Saudi Arabia aligns with US to rout Al-Qaeda operatives


In the years since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US there have been many victories in the global 'war on terror'. Afghanistan is no longer the terrorist safe haven it once was; various terrorist cells and plots around the world have been uncovered, and key leaders of militant groups have been either killed or captured. The matrix of terrorist financing has been bruised and Al-Qaeda's global network disrupted. In recent years the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken significant measures to combat terrorism, steps that have won the Kingdom praise from the highest levels of the George W Bush administration in the US. For more than 10 years Saudi Arabia has been the target of Al-Qaeda inspired and directed terrorism. Al-Qaeda's campaign began in the early 1990s, and it continues to target the US and its interests in the Kingdom, the government of Saudi Arabia, and the US-Saudi relationship.

One of Al-Qaeda's primary objectives has always been the destruction of the ruling order in Saudi Arabia and the overthrow of the Royal Family. For years,

Al-Qaeda terrorists have sought to bring down the regime through a bloody insurgency that has claimed hundreds of lives - both Saudis and foreigners.

A decade-long campaign of car bombings, suicide attacks, ambushes, kidnappings and assassinations has followed.

On 13 November 1995, a car bomb exploded in the Riyadh parking lot of the facility housing the Office of the Program Manager, Saudi Arabian National Guard Modernization Program (OPM-SANG). This bombing left seven dead, including five US citizens, and more than 60 others wounded. One of the primary tasks of the SANG is to maintain internal security and stability. In attacking the US offices of the training and modernisation mission, this bombing was a direct attack on the SANG, and, by extension, the Royal Family and the ruling order. The SANG would again be an indirect target on 12 May 2003, when three Riyadh housing compounds were attacked, including housing for the Vinnell Corporation, the holder of the contract for the Modernization Program, and again in June 2004 when an US contractor working for Vinnell was shot outside his home in Riyadh.

On 25 June 1996, a massive truck bomb exploded alongside the perimeter of the Khobar Towers housing complex. An estimated 2.5 tons of explosives destroyed much of the facility, killing 19 US Air Force personnel and wounding more than 500 others. For the next five years, until the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, a series of bombings occurred, targeting mostly Western expatriate workers living in the Kingdom. At first blamed on the illicit alcohol trade, it is now known that Islamist militants were responsible for these attacks. Terrorist violence in Saudi Arabia saw a large upswing, beginning with the devastating co-ordinated suicide attack on 12 May 2003 in which three Riyadh housing compounds were assaulted, killing 35 people. Since then, terrorists have targeted critical infrastructure, international businesses, foreign residents, Saudi authorities and the US government. A similar attack to the May 2003 Riyadh bombings, also directed against a Riyadh housing compound, occurred several months later in November 2003. More than 50 people were killed in the May and November bombings.

After the deadly spate of attacks on expatriate housing designed to drive Westerners out of the Kingdom and thereby weaken the state, terrorists again turned their sights on the security forces defending the Royal Court. On 21 April 2004 the former headquarters of General Security was car bombed in Riyadh. Some reports have indicated that this facility had previously housed security elements responsible in part for the protection of the Royal Family. In a sign of improving counter-terrorism intelligence, only days before the April 2004 attack, Saudi authorities seized five car bombs containing over four tons of explosives.

The trend of targeting the support and income of the Royal Family continued in May 2004. The hydrocarbon industry that subsidises the regime and its security forces, as well as the expatriate Western workers employed in the oil sector were again attacked that month. May 2004 saw two deadly attacks; the first occurred in the beginning of the month when gunmen attacked a petrochemical complex in Yanbu on the Red Sea coast (see RJHM June 2004). The second attack occurred at the end of the month, in a 25-hour siege when terrorists rampaged through the Oasis residential community in al-Khobar, killing 22 people, most of whom were foreigners. Several firms involved in the oil sector, including Royal Dutch Shell, Total SA, Saudi Aramco, Lukoil and Sinopec had offices in the Oasis at the time of the attack.

June 2004 brought a series of attacks on Westerners in the capital, including several assassinations, a kidnapping and an execution. A BBC crew was fired upon in Riyadh's low-income Suwaidi district, killing the cameraman and severely wounding security correspondent Frank Gardner. In a separate incident, a US citizen working for Vinnell was gunned down outside his home. Two others from the US were killed that month, one abducted by terrorists, while the other was gunned down in the street. At least one of these victims was also employed by a US defence contractor.

In December 2004, the US consulate in Jeddah was attacked, and towards the end of the month, two car bombs exploded in Riyadh. One exploded outside the Ministry of Interior, and another was detonated outside a training facility for the Emergency Forces, the Kingdom's counter-terrorist SWAT force.

Through these attacks in the Arabian Peninsul Al-Qaeda has demonstrated its intention and desire to strike at the regime and those that it views as supporting the Royal Family, namely the US government and the hydrocarbon industry. The security forces and the apparatuses of power that keep the Royal Family in power have not been spared either. Over the last few years, numerous shoot-outs and gun battles have occurred between militants and the security forces. According to the Ministry of Interior spokesman Lieutenant-General Mansour al-Turki, more than 40 security officers have died recently in the line of duty, while more than 350 have been wounded - of those more than 150 sustained serious injuries.

Saudi Arabia takes the initiative

The aftermath of the May 2003 bombings dramatically altered the perception of terrorism in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has now moved towards actively seeking out terrorists both within the country and abroad. Hundreds of terrorists have been captured and close to 2,000 people suspected of terrorism have been questioned.

Twenty-three of the 26 most-wanted terrorists have been either killed or captured and numerous extraditions have successfully brought terrorism suspects back to the Kingdom to face justice. Numerous caches of weapons and explosives have been discovered, as have disguises, including wigs and abayas, as well as documents, CDs and stolen cars.

Through close co-operation with the US and Western counter-terrorism officials, progress has been made. US and Saudi authorities communicate several times a day, sharing intelligence and co-ordinating strategies. In nearly every major counter-terrorism operation across the globe since 11 September 2001, Riyadh has quietly contributed intelligence that has lead to either key Al-Qaeda leadership assets either being killed or captured. Many Western experts have lent their knowledge and experience to their Saudi counterparts and this assistance has been warmly received by the security and counter-terrorism forces.

Terrorist financing has also been curtailed to a significant extent. Charities suspected of funding militant groups have been closed within the Kingdom.

Co-operation with European and US investigators, has led to the shutting down of suspect charities and foundations abroad. As a result, Saudi Arabia has put in place some of the most stringent financial codes in practice today.

However, for many reasons, Saudi Arabia does not like to advertise its co-operation with Western authorities. As one Saudi government employee states, sometimes it's "best to be below the radar".

But it would be a mistake to interpret this lack of self-promotion as a lack of international co-operation.

Although the US-Saudi counter-terrorism relationship has been termed as one of the best the George W Bush administration has yet established, the Saudis themselves would agree more can be done to tackle terrorism. Professionalism among the Saudi security forces has improved and security is a high priority. However at present some Saudis nationals are fighting coalition troops in Iraq. While this must be of concern to US authorities, it is of even more concern to top Saudi security officials, for fear that these newly experienced Jihadis will return to the Kingdom.

Saudi society is beginning to show the changes of these new security measures. Huge banners and signs hang in Riyadh with pictures of destroyed buildings and blown-apart vehicles asking questions such as how such things could happen in Saud Arabia. The counter-terrorism message is delivered to people several times a day on television with the message 'Together Against Terrorism'. The same message is displayed at automated teller machines each time a withdrawal is made. Even satellite television shows, such as 'Circle of Darkness', are raising the awareness of the dangers inside Saudi Arabia among the people.

In early April 2005, it was local residents in al-Rass that notified authorities to the presence of some of the Kingdom's most-wanted terrorists in their community. In the ensuing three-gun battle and major siege between terrorists and security forces, several major militants were killed, including Saud al-Otaibi, who was believed to be the most recent leader of

Al-Qaeda's operations in the Kingdom, and Moroccan Abdul Kareem al-Majati. Al-Majati was believed to have played a role in the Madrid bombings, and is thought to have been directed to Saudi Arabia by Osama bin Laden in order to organise the Jihad in the Kingdom. Moreover, reports indicate that support for Jihadi terrorism among the clergy and business and community leaders is declining. Reports claim that the security services now have 'hundreds' of informants to help monitor the situation.

Saudi Arabia's success stem from a concerted and well-focused counter-terrorism strategy. The authorities are careful to avoid indiscriminate collective punishment and will often seek to minimise the numbers of casualties. They recognise that Al-Qaeda is first and foremost an ideology, and the best way to counter this mindset is to offer an alternative. Victory for the Kingdom will only come when the idea of violent terrorism no longer holds any appeal for the disaffected and disillusioned. Towards this end, Saudi security and counter-terrorism sources are now talking about the need to 'keep militants busy' and to create programmes to keep the young and vulnerable away from recruiters and Jihadi ideologues.

Christopher Boucek is editor of the RUSI/Jane's Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor. He recently returned from Saudi Arabia.


Christopher Boucek

Associate Fellow

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