Small victory in House of Saud's
war By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Saudi authorities are describing
their elimination last week of a senior al-Qaeda leader
as a "major blow" to the organization in Saudi Arabia.
However, analysts are suggesting that the reported blow
might only be a dent in al-Qaeda's capacity and network
in the kingdom.
On Friday, Saudi police killed
Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, the leader of al-Qaeda in the
Arabian peninsula, and a few of his associates in a
shootout in the capital Riyadh. Al-Muqrin and his
associates were wanted for the beheading of Paul
Johnson, an American engineer working in Riyadh who had
been taken hostage earlier.
At the time of his
death, al-Muqrin topped the Saudi government's list of
wanted men. Besides the beheading of Johnson, al-Muqrin
was believed to have been responsible for the suicide
bombing of a Riyadh housing compound in November 2003,
in which 17 people were killed; a suicide car bombing of
the Riyadh police headquarters in April that killed
four; the May 1 attack on offices of a petrochemical
facility at Yanbu, where five Westerners were killed,
and the May 29 hostage-taking and massacre of about 22
expatriates in Khobar.
Al-Muqrin's death is a
loss to al-Qaeda's Saudi operations as he had
on-the-field experience in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia
and Somalia, as well as considerable familiarity with
gunrunning. The attacks he is said to have led were
hugely successful in causing panic and terror among the
expatriates in the country, prompting thousands of
Westerners to flee Saudi Arabia over the past month. His
elimination by the Saudi security forces can be expected
to erode the morale of al-Qaeda's cadres.
al-Muqrin's elimination is just as likely to spur them
to greater acts of terror to avenge his death. Analysts
are pointing out that his demise is not as big a blow to
al-Qaeda's capacity as the Saudi government claims.
Al-Muqrin became the leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia
barely three months ago. It appears that he was a
well-known face in the kingdom; consequently he was made
al-Qaeda's "public face", the organization's charismatic
Analysts at Stratfor Intelligence
have described him as "the face, not the brain ...
important but replaceable". It appears that the public
face of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia is not the one who
calls the shots. There are other, more senior figures in
al-Qaeda's Saudi network who really run the show. And
they, unlike al-Muqrin, work in the shadows.
such person who has worked in the shadows so far is
al-Muqrin's successor, Saleh al-Oufi. A former police
officer, al-Oufi is being described as a far more
formidable enemy than al-Muqrin. A report in the
al-Hayat newspaper describes al-Oufi as "the most
dangerous" of al-Qaeda's lieutenants left alive in Saudi
According to the Washington-based Saudi
Institute, "Al-Oufi might be more dangerous than
al-Muqrin because he comes from the security ranks [and
therefore knows the workings of the Saudi police and
prisons] and is a Hijazi from the holy city of Madina,
so can recruit from the most economically depressed
areas of Saudi Arabia - the outskirts of Madina, the
countryside of the Hijaz, and the southwestern Asir
region. Al-Oufi might also be a more effective al-Qaeda
leader because he is older, has spent more time in the
country, and is more familiar with al-Qaeda's network in
Saudi Arabia as he was one of those who built it."
But it is not so much the al-Qaeda leadership as
its vast and intricate network and its ability to draw
new recruits that Saudi authorities need to worry about
more. Besides, the House of Saud is not doing enough to
address the widespread discontent against its rule. It
is this sea of discontent that is providing the al-Qaeda
with its endless source of volunteers.
al-Qaeda network in Saudi Arabia has been built up over
several years. Its breadth and depth in the kingdom is
said to be far greater than the authorities admit. Some
analysts, such as Adel al-Torafi, believe that with "a
lot of the al-Qaeda leadership being killed" or jailed
by the government's security forces, "there are fewer
people to lead the attacks".
Indeed, about 600
militants are said to be languishing in jails and
several top leaders of the Saudi al-Qaeda, including its
chief of operations, Khaled Ali Ali Haj and now
al-Muqrin, have been eliminated over the past year.
However, there seems to be no shortage of
battle-hardened commanders to fill the void. And the
flow of new recruits into the organization continues.
While the Saudi government dismisses claims that the
jihadis enjoy a fair amount of support in the kingdom,
officials admit in private that the situation is
worrying. They point to a recent secret government poll
that showed 49% supported Osama bin Laden's ideas. His
ideas of expelling infidels, ie Westerners, and
overthrowing the House of Saud have huge appeal to the
large pool of frustrated, unemployed youth in the
After years of obfuscation and denial,
the rulers are slowly waking up to the threat posed by
jihadis. Several steps, including mass arrests,
"re-education" of extremist clerics and tracking down
the funding for terror groups have been taken over the
past year. The US Council on Foreign Relations observed
recently that in the past year, the Saudi government's
steps to monitor money laundering and donations "meet or
exceed international standards in many respects".
But given the extensive jihadi network in the
kingdom, these steps are clearly not enough. The deep
inroads that al-Qaeda has made into the Saudi security
apparatus and the backing it continues to enjoy from
powerful sections in the ruling elite undermines any
effort to crack down on the network.
the beheading of Johnson, the Saudi al-Qaeda gave an
account of the kidnapping on its website. It claimed
that it had been aided by Saudi security forces, who
provided the militants with uniforms and helped them set
up the roadblock at which Johnson was stopped and taken
The Saudi government has denied such
collusion. It is possible that the Saudi al-Qaeda might
be exaggerating to undermine the credibility of the
Saudi government and to deepen the anxiety of
expatriates over the extent to which the security forces
in the kingdom have been penetrated by al-Qaeda.
But this is not the first time that collusion
between the two has come to light. Government officials
cite security spending, which has increased by 50% over
the past two years to show how serious the Saudi
government is about fighting jihadis. But the effort to
fight them seems lopsided, as the pace of political
reforms has been excruciatingly slow.
within the Saudi ruling establishment appear to have
realized that political and socio-economic reform is
urgently needed to combat the jihadis, and they have
shown more openness to change. However, political
activists demanding democratic reform point out that
most of the reforms remain mere promises and are yet to
be implemented. Besides, the House of Saud seems more
scared of the democracy advocates than of the jihadis.
It has used the "war on terrorism" to fight
democracy advocates. Several of the "terrorists" who
languish in jails are in fact political activists,
according to rights groups. Unless the Saudi government
mounts a sustained campaign on all fronts, including
reforming itself, the gains from eliminating individual
jihadis, while good for propaganda, will remain limited.
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