Saudi Arabia’s war against al-Qaida

The Saudis have taken up the struggle against global terror, and are also being forced to confront a growing domestic threat to unseat their rulers.

Mecca clock tower 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Mecca clock tower 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
The war between Arab governments and militant Salafi Islamists led by al-Qaida plays out across the Middle East and beyond on a daily basis.
For Arab regimes, the battle is one of necessity. Deemed as illegitimate puppets of the West by their Islamist foes, they are the targets of radical plots to unseat them by force. They are also the target of relentless radical Islamist rhetoric, most of it appearing on Internet sites controlled by jihadis.
The situation is most dire in Asia, where Pakistan is fighting off a steadily growing al-Qaida and Taliban bid to topple the government. Pakistan’s instability and the possibility that jihadis could one day access its nuclear arsenal are seen by security analysts as the number one threat to global security.
IN THE Middle East, one of the regimes most targeted by al-Qaida is Saudi Arabia.
It is a confrontation that often pits Saudis against Saudis, and it is likely to continue for years to come.
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s government is in the midst of a massive building project in the heart of Mecca, Islam's holiest site.
The project, being built by the Bin Laden Group construction corporation (run by relatives of al-Qaida’s figurehead leader) features seven enormous skyscrapers and an array of commercial centers, being built for wealthier pilgrims who flood the city annually for the Haj.
The project includes a hotel intended as a kind of replica of London’s Big Ben, which soars many times taller than the original clock tower, and which will house 30,000 guests. It will be the second tallest structure on the planet, according to reports. The complex is surely viewed by Bin Laden and his followers as a towering example of Saudi Arabia’s decadence.
Al-Qaida-affiliated websites often issue a call to kill a Saudi leader, as was the case in July 2008 when Abu Yahya al-Libi, a high-ranking al-Qaida ideologue, posted a video on a jihadi website urging followers to assassinate King Abdullah. He had provoked Libi’s wrath by holding an interfaith dialogue conference on Saudi soil.
“Hurrying to kill this wanton tyrant who has announced himself to be a leader of atheism would be among the most pious acts,” Libi declared in the video.
This week, the Saudis issued an Interpol red notice alert concerning 47 Saudi nationals accused by Riyadh of being members of al-Qaida. The spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, Maj.-Gen. Mansour al- Turki, said most of the suspects, aged between 18 and 40, “posed a potentially serious public threat at home and abroad due to their suspected involvement with al-Qaida,” and urged them to turn themselves in, the Interpol website stated on Tuesday.
Interpol’s general secretary, Ronald K. Noble, praised the Saudis for internationalizing their battle against homegrown al-Qaida elements.
The alert went out to 188 Interpol member states. It was one of the largest alerts of its kind.
The largest ever red notice alert was also issued by Saudi Arabia, in 2009, and named 85 Saudi terror suspects who were believed to be actively engaged in hostile action across the Middle East.
And it was Saudi Arabia which tipped off American intelligence officials to the October 2010 parcel bomb plot by al-Qaida members in Yemen. The tip saw security officials remove explosive devices from USbound cargo planes in Dubai and London.
That failed attack has been attributed by some analysts to Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a Saudi national residing in Yemen who is the chief bomb maker for al-Qaida’s offshoot in Yemen (also known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula).
Asiri famously dispatched his younger brother, Abdullah, on a suicide bombing mission in 2009, in what was one of al-Qaida’s most audacious attempted strikes at the Saudi establishment. Asiri arrived at the Jeddah palace of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence head and deputy interior minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Taking advantage of a Saudi clemency offer to jihadis who renounce their ways, Abdullah Asiri obtained an invitation to the palace by pretending to be a reformed jihadi.
He waited in line to meet the prince, and detonated his bomb vest upon meeting him. Asiri killed himself in the blast, but caused only light injuries to the intelligence chief.
Saudi Arabia, often accused of funding its own network of radical Wahhabi centers around the world, has become a vital player in the global struggle against al-Qaida.
For jihadis determined to overthrow its government, Saudi Arabia’s state ideology remains, on the whole, unforgivably moderate. They point to its collaboration with the “infidel” superpower, the US, as evidence of its illegitimacy.
In 1996, Osama bin Laden released a statement he described as a fatwa in which he suggested that Saudi Arabia, or “the land of the two holy sites,” was following American orders.
TODAY, ACROSS the thousands of jihadi forums and Internet sites, those who subscribe to al-Qaida’s ideology compare Bin Laden’s war against Saudi Arabia to the battle waged by Muhammad against the pre-Islamic society of Mecca. For Saudi Arabia’s rulers, such an idea is as abhorrent as it is dangerous.
Al-Qaida’s chances of achieving its goal of unseating the Saudi government remain extremely slim, but the group and its affiliates will nevertheless continue to try to strike “the near enemy” – a term referring to Arab-Muslim states – with a special focus on Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom will in turn continue to activate its powerful intelligence and security agencies to kill or capture its Islamist foes, or talk them out of their ideology.
The writer is author of Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet (Potomac Books).