the Iranians on edge) also advanced geopolitical interests. Woven into decades of support for the tribal group, however, is the Saudi connection to Osama bin Laden and the radical al-Qa'ida movement he founded, which eventually found a safe haven in Afghanistan. Although scholars may trace the philosophical basis of al-Qa'ida to the Egyptian intellectual and Islamic revivalist Sayyid Qutb, that may be putting too fine a point on its radical origins; the Saudi brand of ultra-conservative Islam spread far and wide during the 1980's, the product of billions in funding drawn from oil revenues, and bin Laden's extreme views found fertile ground and a receptive audience. Once he turned his attention to the royal family, they struggled to regain control of the monster they had unleashed.

They key pillar in Saudi relations with the Taliban (and al-Qa'ida) was Turki al-Faysal, one-time head of Saudi intelligence. Turki was in charge of the Afghanistan portfolio, and had long-standing ties to the Taliban and bin Laden dating from 1980, when he began to play a middleman role between Intelligence and the mujaheddin groups, providing financial, organizational, and engineering aid during the fight against the Soviet occupation. His dealings with the Taliban in the years after al-Qa'ida emerged as a major threat are more obscure (and disputed - accounts and timelines are often contradictory). Claims that bin Laden had been bribed by the royals to steer clear of attacks on Saudi soil persist, but it is clear that after his falling out with the Al Saud in the early 1990's, efforts by Saudi intelligence were concentrated on neutralizing him. al-Qa'ida had been forced to relocate to Afghanistan in 1996 from a previous base in Sudan, and although the Taliban was said to have promised that bin Laden would not be allowed to plan and organize attacks from there, Turki apparently made a number of secret meetings over the years, including in the summer of 1991, May 1996, June and July 1998, and July 2001.

Most notably, Taliban chief Mullah Omar seems to have at one point agreed to a secret deal with Turki to hand bin Laden over for trial in Riyadh on a charge of treason. Omar had been outraged by bin Laden's announcement of a 'World Islamic Front' against Jews and Crusaders, and relations between the two leaders had grown tense. Turki traveled to Afghanistan in the spring of 1998 to broker the deal (and in July a Taliban envoy went to Saudi to reaffirm it), which was to have seen the Taliban turn bin Laden over to Saudi custody. Omar agreed in principle, although he requested that the parties establish a joint commission to work out how bin Laden would be dealt with in accordance with Islamic law. However, things changed a month later following American strikes in Afghanistan in retaliation for US African embassy bombings. "The Taliban attitude changed 180 degrees," Turki says, and Omar was "absolutely rude" to him after that, apparently fearing that giving bin Laden up to Saudi Arabia now, after the Nairobi and Dar as-Salaam bombings, would make him look like a coward. When Turki arrived in Kandahar in September 1998, with commandos to take back bin Laden, Mullah Omar refused to hand him over, yelling at Turki and denying he had ever made a deal.

Turki resigned from his post without notice in August 2001, after 22 years. He was replaced by a nephew with no background in intelligence, Nawwaf bin Abd al-Aziz, leading some to speculate that he may have been forced out by more radical elements in the family.

Related articles: Changing Dynamics: Family Enterprise or One-Man Rule?
From Washington to Paris: Changing Times or Business as Usual?
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Past Feature Articles
Changing Dynamics: Family Enterprise or One-Man Rule?

While Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman dominates the headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that two of his brothers, Abd al-Aziz and Khalid, are both highly accomplished in their own right. But to what extent do their policies and views reflect the influence of the powerful heir to the throne, or indeed, the king?

From Washington to Paris: Changing Times or Business as Usual?

As the Kingdom's deputy defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is entertained in Washington, another royal is under fire in France for allegedly enslaving his maids, bringing to mind the notorious affair of Princess Hussa bint Salman, the sister of Khalid, who was accused of threatening to murder a contractor working at her Paris apartment. With talk of a "fundamental" transformation of Saudi society, it is an open question whether real change is afoot, or whether it is a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

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