Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 138-159)




  138. Order, order. Dr Hollis, we welcome you as Head of the Middle East Programme of Chatham House. May I first apologise to you? The Committee had a private matter which had to be concluded first; our apologies for the delay. We look forward to your help in dealing with our inquiry into the causes and extent of the terrorist threat and to your own expertise on the causes of the appeal of radical Islam in the Middle East. According to a recent survey quoted by Dr Mai Yamani, your colleague at Chatham House, 95 per cent of Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41 support the objectives articulated by Osama bin Laden. She said that while the survey may not be entirely reliable, it does indicate broadly the level of appeal of bin Laden's anti-American political message. What in your judgement is the extent of this appeal among the populations in the Middle East? Clearly bin Laden has a message which is pretty destabilising not only for Saudi Arabia but for the Gulf area as a whole. What is the extent of that appeal? Do you accept the findings of that survey?
  (Dr Hollis) There are gradations of support for Osama bin Laden's agenda. The agenda which he articulated had several items on it. One was trying to get the US forces out of the Arabian peninsula and that has more resonance in Saudi Arabia than anywhere else. Another is justice for the Palestinians.

  139. Was the Palestinian issue an explicit part of his appeal?
  (Dr Hollis) My colleagues tell me that if you look at his interviews going back to the late 1990s you will find that he was always mentioning Palestine and injustice to Palestinians. He talks about security for Palestinians and security for the Iraqi people. These happen to be two very raw nerves across the Arab world and to a large extent across the wider Muslim community. He also talks about cheap oil and how oil was kept cheap by the connivance of corrupt governments who served the interests of the West and the United States in particular. There is certainly resonance for the claim that governments are greedy and corrupt and that the poor are getting poorer and that these governments are unable in most Arab countries to do anything about that, to do anything about employment problems and would still appear to live in opulence themselves. On purely political grounds, as opposed to theological or religious in any way, the key items articulated by Osama bin Laden are sources of unrest and irritation and anger.

  140. Does that include the Gulf sheikdoms?
  (Dr Hollis) Very definitely in the general populace. What has got worse, it would seem, in the last year or so is that thanks to the Al Jazeera factor, the satellite television broadcasts, with the current Palestinian intifada the Gulf populations are watching and this is a new generation of Gulfies. The vast majority of them is under 25 and they therefore will not have a collective memory of the first Palestinian intifada which had an impact worldwide I believe. In this one they are identifying with their Palestinian brothers as they would see it.

  141. What is the agenda of Al Jazeera? Is it a fairly objective news coverage or does it have an agenda of destabilisation?
  (Dr Hollis) I do not believe it has an agenda of destabilisation at all. On the other hand, the kind of footage that Al Jazeera is prepared to show from the West Bank and Gaza, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is probably not censored in terms of blood and guts in the same way that British television would be, so some of the pictures are more horrific. The key here is that the pictures are coming straight from the battle front.

  142. And is that remarkable photograph of the Palestinian boy, and his father, being killed being run again and again?
  (Dr Hollis) It was indeed being run again and again.

  143. With what motive?
  (Dr Hollis) When we are talking about objectivity here another remarkable thing about Al Jazeera is that they will interview Israelis.

  144. Across the board?
  (Dr Hollis) Certainly; Israeli Government spokesmen.

  145. Can you separate the political and religious appeal of bin Laden?
  (Dr Hollis) Important question. There are two schools of thought on this. What I have been talking about is the political agenda that he has articulated. I think that is what has the most resonance.

  146. The political?
  (Dr Hollis) Yes. The events of 11 September and the aftermath have led to new debate within the Muslim world about Islam and what is permitted under Islam, what the role of suicide attacks is within Islam and so on. Within that you will find Muslims who wish to separate themselves from an extreme interpretation of the faith that they associate with Osama bin Laden. You will find Muslims talking in shorthand about Wahabism, which is misleading because Wahabism is pretty much the faith of the Saudis and there is a longstanding alliance between the al Sauds and the al Wahab. However Wahabi has become shorthand for a particularly puritanical form of Sunni Islam and you can say with a fair amount of certainty that the Iranian Shia have no love for Osama bin Laden personally or for his theology. They identify it, correctly to my best understanding, as anti-Shia. He is so sectarian and so narrow in his theology that he is anti other Muslim sects.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  147. If there is this great feeling of anger towards him, yet at the same time this very large number—whether it is 95 per cent or not is another matter, but this very large number—of young Saudis in particular who subscribe to his general message, who are the principal disciples who are getting that message across? Is it the imams? Who are they heeding, because he himself is far away and something of a shadowy figure? Who is interpreting his message to the young people who are embracing it?
  (Dr Hollis) As far as I know audiotapes are still being distributed with sermons from members of the religious community, the imamate, religious scholars and preachers inside Saudi Arabia and some of those would not go down well with the mainstream establishment imams. You have gradations and I think I am right in saying that they have tried to suppress the distribution of tapes featuring Osama bin Laden.

  148. But they have not been very effective.
  (Dr Hollis) No, they are not totally effective.

  149. Does it surprise you that they are not more effective? One would have thought that in a regime which is not exactly a democratic one, they would probably be more effective at suppressing the distribution of these, as they would see it, insidious tapes?
  (Dr Hollis) I have done my best to understand how this works, but I would not wish to be taken as an authority on Saudi Arabia per se. As I understand it, Islam and defence of the faith and in particular a Wahabi brand of faith is part and parcel of the legitimacy of the al Saud. This combination has worked very well in the history of the kingdom, but it has meant that the clerics have a great deal more power within the kingdom than perhaps we on the outside realise and that their opinions about what should be taught in the schools and what is appropriate in defence of Islam carries a great deal of weight. My impression is that as a result of the current crisis, the al Saud are considering very seriously what the state of play is in the kingdom, whether there were some trends which they previously thought were a domestic matter which they could handle which have turned out to have a foreign agenda against the United States and they are now faced with the crisis that they need to address. My impression is also though that in responding to approaches from Western governments the al Saud will have messages to send at a number of levels. They will have one eye on their own relationship with their people and the relationship between the ruling family and the religious establishment. What they hope to see happen externally and in relations with the United States of America will be influenced by their desire to maintain stability at home. This is leading me to say that I do not see much mileage in Western governments getting into the business of telling the Saudis what curricula they should have in the schools. I think it will only alienate them. They realise they have a problem, but those on the outside of the Kingdom probably do not have enough information to know how best to approach that particular issue.

  150. Do you think that there is an Al Khomeini lurking in Saudi Arabia?
  (Dr Hollis) It is difficult to portray a revolution. I do not see the al Sauds as the casualty of the current crisis: I see the Saudi/American relationship as the casualty of the current crisis. I would maybe even put to you that when you hear that the Arab street has been remarkably quiescent when all predictions said that the street would revolt, there is a misunderstanding. Two things. One is that all forms of assembly in almost every Arab country are forbidden, so to assemble and demonstrate and remonstrate is very difficult to do. Recently in Saudi Arabia it happened as a spontaneous riot but this could not be called a deliberate political move. The second thing is that we should probably interpret al-Qaeda activism and terrorism as an expression that ultimately emanates from the Arab street. This is what we should be looking out for: the creation of new al-Qaeda type, anti-United States, anti-Western in general activists, militants, as opposed to looking for revolution in the streets.

Mr Olner

  151. Does the appeal of radical Islam in the Middle East stem from the fact that all forms of political dissent are banned?
  (Dr Hollis) The mosque has been a place to go in the absence of many forms of recreation. Also, a revival of various trends in Islam, as a sort of political agenda, has to do with disillusion with other recipes for reform and progress. In other words, it was one thing to throw out Western imperialism, French and British principally, and to experience liberation from that, but then forms of socialism and Arab nationalism were the dominant creeds and they did not deliver. There is also an identity issue here.

  152. How much would you say is really anti-American and how much is that they want to see the "d" word being used more in these Arabian states?
  (Dr Hollis) I am lost on that last bit.

  153. The "democratic" word.
  (Dr Hollis) There is a genuine groundswell of demand for a greater say in public life, a greater say in the running of state affairs. I also think it is difficult to disentangle the-anti-Western component from this popular desire, for a variety of reasons. It would be wrong to think that once the British and French withdrew from the region, the region was somehow then left alone to get on with its own affairs and therefore the local governments should be to blame for anything that did not work out. The Western players have remained in a symbiotic relationship with the region in large part because of the energy resources and a sense that control of that energy should not be left to all comers in the region for fear of that having adverse effects on Western consumers. There has also been an attempt to capitalise on the markets which were there during the oil boom period. There has been a trade-off for the defence sales to a number of these governments in that the suppliers of the defence equipment have then become identified with the propping up of these regimes, whether rightly or wrongly. In so far as there is frustration amongst young people reaching the job market, having no employment, they cannot help but look for explanations for this business of cheap oil to please Westerners and to deprive their economies of money they should have got from oil. They sense that, were it not for Western support for Israel and US support for Israel in particular, the Palestinians would not be being beaten up like they are, which is a collective humiliation and injustice, a sense of double standards. All of these things have a lot to do with the West and I have not even mentioned globalisation, which they see as probably contrary to their interests.

  154. May I ask a question on sympathy in the area for US actions immediately post 11 September? In this country we witnessed, especially from Karachi, in Pakistan varying mood swings from total opposition to what America and the airlines were doing, but we heard in the background that that was only a few people and the solid bulk of people in Pakistan supported their government and supported what the Americans were doing against terrorism. Do you have any views on that at all?
  (Dr Hollis) I should not like to comment on Pakistan in particular. I would simply say that when we are talking about the Arab world, the likelihood is that you will get a different message from any single government than you would from the general populace in that country.

Sir John Stanley

  155. Against the background of the rabid anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism that you have described in a limited number of quarters in the Middle East and elsewhere, what do you consider should be the priorities for British foreign policy in trying to deal with this?
  (Dr Hollis) My sense is that it is useful to extrapolate from well-honed British principles of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism strategy and British experience has developed the thesis that as far as possible you have to limit the use of force—do not use any more force than you absolutely have to; certainly you will have to use some—try to maintain the rule of law in everything you do, because you are engaged in the business of winning over hearts and minds and you have to win them away from recruitment to the terrorists. These kinds of principles require us to look at some of the causes of unrest and to say that the state or an alliance of Western states, in alliance, let us hope, with Middle Eastern governments, can deliver better through the rule of law and through normal procedures the justice that is being sought by the dispossessed. That does require attending to the key problems in the region. Something has to be done to break the impasse on Iraq. Something has to be done to heal the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To say that both of these issues are too difficult to do and we will try doing everything else but those is probably to doom the strategy to limited success or possibly failure.

  156. You referred to breaking the impasse on Iraq. Are you suggesting that breaking the impasse should be by making concessions to Saddam Hussein's regime or intensifying the pressure on Saddam Hussein's regime?
  (Dr Hollis) It is a problem that has been tussled with for more than ten years. In a sense we have all got ourselves into a corner here from which it would be desirable to get out. I think there is a problem if you conflate the issue of weapons of mass destruction and heinous regimes with the activities of al-Qaeda against the United States on 11 September and say they are all part and parcel of the same problem and therefore it is legitimate to declare war on the Iraqi Government. It would be wise to pay heed to international law as far as is possible in dealings with Iraq and therefore that requires going back to the UN resolutions. It does require revisiting the idea of getting the weapons' inspectors in. The problem now is that the Americans believe that you cannot trust Saddam Hussein at all, so even persuading him to receive back the weapons' inspectors and to proceed according to the steps laid out in the UN resolutions which can be reinforced, that you lift the sanctions dependent upon progress of the inspections, is not seen by the Americans as a way forward any more. That presents a very serious dilemma for the British and other European governments.

  157. On your two imperatives for British foreign policy, minimum force and upholding the rule of law, what is your verdict on how well or badly the international coalition have done in adhering to those two principles since 11 September, both during the war in Afghanistan and in the subsequent treatments of those who are prisoners?
  (Dr Hollis) I would have thought that in the campaign in Afghanistan certainly minimum use of force was pretty much the guideline which was adhered to. On upholding the rule of law, that has really only come to a head over how prisoners of war should be treated, whether they should indeed be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva conventions. The debate and the uproar which have broken out indicate the consciousness, that once you abandon attention to the means, you influence the ends.

  Chairman: You have been extremely helpful in defining the platform. I should now like to turn to various individual countries and problems.

Mr Hamilton

  158. Moving to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which you mentioned, and I know you have written quite a lot about, are there any perceived or actual connections between al-Qaeda and the Palestinian suicide bombers?
  (Dr Hollis) My position on this war on terrorism is as follows. I think almost every government involved in fighting the war has a different definition of what it is. I would also say that the US, who declared it as a war straight after 11 September, have been moving their definition of it. Originally Palestinian suicide bombers were not identified as part of the problem which was to be fought in the war on terrorism. There was unity in the understanding that this is a transnational terrorist organisation of al-Qaeda and related networks. Some of those people may have met Palestinians. There may be one or two Palestinians within the network, but there is a distinction between that and the current campaign of the Palestinians limited to ending the Israeli occupation.

Mr Olner

  159. Is that a yes or a no?
  (Dr Hollis) You could find individual connections. If you were in the business of buying arms you will get them wherever you can, so that is a connection, but I do not think the intifida is masterminded by the same transnational terrorist organisation that attacked the twin towers on 11 September.

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