Al Buthe says he read about the Ashland prayer-house raid in the newspaper but dismissed it as a scripted Hollywood drama. It was his Washington lawyer who sent him an e-mail link to the Treasury Department’s September 9, 2004 press release naming him to the global terrorism list. When he read that the United States intended to, as the release stated, “excommunicate [him] from the worldwide financial community,” al Buthe laughed out loud and deemed the act an election-year political ploy designed to boost President Bush’s approval rating. The only fallout, al Buthe says, was that he had to collect his $4,000-per-month salary in cash, since his bank account was frozen. The Saudi government has also forbidden him from traveling abroad, for his own protection. He cannot answer the charges levied against him, he says, because in the United States, he can’t get a fair trial.
Given that al Buthe can’t travel to Oregon, I decide to travel to al Buthe. I want to hear his side of the story, but what I’m really looking for is a deeper understanding of the alleged global terrorist who set in motion the course of events that put Seda where he is today. And so on a warm October night in Riyadh, after an introduction by Nelson, I call on al Buthe at his favorite hangout, a Bedouin tent he’s erected in a walled compound just behind one of the city’s soccer stadiums.
Bright fluorescent light spills onto the patchy lawn outside (which doubles as a soccer field), and a neat row of men’s sandals line the grass near an open flap that serves as the entrance. Inside, it’s carpeted with luxurious Persian rugs. Lining the interior walls are a water cooler, a brick fireplace and a refrigerator stocked with Sprite and bottled water. Several couches and recliners and chairs are arranged around the perimeter of the room. Sitting on them is al Buthe’s posse, a half-dozen middle-aged men, all dressed in floor-length robes. There’s Adel (an electrical engineer for the Saudi Electricity Company), Saleh (a colonel in the Saudi army), Achmed (a general at the Saudi military academy), Abdul (an executive at Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s largest oil company) and Muhammad (a linguist at the Arabic Languages Institute). Some are reading Arabic newspapers or English books, among them Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush and The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Others have laptops and are surfing the Internet, and everybody has at least one eye on the wide-screen satellite TV. There’s also a butler, Babuna, a scrawny Filipino in his 20s who makes coffee spiked with sugar and cardamom for the men, and keeps everybody’s little porcelain cup filled.
Sitting on a gilded, velvet armchair, like a prince on his throne, is al Buthe. Like everyone else, he’s wearing the traditional Saudi flowing white robes and red-and-white checkered headdress. He’s athletic enough that he played on the Saudi national basketball team in his college days, and the rangy, middle-aged civil servant, who sports a long, wiry salt-and-pepper beard, still competes in a weekly citywide tournament, where crowds cheer for “Speedy Soliman.” Since his designation as a terrorist, al Buthe has been twice promoted by the City of Riyadh, and now the former landscape engineer serves as general director of its environmental health department, where he oversees a staff of 500—on the day I arrived, he personally led a raid on a Mr. Crispy hot-dog vendor for reusing the oil in a deep-fat fryer. His sense of humor might best be described as wry. “We have power; we have Internet as well,” al Buthe shrugs. “It is a high-tech tent.”
This isn’t just a tent. Given the wattage of the characters in the room, it feels more like a think tank. And it’s obvious, considering the reading material and the TV (which switches between CNN, C-SPAN and MSNBC), that these Saudi elite know more about American politics than most Americans do.