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GlobalSecurity.org In the News


by Ronen Bergman "Yediot Ahronot" 27 March 2002

Al Sulayyil IRBM Base, Saudi Arabia The El-Sulayil desert oasis has been turned into a military base. Over the last few years, launch pads have been added. Access roads, command centers, a huge residential neighborhood. In addition a total territory of 1,400 square kilometers have been added, including unlimited bunkers for the storage of long-range missiles. The most recent peace initiative bestowed upon Saudi Arabia the image of moderation, but is only one side of a duplicitous game it is playing. Intelligence sources are disturbed, but official Israel, under heavy US pressure is keeping silent.

The computer at the command center of the CIA at Langley, Virginia, USA, chooses random code-names for subjects and operations it is following. "Deep Blue" is the codename for a cluster of worrisome pieces of information that have been received at the Agency since the beginning of 1988. The source of most of this information -- eavesdropping conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) for monitoring signals of the administration and the military of China. According to these signals, Saudi Arabia has been conducting advanced negotiations with China for the purpose of purchasing dozens of ground-to-ground missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads.

The intelligence communities of the US and Israel were thunderstruck primarily because until that stage, they knew nothing about this. At the CIA and at the technical level of the Israeli Military Intelligence research division, compasses were taken out and radii drawn. The missiles that the Saudis intended to purchase, CSS-2 as they are called in the professional language, Dong-Peng 3, have a range of 2,500 - 3,500 km. The whole Middle East, parts of the former USSR, and of course, all of Israel are under the range of this missile.

The US and Israel did not understand why Saudi Arabia, professing a moderate political stance, needed this missile, that at that time represented China's vanguard atomic offensive weapon. The concern increased when these reports were reconfirmed by the generous financial support the Saudis were providing for the development "the first Islamic bomb" as Pakistan's atomic program was described.

Israeli and US intelligence undertook broad, all encompassing operations with a double objective: Collecting details regarding the purchase and an attempt to learn what the Saudis really intended to do with the missiles. The operation was partially successful. It turns out that the Saudis purchased 120 missiles, and with them 12 launchers. A special surprise was in store for the US, when it became clear that the Saudi negotiator was none other than US State Department favorite Prince Bandar bin-Sultan, the charming ambassador in Washington.

The Saudis paid a fortune for the missiles. The Chinese received from their Saudi interlocutors the feeling that money would not be an obstacle and that Prince Bandar would pay any amount that would gain entry for his country into the prestigious (atomic-ballistic -VM) club.

The Blooming of the Desert with Missiles

The first CSS-2 missiles arrived in June 1990, and were deployed in two places, south of Riyadh: Most at the giant complex built north of the El Sulayil desert oasis, about 500 km from the capital, and a smaller quantity at Al-Jofar, 100 km from the city. The remainder of the missiles arrived later.

About two weeks ago, the "Ikonos" the best civilian photography satellite in the world took a series of photographs at the behest of "Yediot Ahronot" over Al-Sulayil. The pictures sent down from the heavens, and are shown in this article for the first time, proved that over the last few years, the Saudis have invested tremendous amounts in developing the "King Khaled" secret military city.

Compared to previously available pictures of the region, taken by the French satellite "Spot" in 1995, the intensive construction in the region stretching over an area of hundreds of square kilometers in the desert is clearly visible. The Saudis added missile launchers, approach roads, command centers, a huge residential area, a mosque for engineers and members of the staff, as well as a new and tremendous area, full of incalculable bunkers with conventional and non-conventional weapons, with a storage capacity of over 60,000 cubic meters. East of Al-Sulayil, out of the range of the cameras, is a Saudi Air Force base with two squadrons of Tornado jet fighters.

The enormous missile base has a support area and two launching areas 6 km apart from each other, and are positioned in narrow and hidden ravines.

There are 33 buildings in the support area. Eight of them are buildings large enough to store the CSS-2 missiles that are each 24 meters in length. The launch area includes scattered buildings and a concrete launch pad.

In each of the two launch areas, a 50-meter-long unidentified building covered over with earth was located. So were two underground missile storage warehouses, as well as garages and two large support buildings.

In comparison to the photographs taken in 1995, a large expansion is noticeable in the administration and residential areas. It is possible to clearly see command installations, residential areas, a large mosque, soccer field, a spacious park, car parking lots and more. The airstrip of the local airport has been lengthened to over 3km (2miles).

The weapons storage compound, spread out on over 1,400 square kilometers, is much too large to be merely a CSS-2 missile base, and it evidently serves other secret purposes. It is possible to identify clearly more than 60 fortified buildings for weapons storage.

For a long time, it was not clear to American intelligence where the Saudis were hiding their missiles. At first it was thought they were at the Al-Harj Air Force Base complex, about 50 km south of Riyadh. Only ground level intelligence and pinpoint satellite surveillance led the CIA to the secret military city of Al-Sulayil. The "Ikonos" pictures were received according to the coordinates that were obtained beforehand by American intelligence.

The updated information, already in the hands for some time of the Israeli and US intelligence services, was the cause for not inconsiderable headaches. This was reinforced after September 11th, when it became clear to everyone, really to everyone, that it could happen, and there are those who are sorry today about the obedient line Israel adopted regarding Saudi Arabia because of US pressure.

All enemies and opponents are bought out.

The purchase of the missiles was part of a general Saudi trend to achieve military power, which turned it at the beginning of the 90's into the biggest purchaser of weaponries in the Third World after Iraq.

The US Administration felt betrayed. For only a few years after the great efforts by President Reagan, to ratify the sale of AWACS early warning aircraft to the Saudis, all of a sudden this deal pops up, contrary to the declared policy of Riyadh, and on the surface with no practical purpose.

The furious Americans asked for clarifications. The Saudis explained that they needed the missiles in order to defend themselves from Iran (then though as the most serious regional threat), and that it was decided to purchase them from China, after the US refused to sell them F15 fighters in 1985. In the end, it is true that 24 planes were sold to them but the missile project, said the Saudis, was already underway.

King Fahd promised that Saudi Arabia would not place chemical or nuclear warheads on these missiles, nor would they use them in a first strike. In order to lessen concerns even more, Saudi Arabia signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. (NPT) The king promised not to take part in the development of atomic bombs, and also promised that after the missiles were in place, that military activities at the Al-Sulayil area would cease.

Fahd, how should we say, did not exactly keep his word. The Saudis promised they would allow US inspectors at the Al-Sulayil site, if Washington would promise that Israel would not attack them, but in the end, they refused to allow inspections at the site.

After the Gulf War, the Saudis became the "underdogs" and succeeded in diverting the anger elsewhere, especially at Iran and Iraq. Neither did Israel in discussions with other countries raise the Saudi issue.

In 1990, when the missiles began arriving at Al-Sulayil, Israel wanted to stir up a storm but the US was satisfied with assurances by King Fahd, and instructed Israel to maintain a low profile. Israel sufficed with a protest, but this was just a drop in the ocean compared to the campaigns it was waging against countries such as Syria and Iraq.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, details about its involvement in the Pakistani atomic project became known, and that Saudi Arabia was bankrolling terrorist organizations. It was also clear that the House of Saud was beyond any doubt corrupt to the foundations, and lusted for unrestrained power buying out any and all enemies and opponents. The US kept silent and forced Israel to do the same.

For the Saudis, September 11th, reshuffled the deck. Many in the US, in and out of the Administration felt free to get off their chests something that had been accumulating for a long time. Four months ago, it was Pentagon strategist Richard Perle whosaid: "In my opinion, the Saudis are not part of the solution. They are part of the problem. We had all reasons to assume that they were grateful for our saving them during Desert Storm - and we were wrong."

The Pentagon did not limit itself to declarations. Updated photos arriving from "Ikonos" point to massive building of American bases in the Gulf. For example, the giant airbase at Qatar, was intended to replace at least partially, the bases in Saudi Arabia.

Putting the Eggs in All the Baskets

Publicity about what is happening in Saudi Arabia, together with the enormous anger following September 11th, caused a deterioration of the prestige of the Saudi regime, which was supposedly western, and enlightened. Leading analysts in the US press published highly critical columns about the royal house.

But the Saudis were quick to recover. Dr. Uzi Arad, formerly head of the research branch of the Mossad, and political adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu, knows the subject from up close: "The Saudis operate a well oiled lobbying and propaganda machine in Washington. They correctly identified the shortfall as a result of the terrorist attacks and were quick to counterattack.

"The publication by Thomas Friedman about Prince Abdallah's initiative must not be seen as merely incidental, but as part of a much wider sophisticated process which was intended to restore the status quo ante showing Saudi Arabia again to be a moderate and pragmatic country, and to turn it into a primary axis between the US and the Arab countries."

The new political initiative, with its virtual Middle Eastern innovation, does not, from the Saudi perspective, conflict with its continued support for terrorism, well oiled kowtowing, to regional powers, as extreme and crazy as they might be.

This is basically a duplicitous game, the only purpose of which is the continued hegemony of the Saud family in the Arabian peninsula, by means of putting the eggs, and there are many of them, in all the possible baskets.

Professor Yossi Kostiner, Head of the School of History at Tel-Aviv University, has been dealing for years with the Saudi regime: "What we are dealing with here is very tough tribal/male-oriented politics. The Saudis are placing the emphasis on defending the regime, by means of diplomacy, shrewd politics and caution, and not necessarily by means of force."

In his words, "US forces in the Gulf as well as the emergency facilities, intended for receiving additional forces, are intended for protecting the kingdom from a military challenge, primarily from Iran or Iraq. Iraq attacked Saudi Arabia with missiles, and Iran took over control in 1992 of the Island of Abu Musa, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and is administered since then by both countries.

In spite of the confidence in the strength of the US, and that it will not allow Saudi Arabia to be conquered, there is an attempt by the Saudis to flatter the Iranians, in order to keep the latter as a regional counterweight to the Iraqis.

Beyond the danger of a frontal military confrontation, the Saudis identify other threats to the security of the Saud dynasty: a revolution from within, or terrorism supported by groups like Al-Qaeda or from states like Iraq.

"The Saudi desire to ensure quiet with the help of flattery or much money is directly opposed to US policy in the region. In spite of this, the Americans acquiesced to the relations with Iran, and also later swallowed the Saudi support for terrorism."

The duplicity of the Saud family expresses itself in nearly all fields. For external purposes, the Saudi administration puts on a display of enlightenment, western behavior, and its representatives are most active in European diplomatic communities and in the US. The Saudi oil barons often give orders in London and New York. But, on the darker side, there is another reality, and the relationship with Iran and Iraq is an excellent example of this.

At first, Saudi Arabia explained its purchase of Chinese missiles as a reaction to Iranian aggression towards Saudi Arabia. When asked whether he would give orders to use the missiles, King Fahd responded: "If we are forced to, we will. Our patient opposition should not cause the Iranians to thing that we are weak. We are hoping they won't make problems for us, because we don't want to test the will of our people to defend themselves."

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has over the years adopted a position of compromise toward Teheran - and this position became stronger with the election of Khatami as president. The Saudis today support Iran financially, issue fraternal declarations with the Khomeinistic Islamic regime, and oppose any US initiative to attack it.

The same applies to Iraq. In spite of the hatred felt by the leadership in Riyadh toward Saddam Hussein, whom they see as a megalomaniac, who broke the basic rules of the tribe, and in spite of Saddam's attack on Saudi Arabia with missiles, and threatening to invade their territory, like he did in Kuwait, the Saudis today are doing everything they can to torpedo the expected American attack on Iraq.

Massive Support for Terrorism

For years, Saudi Arabia was not in the center of Israel's concerns. The US, on the other hand, knew well what was going on there, and according to assessments by Israeli sources well-acquainted with CIA, it was clear that there was a system of commissions between the princes and themselves, as well as toward outside elements. The Americans saw clearly just how corrupt things were, and the ease with which it was possible for officials in the Riyadh regime to earmark giant budgets from this clause to another clause in order to cover themselves.

An investigation published about three months ago in the "New Yorker" revealed US National Security Agency eavesdropping tapes during the 90's. The broadcasts paint a picture of a regime that is growing increasingly corrupt, distancing itself from the people, from the religious. A weak and frightened regime, it is ensuring its future by paying off hundreds of millions of dollars in protection to extremist organizations seeking its overthrow.

In 1996, Saudi funds supported Usama Bin Ladin's Al-Qaeda, as well as extremist organizations in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Yemen, Central-Asia and throughout the Persian Gulf.

According the "New Yorker", in 1994, Mohammed Al-Hilawi, first secretary of the Saudi delegation to the UN, defected and sought asylum in the US. According to his lawyer, Michael Wilds, he brought with him 14,000 internal government documents, showing royal family corruption, and human rights violations and support for terrorism. He claimed that he was in possession of proof that the Saudis had provided technical and financial assistance to the Hamas, and a meeting was held in the office of his lawyer with two FBI agents and an assistance district attorney. "They were given samples of the documents, and we put them on the table," Wilds said. "But the agents refused to receive them." The lawyer and his client did not hear from the federal agencies ever again. Al-Hilawi, who won asylum, now lives in hiding.

From a series of secret internal memorandums of the FBI, made available to "Yediot Ahronot", it turns out that in 1992 it was already then clear to American intelligence that Saudi Arabia was a supporter of Hamas. Thus, for example, in a memorandum written by FBI special agent Robert White, of the Anti-Terrorism Task Force of the FBI in Chicago, that in 1993, Mohammed Saleh, one of the heads of the Hamas in the US, received $110,000 from a mysterious Saudi association by the name of Faisal Financial, registered in Geneva, Switzerland, to his account number 8060700 at the "National Bank of Chicago." Behind the association, according to the FBI, is a group of Saudi banks, with the full knowledge of the regime in Riyadh.

In another case, mentioned in the memorandum the Hamas asked to circumvent strict US laws against organized crime and money laundering. For that purpose, the members of the associations entered into complex and Gordian business deals in real estate, the only purpose of which being the transfer of funds into the US, without this being registered as such in the bank computers, and being exposed to the scrutiny of the FBI.

"The Koran Institute", identified by the FBI as a front organization of the Hamas, undertook a series of money transfers under the direction of a Saudi businessman, Yassin Kadi, the president and owners of "Kadi International" which serves actually as a front for the Saudi government. With the completion of the deal, $820,000 were transferred from Mr. Kadi, who created a labyrinth of front companies to the "Koran Institute," and from there to the Hamas.

Professor Kostiner: "There is no doubt that the Saudi administration knows exactly what the Hamas is. They pay ransom to many organizations, and according to the information in my possession, they actually had a working arrangement with Al-Qaeda. True, Bin Ladin was expelled from Saudi Arabia, and his citizenship was revoked in 1994, but his family, which continued to maintain close relations with him, allowed him to continue to work, and in exchange, Al Qaeda did not act against Saudi Arabia.

"The Saudis have been doing this for a long time - all the way back to the 60's, in other words, since the money, the big money began to accumulate in their coffers. They buy out their enemies, the bribe and reconcile, and alongside this, they support Islamic causes. In the 1970's they succeeded in this way to avert PLO attacks against Saudi Arabia.

"To a certain extent, the Saudis got themselves into a trap. The moment they paid ransom once, they could not refuse the next time, and they created a list of individuals and organizations now on the payroll for industrial quiet."

And when Saudi involvement was required for the investigation of attacks, this help was not given happily. Examples are not lacking.

On the April 7th, 1995, the Americans were sure that Imad Mughnieh, operations officer for the Hizbullah and No.2 most wanted in the world, was that close to being apprehended, tried and perhaps given the electric chair. That same day, he was flying with MEA (Middle East Airlines) from Khartoum, Sudan to Beirut, Lebanon with a scheduled stop in Riyadh. Sources in the FBI told us that the Saudis foiled the plan, and prevented the plane from landing in the kingdom claiming that there was a malfunction in the airport's technical computer.

An extreme lack of cooperation was also noted during the investigation of the attacks against the US Army base at Dhahran in 1996, where 19 American soldiers were killed, as well as a year before at the Khobar Towers, where 7 people died. FBI and CIA teams arriving to investigate the incidents reported a cold Saudi attitude, hiding evidence, and a feeling that from Riyadh's perspective, it was preferable to bury the whole affair quietly. The Americans solved the riddle of the attacks, carried out by the "Saudi Hizbullah". The royal family really did have what to hide.

The attack on the USS Cole in 2000 was perpetrated by Saudi citizens of Yemenite origin. Here, too, the Saudi security services did not assist in solving this case.

But the peak was after September 11th when the Saudis refused to assist in checking the backgrounds of 19 men, half of whom were Saudi nationals, who took part in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This group is just tiny part of the thousands of Saudis who have joined the extremist organizations throughout the world.

Bribery Opens Up All the Pants

Beyond America's need for Arab support, there is another matter causing it to be hesitant in any matter involving Saudi Arabia: Big Saudi money that has been "invested" in Washington DC over the last 30 years. Fahd's regime was a big financial contributor to the aggressive campaign waged by the Reagan administration, headed by the CIA head William Casey, against what appeared to be a Russian presence in South America, and the in the war of the US against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Even when the oil revenues decreased considerably, the Saudis had enough money to be able to approach the right elements in the American capital. A senior American official said this week: "A Saudi diplomat once smilingly quoted to me an Arab saying: 'Bribery opens up all the pants.' It would be interesting to conduct a survey about the number of senior people in the administration during recent decades, who have not slipped into their pockets, or into organizations for whom they were seeking favors, Saudi money.

"This is not clear or blatant bribery. The Saudis can finance for this or that secretary a festive lecture at Harvard University, and to pay him $50,000. If he is not able to receive these monies during his term of office, he is assured of a career as a lecturer when he retires."

The Saudis and their friends in the oil industry play an extraordinary role in the Texan administrations of the Bushes. For example, the Texas company Haliburton, has a number of subsidiaries active in Saudi Arabia. This company was run for many years by Vice President Dick Cheney.

During the Clinton Administration, the situation was similar. The Saudi government donated $24 million to Arkansas University, which was close to the president's heart. The Saudis also acquired Boeing aircraft in the billions of dollars, and assisted his administration in a number of initiatives of his in the Middle East.

According to Bob Baer, formerly a senior operations person in the CIA, the CIA was asked during that time not to conduct any dangerous intelligence gathering operations in Saudi Arabia, and in effect became almost completely blind to what was taking place among the royal family.

Baer was appointed in 1993 to CIA station director in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on the border with Afghanistan. He relates that we watched hopelessly at the Islamic fundamentalists who preceded the Taliban, who were supported by the Saudis, as they were building the training camps, mobilizing supporters and were conducting campaigns in countries bordering the former USSR. His reports and warnings were received with apathy.

The Saudis never scrimped anywhere in the world, and they displayed a special involvement in parts of Yugoslavia. They were the first to respond positively to requests by the leader of the Moslem majority in Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovitch, for financial aid, and they assisted in undermining the embargo that prevented Bosnia from arming itself legally. The result: Today there are more religious Moslems in Bosnia than there were in 1992, and what used to be historic mosques, became again active worship mosques, and not only museums for tourists. New, shining mosques are being built, usually in the kitsch style of the Persian Gulf. Thus, for example, the new Saudi mosque in Sarajevo, which looks like a space station, is so different from the local tradition. Also, Islamic educational centers have popped up one after another, in Sarajevo and other cities.

The number one organization for financing terrorist activities in Bosnia is the "Supreme Saudi Committee for Welfare." On the October 18th, 2001, hundreds of peace force soldiers surrounded the Committee for Welfare offices in Sarajevo, shot the locked doors open, and broke in. Large trucks brought to the site, were loaded up with the contents of the offices - computers, documents, lists, pictures, videotapes. Everything including $200,000 in cash that were hidden away in a safe were confiscated.

From a meticulous search of the documents, it was revealed that Saudi private and governmental sources had sent, through the Committee for Welfare, more than $800 million since the end of the civil war in Bosnia. There were clear lists as to what to do with $600 million, and "according to the material that was confiscated, we fear very much that the rest of the money was used for terrorist purposes," said senior sources in the Bosnian government.

"Stocks in the "Islamic Bomb"

As for the Pakistani atomic project, more is hidden than visible. The excellent relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia stretch out to many additional aspects of intimate military cooperation, including Pakistani military visits to Saudi Arabia, unilateral declarations of the regime in Riyadh in favor of Islamabad.

American and Israeli intelligence investigations regarding this affair began in the middle of the 80's, when it became clear where Pakistan, a poor country, was obtaining the enormous amount of funds needed for the project. From the Saudi perspective, this was a continuation of the tradition policy of supporting religious objectives ("The Islamic Bomb"), involvement in important projects in the area and flattering an influential power that would soon become a nuclear club member.

On November 22nd, 1990, President George Bush Sr. received a highly classified document, which dealt with the possibility of arming Chinese missiles with Pakistani nuclear warheads on Saudi soil. The Saudis, according to the information, feared Saddam Hussein so much that they demanded from the Pakistanis that they deliver the Saudi share or "stock" in the atomic project.

To this day, it is not clear if this information was accurate for false. Everyone agrees that the scenario is not impossible. According to the information that has accumulated in the US, that the Saudis not only paid between half a billion to one billion dollars to the Pakistani atomic project, but they also made sure to "grease" the hands of one private person, the chief scientist Ahmed K. Khan, who is also connected with the Iranians.

A Non-Conventional Warhead Aimed at Population Centers

The CSS-2 missile (Dong-Feng 3) is the main weapon of the Chinese non-conventional arsenal. It is based primarily on the Russian missile R-12/SS-4 (In spite of the fact that the Russians refused to sell the missile to China, the latter attained the technical details necessary, evidently through espionage to produce the missile). The missile was test-fired for the first time by the Chinese at the Shuang shi tso site in 1967.

The missile is propelled by liquid fuel, which is relatively easy to store, in four engines with a propulsion force of 64 tons. The missile may be launched directly from within the storage facility (such as Al Sulayil) or from a mobile launch pad.

The missile was designed to carry a nuclear, chemical or biological warhead as well as conventional warhead, and was intended to provide an answer to a possible threat from the USSR. It is not an accurate missile, and has a range of error of 2.5 km. In light of this, the missile is not intended for pinpoint targets but rather large targets such as highly populated areas.

This missile is also used by the Chinese for launching satellites into space and there are at least two versions of this missile. The first has a range of 2,650 km and flies at an altitude of between 100 to 550 km and carries a single nuclear warhead weighing 2,150 kg.

In 1983, the Chinese initiated a program to lengthen the range of the CSS-2 to 3,500 km. The payload, according to some reports can include 3 nuclear warheads.

The last experimental launch took place on August 21st, 2001, when China conducted the largest-scale war games in the last decade. The Dong Feng 3 was fired from the test grounds in northern China, and US military satellites followed it until it landed near the Mongolian border.

When the sale of the missiles to the Saudis was leaked, the then deputy Foreign Minister Wu Shuwa Qien, adamantly defended the sale: " The Saudi government has promised us they will not transfer the missiles, will not use them in a first strike, and will only use them in self-defense. We believe Saudi Arabia will keep its word.

"The sale of the missiles", added the minister, "would contribute to stability in Saudi Arabia in particular, and the Middle East in general."

About a thousand Chinese engineers participated in building the site, and today as well there are at the site on a permanent basis, Chinese engineers, responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the missiles. A thirty-year contract between the two nations was signed.

The Best Satellite in the World

The Ikonos satellite, which provided "Yediot Ahronot" with the pictures for this report, is the best commercial photography satellite in the world. This is the first commercial satellite that collects photographs with a resolution of one meter (yard). In other words, one can identify objects on the ground the size of which is one meter, on condition that they are distant from other objects, and have special visual characteristics. Individual human beings cannot be seen.

The "Ikonos" was built by Lockheed Martin, and is operated by the "Space Imaging" company.

The pictures were analyzed by John Pike, CEO of "Global Security", and Tim Brown, senior researcher of the company.

Copyright 2002 Yediot Ahronot