Middle East

Triangle of terrorism
By B Raman

At least 29 people - among them seven Americans, seven Saudis, two Jordanians, two Filipinos, one Lebanese and one Swiss - are reported to have been killed by multiple suicide bombings in three housing compounds for foreigners in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, on the night of May 12-13. According to the Saudi authorities, the bombings are believed to have been carried out by nine suicide terrorists, who too were killed.

The suicide bombings are the deadliest since the Bali (Indonesia) and Mombasa (Kenya) strikes of last year. Al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden might have suffered setbacks due to the capture of some of its important leaders in Pakistan since March last year, the consequent dispersal of its trained cadres into numerous cells and the disorganization of its command and control system, rendering centralized direction and coordination difficult, but the motivation of the survivors of the US-led campaign against it remains as strong as ever, and there has been no dearth of volunteers for suicide missions.

The motivation is likely to have been strengthened by the increased anger against the United States consequent to its invasion and occupation of Iraq. The only sure yardstick for judging the success of a counter-terrorism campaign, whether carried out by military or the police and paramilitary forces, is to what extent the campaign has been able to dent the motivation of the terrorists and deny them a continued flow of volunteers for suicide and other dangerous missions. Body counts and number of captured can be misleading indicators, inducing a false sense of complacency. Judging from this yardstick, the so-called "war against terrorism" is yet to make any impact on al-Qaeda and the other constituents of bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF).

The Riyadh blasts have received considerable media coverage because of their spectacular nature, the audacity of the suicide terrorists, the large number of foreigners, particularly Americans, killed and the coincidence of the strikes with the Middle Eastern tour of Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, but there have been other equally worrisome and condemnable terrorist strikes in Afghanistan, in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) in India and in the southern Philippines, even after the Mombasa attacks.

While those in Afghanistan, which have not involved large casualties, have been carried out by a regrouped Taliban, al-Qaeda and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami, those in J&K were carried out by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), a Pakistani organization forming part of the IIF. The attacks in the southern Philippines were attributed by the local authorities to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which in the past had links with al-Qaeda but is not a member of the IIF. (The LET is now operating under a different name to evade a ban on it imposed by the Pakistani government on January 15, but I will continue to refer to it as LET.)

These attacks show that despite United Nations Security Council Resolution No 1373 against terrorism and despite the hype about the counter-terrorism and the intelligence agencies of the world joining hands for a common battle against terrorism, the networking of governmental agencies of different nations that are victims of terrorism has not been as strong and effective as the networking of terrorist groups of different countries under the leadership of al-Qaeda. To break this network, it is important for the international community to devote the same attention to the task of neutralizing each and every component of the IIF as to the task of neutralizing al-Qaeda. This is not being done.

The international community is yet to take serious notice of the emergence of the LET as a coordinator of the activities of the various constituents of the IIF to make up for the present organizational disabilities of al-Qaeda. Next to Pakistan, where the headquarters of the LET are located (in Muridke, near Lahore), the second-most-important infrastructure of the LET is in Saudi Arabia. Despite being a Wahhabi (a branch of Islam) organization, it has been critical of the Saudi ruling regime and shares bin Laden's anathema for the Saudi ruling family. In the past, it was not very articulate in its criticism of the United States, but has in recent months been increasingly virulent in its attacks on that country. It has been collecting funds in Pakistan for its "martyrs" who, it claims, died in the jihad against the Americans in Iraq.

While the LET's headquarters in Pakistan coordinate its activities in northern India, including J&K, the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Russia (Chechnya and Dagestan), its headquarters in Saudi Arabia coordinate its activities in Mumbai and southern India, the Eastern province of Sri Lanka and in the countries of Southeast Asia. Since 2001, a number of LET cadres have been arrested in Mumbai and southern India, who reportedly claimed to have been trained, funded and directed by the LET setup in Saudi Arabia and not directly by the LET headquarters in Pakistan.

Thus, al-Qaeda as well as the LET have a separate organizational presence in Saudi Arabia, which has evaded detection and neutralization by the Saudi authorities. It is difficult to assess at present whether the Riyadh blasts might have been carried out by al-Qaeda or the LET, or by the two acting in tandem.

The blasts came in the wake of more than one indicator of a likely terrorist strike in Saudi Arabia. According to the Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef, as quoted by the Saudi media, the suicide bombers were believed to be linked to the May 6 discovery of a large weapons cache. The Saudi government was searching for 19 suspects in that case, including 17 Saudis, a Yemeni and an Iraqi with Kuwaiti and Canadian citizenship who it believed were receiving orders directly from bin Laden. It is said that the group had been planning to use the seized weapons to attack the Saudi royal family as well as US and British interests.

One of the absconding 19 surrendered to the Saudi authorities, but his interrogation did not seem to have given them any clue of the impending blasts. This speaks poorly of the counter-terrorism capabilities of Saudi Arabia. More disconcerting, it gives rise to suspicion of possible complicity with the terrorists by elements inside the Saudi security setup, which does not bode well for the future stability of the regime.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia constitute a terrorism triangle. So-called charity and other private organizations in Saudi Arabia have been the generous providers of funds and volunteers for terrorist operations in different parts of the world; the jihadi organizations of Pakistan have been the providers of sanctuaries, training, arms, ammunition and explosives and extra funds from the heroin trade; and Afghanistan was another provider of sanctuaries and training facilities, but this role has been reduced, if not eliminated, after the US air strikes on the training camps in Afghan territory. The Afghan-based terrorist infrastructure has since been transferred to Pakistani territory.

Since the New York World Trade Center explosion of February 1993, there have been frequent reports of anti-royal and anti-US Saudi recruits being brought clandestinely to Pakistan to be trained in the camps of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and the LET, and then sent back to Saudi Arabia. The HUM was a co-signatory of bin Laden's first fatwa of 1998 against the United States and Israel and is a member of his IIF. The arrest of Ramzi Yousef, one of the principal accused in the Trade Center explosion, in Pakistan in 1995, and his transfer to the US to face trial, brought to light his role in the training of Saudi terrorists in Pakistan.

In the first exposure of the role of the Pakistan-based HUM in organizing jihad worldwide in an arc extending from the southern Philippines to Chechnya, Kamran Khan, the well-known Pakistani journalist, brought out in some detail the role of Ramzi Yousef in this matter. In an article in the prestigious News of March 27, 1995, Khan cited his Pakistani sources as claiming that acts of violence committed by these groups trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan inside Saudi Arabia were not known to the outside world. According to him, dozens of Saudis committed to jihad all over the world were visiting military training camps in Afghanistan. "These training camps are ideal places to rub shoulders with persons like Ramzi and to learn from their experience," he said.

The Riyadh blasts of Monday night were not the first sensational terrorist strikes in Saudi Arabia. Such strikes have been taking place at regular intervals since 1996 - some known to the outside world and some covered up by the Saudi intelligence agencies. The Saudi intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies have not been as forthcoming as the agencies of other countries in sharing with the international community the details of their knowledge of the terrorist infrastructure in their country.

The world knows a lot about the complicity of the military and intelligence establishments of Pakistan with terrorist groups of various hues. Is there a similar complicity in Saudi Arabia? If not, how has terrorism been able to thrive in its territory, despite its reputation of being one of the most tightly ruled states in the world?
No convincing answers to these questions are available. Saudi Arabia, consequently, continues to be the dark side of the terrorism triangle. Unless it is brought under the international spotlight, the fight against terrorism is unlikely to make significant headway.

B Raman is additional secretary (ret), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, and currently director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai; former member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India. E-Mail: corde@vsnl.com. He was also head of the counter-terrorism division of the Research & Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, from 1988 to August 1994.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
May 15, 2003

Saudi Arabia: The pendulum swings
(May 7, '03)

Farewell to US arms in Saudi Arabia (May 2, '03)

Afghanistan: Launchpad for terror
 (May 3, '03)

Time up for US troops in Saudi Arabia (Apr 26, '03)


Click here to be one)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright Asia Times Online, 6306 The Center, Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong.