Congress’s override of President Obama’s veto to allow Americans to sue Saudi Arabia for links to the 9/11 plot raises many questions, not the least of which concern the relationship between Saudi Arabia and terrorist groups today. As I testified earlier this year, Saudi Arabia has made considerable progress on counterterrorism in the last 15 years, but still has a long way to go.
Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and really until al-Qaeda began to attack the kingdom directly in May 2003, Saudi Arabia was often uncooperative on counterterrorism, and more part of the problem than part of the solution. Since 2003, the Saudi regime has emerged as a vital counterterrorism partner, and several important successes against al-Qaeda in particular are due in large part to its cooperation. Yet it’s not a simple story of progress: The kingdom engages in many troubling behaviors today that make the terrorism problem worse. In the end, policymakers would do well to remember that Saudi Arabia is a key partner but not a friend: The United States and Saudi Arabia share many common interests, but they do not share common values or a common worldview.
What's the link, exactly?
Understanding Saudi Arabia’s relationship with terrorists, however, is far more difficult than assessing Iran’s open, extensive sponsorship of terrorism. Much of Saudi support is done by non-state actors. Yet that does not absolve the Saudi government of responsibility. These non-state actors enjoy a range of relationships with the Saudi regime. Some receive or did receive official patronage. Others, particularly those tied to leading clerics in the kingdom, are embraced indirectly by the regime’s self-proclaimed role as defender of the faithful. And still others are truly private, acting independently of the government and in times in opposition to it.