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Did we learn anything from September 11?

by Michael Freund - August 18, 2002 Chicago Sun-Times

Though less than a year has passed since 15 Saudi nationals joined four other hijackers in wreaking havoc on Sept. 11, America is now set to train yet another cadre of Saudi airmen.

I kid you not.

In a report Monday in the English-language daily Arab News, Saudi Arabian Airlines Vice President for Technical Affairs Ahmad Jazzar announced with evident pride that some 202 of his employees were being sent to the United States for what he described as "advanced training in aircraft maintenance."

The employees, said Jazzar, would study at various unnamed "aviation institutes in the U.S." and would then receive "international licenses for aircraft maintenance." (The text of the article appears at:

Call it an overdeveloped sense of deja vu, but doesn't this strike anyone out there as oddly misguided?

Although Saudi Airlines itself had nothing to do with the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it does seem more than a tad bit strange to agree to hold such a training program. After all, the last time a group of the kingdom's nationals studied at American flight schools, President Bush had to be whisked away to a secret location to ensure his safety.

With all of the recent complications in the two countries' relations, including the debate over whether to label the Saudis an "enemy," this hardly seems like the most appropriate time for Washington to be lending a helping hand to the Saudi airline industry.

But there is another little twist to this story--one that only further underlines its utter absurdity.

Ironically enough, on the same day that the news item appeared about Saudi Airlines employees studying in the United States, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal made an announcement of his own. He declared that the desert kingdom would refuse any request from Washington to extradite 16 al-Qaida members recently handed over to Riyadh by Iran.

Speaking to the Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, al-Faisal said, "If the involvement of any of the 16 suspects in terrorist acts is proven, they would be tried in accordance with Saudi laws." Tried, but not handed over to the United States, he emphasized.

And so it appears that the Saudis are eminently selective as to who they are willing to send to American soil and who they are not. They will gladly take advantage of American generosity to enhance their technical know-how and send 200 Saudis to study at American aviation institutes. But when it comes to turning over suspected followers of Osama bin Laden, the Saudis are suddenly no longer willing to cooperate.

Don't expect the Saudis' apologists at the U.S. State Department to raise a ruckus over this one, though. Since all of the 16 al-Qaida members just happen to be Saudi citizens, we will no doubt be told that we must take into account Saudi "sensitivities" about extraditing their nationals to the West.

The argument may be stale and facile, but it has worked well enough for Riyadh over the past decade, so there is little reason to suspect that it won't work just as well now. So much for Saudi cooperation in the war on terror.