|Controversy has built around a proposal to bring dozens of Saudi pilots to an Idaho training facility to learn how to pilot F-15E Strike Eagles, 84 of which Saudi Arabia is purchasing in a new arms deal.|
On the morning of September 11, 2001, a Saudi pilot trained to fly in the US slammed a Boeing 757 jetliner into the Pentagon, killing more than 180 people.
Less than a decade later, with the Middle East in a state of upheaval and following the recent arrest of a Saudi college student on bomb charges, the Pentagon is planning to bring dozens of Saudis to the US to train them to fly - and to kill.
Last year, when moderate Muslims announced plans to build a community centre in Lower Manhattan, it created a firestorm as Republican politicians, conservative pundits, right-wing websites and survivors of September 11 lined up to assail the "Ground Zero Mosque".
The group 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America called the proposal "a gross insult to the memory of those who were killed on that terrible day." While Peter Gadiel, the president of 9/11 Families for a Secure America, wrote: "The proposed mosque near the site of the 9/11 mass murder is a continuation of Islam's violent history, which promotes destroying prior cultures and building on the ruins."
The choir of Islamophobia
Three of the many who joined the chorus against building an Islamic cultural centre two blocks from where seven Saudi terrorists helped to kill more than 2,700 people were congressman Mike Simpson and senators Jim Rischand Mike Crapo, all from Idaho.
"I do not believe the construction of this Islamic centre so near to Ground Zero is proper," insisted Crapo.
"This construction proposal is proving highly divisive to Americans across the political spectrum who are still seeking to recover fully from the emotional, economic and social scars caused by the terrorist attacks."
Simpson echoed those sentiments, stating: "I think building a mosque at Ground Zero is inappropriate and insensitive."
While Risch put his feelings this way: "Considering what occurred at Ground Zero in New York City I completely sympathise with those who object to a mosque being built in that area."
All three Idaho politicians, however, have come out in favour of hosting hundreds of Saudi military personnel and their families at a US air force base in Idaho where they will be trained by US air force personnel to fly advanced fighter aircraft and learn the fundamentals of aerial combat.
While active-duty military personnel and veterans have also lined up behind the air force plan, some locals, as well as members of the right-wing blogosphere and others who opposed the building of the Islamic cultural centre, have begun to voice outrage.
When I contacted Peter Gadiel, whose son was killed in the World Trade Centre, and asked him about the prospect of the US air force training Saudi pilots in Idaho, he was blunt. "Americans will die and the people in Washington don't give a damn," he said.
This split in opinion over the Pentagon's training plans has set up a potential showdown between former "Ground Zero Mosque" allies.
Their own private Idaho
Last December, amid the holiday rush, the US air force quietly announced that it had selected Mountain Home Air Force Base as the preferred location for the long-term training of a contingent of pilots and flight crews from the Saudi Royal Air Force as part of a $60bn arms deal between the US and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that autumn.
Under the mammoth military package, Saudi Arabia is set to receive 84 new F-15E Strike Eagles - advanced fighter aircraft designed for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat missions. Capable of flying day or night in all weather conditions and reaching speeds in excess of twice the speed of sound, each F-15, packing missiles, bombs and a 20mm cannon, is a formidable weapon.
Under the air force's proposal, Saudi pilots will learn how to fly the advanced fighters at Mountain Home Air Force Base for five years, from 2014 to 2019, with the possibility of a longer commitment left open.
"Facilitating the modernisation of Royal Saudi Air Force aircraft, as well as providing enhanced air crew and maintenance training, would build partner capacity and contribute to the stability of the [Middle East] region," said Heidi Grant, the deputy undersecretary of the air force for international affairs.
While the arrangement has yet to be finalised - the local community, including the Shoshone-Paiute tribes, have yet to weigh in and an environmental impact assessment has to be carried out - the rough plan is for the first Saudis to arrive in the US in late 2013, with their ranks growing over the next year.
At present, plans call for the Saudi squadron to be composed of roughly 12 aircraft with 50 pilots and 100 to 200 maintenance personnel, some of whom will be accompanied by their families.
"The permanent party would consist primarily of enlisted members and a small cadre of officers," according to an air force spokesperson. "Potential living arrangements for the Saudi personnel are yet to be finalised, but we expect that unaccompanied and accompanied housing both on and off base would be considered by the [Royal Saudi Air Force]."
In a statement put out by the Idaho delegation, Crapo, Simpson and Risch all offered words of support for the project and none backed the criticisms levelled against the training mission by those they supported in opposing the Islamic cultural centre in Manhattan.
"Mountain Home already hosts a similar training mission for Singapore's air force, and the base's abundant ramp space, desert location and premiere training ranges make it the ideal location to host another international partner and ensure interoperability between US forces and our allies," said Risch in the press release.
Mountains of money for Mountain Home?
Mountain Home Army Air Field opened in August 1943 and trained pilots for service in World War II. Today, the base is staffed by 4,000 active-duty airmen and close to 900 more civilians and contractors. It reportedly represents an infusion of about $1bn a year into the local economy.
In 2005, base consolidation efforts nationwide left Mountain Home hobbled as C-135 tanker aircraft, B-1 bombers and F-16 fighter jets departed, leaving only the 366th Fighter Wing and its ageing F-15s behind.
The base had already been passed over as the home for more advanced F-22 and F-35 fighters, so the Saudi squadron, joining a similar-sized training squadron from Singapore already there, would breathe new life into Mountain Home.
Already there is talk of a big influx of Saudi riyals into the economy. Writing for the Idaho Statesman, Kathleen Kreller reported that Idaho governor Butch Otter's special assistant for military affairs, Bill Richey, "said he has heard a wide range - between $50 million and $500 million - in potential construction costs that would be paid by the Saudis".
Additionally, more American trainers will likely be deployed to the base, while the Saudi airmen and their families are already being counted on to provide a boost to local businesses.
"They will come here, and they will need vehicles and clothes and furniture, so there will [be a] definite economic impact," Colonel Pete Lee, a 366th Fighter Wing vice commander, told local television reporter Jamie Grey of KTVB.
Crapo echoed these sentiments to me recently, emphasising that taxpayers will bear none of the burden for the Saudi mission but will reap rewards.
"As such, the Saudis will have to build and pay for their own infrastructure and housing that will enhance the bases' [sic] capacity for many years," he told me by email. "In addition, RSAF members and their families personal spending will boost the local community."
Anger at the proposed project, however, is brewing.
At Free Republic, which calls itself "the premier online gathering place for independent, grass-roots conservatism on the web," so-called Freepers from across the country have voiced outrage.
One commenter, who goes by the screen name doc1019, wrote: "Training our future enemies, wonderful."
While LibWhacker mused: "I guess from there they could fly their jets into buildings in Salt Lake City, Portland, maybe Seattle. Who would be surprised if it happened? Oh, that's right. The Pentagon would be surprised. We are so screwed."
On the Patriot Action Network, which bills itself as "the nation's largest conservative social action network," some are similarly up in arms.
"This is out right [sic] treason. State secrets and now weponized access to our interiour [sic]? This is insane! It was Saudis that bombed the world trade towers for Gods sake!!!" fumed one commenter.
While another wrote: "The next bunch of Saudis wishing to blow up American infrastructure won't have to sneak into the country and attend private flying schools. Our Air Force will train them and provide them with military jets and armament to do it with."
These attitudes have also been echoed by some Idahoans.
After Kelly Everitt, the managing editor of the Mountain Home News, posted a preemptory salvo against "irrational people, who've succumbed to blind anti-Muslim hysteria" and might work to derail the deal, numerous anonymous commenters at the newspaper's website spoke out against the proposal.
"Why fight these terrorists if WE are going to train them[?]" asked a reader who goes by the handle OpinionMissy.
Similarly, Bazookaman opined: "I don't really think the Saudi pilots are a threat, but until the killings and bombings ARE over, I'd just feel a whole lot better if we didn't have ''Koran believers'' flying combat jets..."
While one Boise resident wrote, in a letter to the Idaho Statesman:
|Has someone in the military conveniently forgot (for the sake of dollar signs, perhaps?) that the vast majority of the men who attacked our country on 9-11-01 were from Saudi Arabia? With the universal goal of trying to prevent another similar attack involving airplanes, how in the world does this plan make any rational or logical sense?|
Please, can someone explain to me how training Saudi Arabian fighter pilots at MHAFB [Mountain Home Air Force Base] is any different than if our government had chosen to train Japanese fighter pilots at MHAFB nine years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Anyone?
I asked Edmund O'Reilly, a retired air force officer who serves as the president of Mountain Home's local chapter of the Military Officers' Association of America if these opinions were representative of the local community, which is heavy with active duty military and veterans.
"It's a very minority view," he assured me in a telephone interview. O'Reilly himself believes that Saudis training side-by-side with US personnel will be highly beneficial to both countries.
"From a military standpoint, I think it's an awesome thing for the free world forces," he said. "Culturally, it's going to be a great benefit to both cultures to be able to intermingle and learn from each other."
While O'Reilly believes that it is important to remain vigilant, he considers the possibility of untoward acts by Saudi air force personnel to be "remote" and has faith in government security efforts.
Alyssa Wallace, a spokesperson for 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs office at Mountain Home Air Base echoed these sentiments.
"Facilitating the modernisation of aircraft as well as enhanced training of the Royal Saudi Air Force would contribute to stability in the [Mid-East] region," she told me.
The Saudi training squadron would, she noted, help to strengthen the long-standing relationship between both air forces and enable them to work together more effectively.
She also dismissed security concerns by emphasising the background screenings conducted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the US state department and a lack of prior incidents.
"Just since 2007 alone, more than 1,000 Royal Saudi Air Force personnel have attended USAF training programmes, including pilot, navigator, logistics, maintenance and explosive ordnance disposal training, as well as professional military education courses."
The air force failed to answer repeated requests for further information about Saudi air combat training and the use of armaments by Saudi pilots flying in the US.
When I brought up the subject of security concerns to Senator Risch, he stayed mum, a spokesman telling me that he "is deferring any comment until a formal announcement is made about the training mission".
But when I posed the question to Senator Crapo, he pointed out that the "US air force has been training members of the Royal Air Force on US soil for over 25 years" and that Saudi Arabia "screens each individual prior to assignment in the US".
Additionally, he told me via email: "Saudi personnel would have already been in the US for between 12 and 24 months attending USAF training at various USAF bases prior to arriving at Mountain Home AFB."
Crapo also highlighted the fact that the Saudi squadron would be commanded by a US air force officer "to facilitate safe and effective training", that Saudi pilots would be subject to the same flight restrictions as US pilots and that "the training squadron would also have US advisers embedded specifically to ensure safety in flight operations".
9/11 Families for a Secure America's Peter Gadiel, who identifies himself as a Republican but finds much fault with both political parties in the US, scoffed when I mentioned government security efforts to him.
"This country has gone insane," he told me, also using the historical analogy of the attack on Pearl Harbour to make his point. "The mentality that we have in this country today would have led to training Japanese pilots up until December 6, 1941."
When questioned, back in August 2010, about plans to build the Islamic cultural centre in Lower Manhattan, Risch sounded off. "I hope they listen closely to the families of the victims who died in the terrorist attack," he said.
Congressman Simpson was on the same page when he stated: "I hope the local authorities in New York City, who will ultimately make this decision, will listen to the concerns of millions of Americans and find an alternative site for the construction of this mosque."
Continued unrest in the Middle East already has critics of the 2010 US-Saudi arms deal asking for a second look at the agreement.
"We may think that we're arming this regime but it could wind up in four or five years we could have ended up arming someone else," Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner recently told the Wall Street Journal.
After 20-year-old Saudi college student Khalid Aldawsari was arrested on terrorism charges, Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who leads the Judiciary Committee, blasted US immigration policy.
"Until we crack down on our immigration laws that allow terrorists to enter the US, history will continue to repeat itself," Smith said, alluding to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
With skepticism and outrage over the training of Saudi airmen at Mountain Home Air Force Base now rising from the very constituencies that concerned Risch and Simpson during the 2010 Islamic cultural centre controversy, the stage is set for a showdown between former allies.
"I suppose things will change if one of them drops a bomb on Washington," Gadiel said to me, emphasising that he did not want such an attack to occur, while expressing his opinion that such an assault would likely be the only occurrence that would open the eyes of Washington's political establishment to what he sees as the inherent dangers of the proposed training mission in Idaho.
With conservative voices in America rising in opposition to the US training Saudi Royal Air Force pilots, will Idaho's Republican legislators reverse course? And if they do, what will it mean for Mountain Home, Idaho? What will it mean for US-Saudi relations? And what will it say about US military and diplomatic efforts in an increasingly volatile Middle East?