The memories of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006 have hardly faded and already the kingdom is preparing itself for the threat of a new round of violence.
Saudi security forces last week raided cells in Jeddah and Riyadh, uncovering evidence that a new branch of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQPA) is poised to launch a series of attacks. The Ministry of Interior took into custody six Yemenis and two Saudis following the raids.
The Interior Ministry reported there were “recruiting elements to execute criminal attacks targeting security forces, citizens and foreign residents, as well as public installations.” The United States embassy in Riyadh has taken the reports so seriously that it has issued a new emergency warning to American citizens that their safety may be in jeopardy.
“This new group was at the advanced stage of its operations in Riyadh,” a Saudi security official told The Media Line, asking not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak about security matters.
The potential for another wave of strikes has worried Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia only recently recovered from small and large scale attacks over a three-year period in Yanbu, Al-Khobar, Riyadh, Al-Ras and Jeddah. Between 2003 and 2006, nearly 100 civilians, 40 members of security forces, and more than 100 terrorists died in a series of gun battles with security forces and in bombings. Among the dead was American Paul Marshall Johnson, Jr., 49, of New Jersey, who was held hostage by terrorists and was then beheaded. An estimated $270 million in property damage resulted from bombings, including the Riyadh Ministry of Interior building and residential compounds in the capital and in Al-Khobar.
Claiming responsibility for most of the attacks was Abul Aziz Al-Muqrin, the leader of al-Qaida’s cell in Saudi Arabia. Security forces killed Al-Muqrin, 35, in a June 2004 shootout. His death marked the fall of al-Qaida’s operations in the kingdom primarily because the terrorist group was forced to rely on less talented operatives after most of the top-tier terrorists had been killed or captured. The Saudi cell redirected its efforts to Iraq to fight American military forces before moving to Yemen.
Al-Qaida’s new branch is not expected to rise to the level that characterized Al-Muqrin’s bloody campaign in the spring and summer of 2004, but it, nevertheless, remains a dangerous threat.
“My estimation is that Al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia is comprised of the Yemenis as well as the Saudis,” Ehsan Ahrari, a Middle East analyst and chief executive of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Strategic Paradigms, a foreign affairs consultancy agency, told The Media Line. “The mixture of Wahhabism and Takfirism has come in full circle and is threatening the very existence of a regime that has not only neglected the eradication of Wahhabisim from its curricula, but it is still supporting – perhaps indirectly – the al-Qaida fighters in Syria. The Saudi al-Qaida has a tremendous potential of becoming a threat to the stability of the Kingdom itself.”
Like the original wave of attacks, Ahrari says the royal family remains at risk. In August 2009, a suicide bomber injured Prince Nayef when he gained entry to Nayef’s Jeddah home on the pretense of surrendering to the government’s rehabilitation center.
Ahrari says al-Qaida's goal is to attack the royal family.
“The royal family is the chief target,” Ahrari said. “If it were to be overthrown, that will be deemed as one of the major victories of al-Qaida.”
Targeting King Abdullah, who is revered by most Saudis, is not likely to endear the population to al-Qaida’s cause. Indeed, any sympathies Saudis felt for the objectives of the extremists in 2003 were quickly dashed when Muslims and civilians became casualties. The beheading of Johnson and Iraq cell leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi’s bloody campaign at the height of the Iraqi war further alienated Saudis.
The Saudi government’s position since al-Qaida began its domestic operations is that members of the terrorist organizations deviated from the path of Islam. In fact, the government identifies al-Qaida members as “deviants” as official policy.
The latest incarnation of the Saudi al-Qaida has engaged in a web chat with the Al-Sakinah Campaign, or Tranquility Campaign, a counter-radicalization organization developed by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The group consists of Islamic scholars who engage in online theological debates with extremists. Scholars attempt to steer potential terrorist recruits away from extremism with proper interpretation of Sharia and the teachings and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
One Islamic cleric told The Media Line that few of those he has spoken with online have a grasp of the Koran or Sharia (Islamic law).
“Some men I have talked to are illiterate and rely on others to interpret Sharia for them,” said the cleric who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “These new guys have no idea what they are talking about. And those who do know how to read justify their violence by deliberating misinterpreting the facts.”
The cleric said he believes that non-Saudis are members of the new militant cell. This new breed, he said, rather work to compromise Saudi security and wreak havoc inside the kingdom’s borders than fight in Syria or engage in attacks in Western countries. He said they are Yemenis who work with al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri to radicalize Saudis, using online social networking.
Middle East analyst Ahrari disagrees. “I don’t believe the Saudi propaganda that foreigners are involved in providing intellectual fuel to the new breed of Saudi al-Qaida. Ayman Al-Zawahiri is too busy hiding his hide from getting targeted by the US drones in the Pakistan-Afghan border area to be directing anything.”
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