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Al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia: coming out of the shadows

To analysts following the security situation in Saudi Arabia, Monday’s nearly simultaneous attacks on complexes housing Westerners in Saudi Arabia came as no surprise. Osama bin Ladin’s al-Qaida network continues to strike a sympathetic cord among many in the conservative kingdom. These sympathies increase the vulnerability of Saudi society to the kind of tolerance for extremists that has already opened the doors for al-Qaida in countries from Pakistan to Indonesia.

To say that the writing was on the wall is to understate the case. For months, there have been signs that al-Qaida sympathizers were forming local cells. In Saudi Arabia, there is no need to import extremists; there is no shortage of local elements ready to follow in the footsteps of the 15 young Saudis who helped fly hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a year and a half ago. The kingdom’s ultra conservative religious framework contributes to a situation in which al-Qaida’s jihad against Western culture falls on fertile ground.

Extensive al-Qaida network revealed in Riyadh

The first concrete hints of Monday’s events began on March 18, when a Saudi man believed to be linked to al-Qaida was killed by the premature detonation of a bomb he was preparing. A search of the house where the explosion occurred, located in Riyadh’s Jazirah district turned up three hand grenades, at least a dozen assault rifles, pistols, ammunition and explosives.

The investigation into the plot revealed an extensive network of cells–some of them quite professional and skilled in field craft. The result was a series of increasingly strident warnings of imminent terror attacks on Western targets in Saudi Arabia. On 1 May, the U.S. State Department issued an uncommonly specific travel warning to American citizens in the kingdom. “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Saudi Arabia. Information indicates that terrorist groups may be in the final phases of planning attacks against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia,” the document said.

Less than a week later, on 6 May, Saudi security forces searching for other members of the Jazirah district cell found themselves in the midst of a gun battle with militants. The gunmen fled their hideout, still firing on pursuing security forces. When their car was damaged in the firefight, the carjacked another vehicle and disappeared into a densely-populated area.

A subsequent search of the cell’s hideout and getaway car turned up a huge cache of arms, including, according to media reports, 55 hand grenades, five suitcases loaded with a total of 377 kilograms (829 pounds) of explosive, AK-47 automatic rifles, and 2,545 bullets of different calibres. Police also found a substantial sum of cash, wigs and other disguises, computers and communications equipment. This was clearly a well-funded and well-organized cell.

As a mark of the seriousness of the situation, the Saudi government took the unprecedented step of publicizing the existence of the cell. A public announcement was issued, according to which at least 19 men were being sought in connection with terrorist plots. The suspects included 17 Saudis, an Iraqi holding both Kuwaiti and Canadian citizenship, and a Yemeni. Their names and pictures were shown on state-run Saudi television, and splashed across the front pages of local newspapers. Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz announced a reward of up to 300,000 riyals (80,000 dollars) for people who guided authorities to the cell and 50,000 riyals for those who provided any information about them.

The day after the raid, a senior Saudi security official announced that suspected terrorists were receiving orders directly from bin Laden. This announcement too, was unprecedented. The Saudi government had previously been at pains to deny that there was significant al-Qaida activity in the kingdom. At the same time, Interior Minister Prince Nayef announced in February that Saudi authorities were holding 253 people with suspected links to al-Qaida and that 90 of them were proven to be members of the terror organization. However, these people were depicted as an aberration: terrorism was the province of “a few misguided youths.” Officials had even gone to great lengths to find alternate explanations for the occasional bombing. A previous series of bomb attacks against westerners that killed four people was chalked up to rivalries in “the illegal alcohol trade.” Nevertheless, the past few years have witnessed a number of low-level attacks on Westerners and fingers have pointed at a possible al-Qaida involvement.

Now, for the first time, Saudi officials were concerned enough to confront the issue openly. Prince Nayef, speaking to the newspapers the day after the raids said. “Yes, all the cell members are known to be al-Qaida operatives.”

Nayef said the suspects received military training in Afghanistan before returning to Saudi Arabia. “This group has started outside of the kingdom. They received military training in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, they pretend to be Islamists and declare others as infidels,” he told Al-Watan. “All of them had returned from Afghanistan … and a number of them had been detained and then freed because we found their role was very limited.” Prince Nayef said the men believed in “suicidal ideas, and not in money. They are young and have been brainwashed.”

However, it wasn’t just their ideas that were dangerous. Citing the large quantities of weapons and explosives found, Prince Nayef pointed out: “The most dangerous thing is the explosives. Its quantity is large and quality is high. This is very disturbing and indicates how dangerous these people are. The presence of such highly advanced explosives indicates that they had been planning to destroy buildings or big places.”

“These men have only one goal in mind: Jihad (holy war),” he said

Nor was it only Westerners who were at risk. Saudi officials said that the cell had been planning attacks on the royal family as well as American and British interests. The prime targets were the defense minister, Prince Sultan, and his brother, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz.

This of course, is nothing new. Bin Ladin and his followers regard the current rulers of Saudi Arabia as traitors to Islam and to the Muslim nation. His main claim against the Saudi family is the presence of U.S. military forces in the site of Islam’s two holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina. Recognizing the use made of this claim by al-Qaida, and its increasing acceptance elsewhere in the Arab world, the Bush administration announced April 29 that it would pull almost all U.S. military personnel out of the kingdom. The presence of some 5,000 American troops in the Saudi Peninsula since the first Gulf War was touted in the media “as a main reason for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and other attacks against Americans.”

The truth of course is more complicated; bin Ladin may have used the presence of U.S. troops as a rallying cry, but his declaration of war was against the impact of Western culture, and not the presence of American soldiers in his homeland. The Saudi royal family–who bin Ladin views as corrupt heretics propped up by American military power–have always been the target of his most strident abhorrence.

This time, recognizing that al-Qaida was now on its doorstep, the Saudi government was quick to launch a coordinated counter-attack. The state-controlled media came out with a series of editorials calling Osama bin Ladin a fanatical coward, and heaping scorn on the “misguided men who blindly follow his teachings.” Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, described the militants as “corrupt, traitors and aggressors,” and said that they must be “fought and severely punished.”

Al Qaida “restructuring” reveals emergence of local leaders that is significant about the Saudi al-Qaida networks is not so much their degree of autonomy. Last week, a Saudi weekly published in London reported that al-Qaida was preparing a new attack on the U.S. on the scale of September 11. The paper, Al-Majallah, cited an e-mail message from a newly-appointed al-Qaida spokesman, Thabet bin Qais, who claimed that “an attack against America is inevitable.” Al-Qaida, he said has “carried out changes in its leadership and sidelined the September 11, 2001 team.” According to Thabet bin Qais, “Future missions have been entrusted to the new team, which is well protected against the U.S. intelligence services. The old leadership does not know the names of any of its members.”

In a later issue, Al-Majallah quoted an al-Qaida operative named Abu Mohamed Al-Ablaj as saying that his group had “been planning major operations for a long time in the Gulf where it had stocked large amounts of arms and explosives.” In an email to the paper, Al-Ablaj wrote that the recent raid in Riyadh had not derailed the group’s plans. Al-Ablaj described himself as the “coordinator of the Mujahedin training center” run by al-Qaida.

Reading between the lines, what one sees here is the emergence of a local leadership for al-Qaida cells–or more accurately, Qaida spin-offs. These cells are not directly connected with the “traditional” al-Qaida leadership, currently in hiding in Pakistan and elsewhere. The reason that “the old leadership does not know the names” of the new cell members is simple: they are completely unconnected. This is not to say that the Saudi network is not al-Qaida. But al-Qaida is not an organization, but a phenomenon–a combination of shared ideologies, common goals, and of course, a common idea of what methods to use to achieve these goals. The founding of autonomous cells in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere is itself one of al-Qaida’s main operational themes.

In the first week of March, ICT reprinted a “call for treason in the name of Jihad,” that appeared on an internet forum popular with followers of Osama bin Ladin. The site, is particularly designed to appeal to young Moslems around the world. The message appealed to Muslims to betray their countries for the sake of Jihad. It calls upon “all brothers working in air and sea headquarters, airports and harbors, serving the U.S.A. and their allies and to all employees working with the U.S.A. in the oil fields” to rise and act to save the Moslem “Umma” (nation). It calls on Moslems everywhere to do what they can to sabotage the preparations for the war against Iraq “as a modest contribution to the Moslem struggle.” “The infidel enemy, which we command you to destroy on the battlefield, is the same enemy which you are serving. You know its bases, its abilities, its movements, its weak points and you are, therefore, the source of our strength. This fact places you in an important and special position in your ability to serve your land and your religion.” Residents of the Gulf countries are further urged to gather intelligence and report information in preparation of terror attacks. The appeal goes on to list the kinds of information that should be reported, including, among other potential targets, “Housing accommodation and administrative areas used by American technical teams,” and “Housing accommodation of American headquarters employees (local employees).”

One of the immediate conclusions from Monday’s attacks is the presence of a local element; the perpetrators were on their home ground, were sure of their abilities to elude capture, and confident of their chances of success. In a country where young Muslims are increasingly turning to religion for solace for their country’s woes, the radicalization of the next generation is bound to have concrete results. One of these results was seen in Monday night’s attack.