For the last 6 months since the Riyadh bombings, Saudi Arabia has been in something of a state of flux. The latest bombings in Riyadh simply underscore that shift. For the last 14 years, there has been something of a gentleman's agreement between House Saud and al-Qaeda: the latter will not target the former, in exchange for the Saudi government turning a blind eye towards al-Qaeda's activities in the Kingdom. That appears to be changing somewhat. On both sides.
There's Something Happening Here... In the aftermath of the war in Iraq and the destruction of Ansar al-Islam's chemical weapons labs at Sergat and Khurmal, however, al-Qaeda military commander Saif al-Adel decided to temporarily shift his focus away from attacking US troops in Iraq towards overthrowing the Saudi government, and establishing a Wahhabi theocracy in the Kingdom that could then be used as a staging area from which to attack US forces in Iraq. As Robert and I noted over at Alphabet City, al-Qaeda already maintains a Saudi "government in-exile" sorts in London through the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA). One of things that's often forgotten by many commentators is that the Riyadh bombings were originally intended to be much, much worse. According to the May 8 edition of ABC News's Team Insider (via Rantburg), Saudi authorities arrested 149 al-Qaeda operatives who had planned to poison water supplies and stockpiled C-4 explosives in preparation for attacks. ABC News also reported that these al-Qaeda operatives were backed in their efforts by bazaar merchants from Qassim province, where support for al-Qaeda is said to run high. These arrests came a day after Saudi authorities got involved in a gun fight with 19 al-Qaeda and recovered a huge arms cache and indeed, I suspect that the information recovered from the arms cache was probably what led to the arrest of the 149 other operatives. Now understand, al-Qaeda has been carrying out a low-level car bombing campaign against Westerners in the Kingdom for years and these attacks have all been covered up by the Saudi authorities as the work of alcohol smugglers. So why the sudden Saudi apprehension at al-Qaeda's presence on their soil? The reason is simple: this cell was targeting the royals in addition to US and UK interests. In the aftermath of the Riyadh bombings, US intelligence came to the sobering conclusion that the Saudi police, army, navy, and National Guard have all been infiltrated by Bin Laden's minions. This point was driven home even further by the fact that the explosives used in the Riyadh bombings came from the Saudi National Guard stockpiles. Now, the Saudi National Guard is not at all like its American equivalent; it is the royal guard charged with protecting the 6,000 or so members of the al-Saud family. If al-Qaeda can infiltrate the Guard undetected, they can probably get anywhere in the Kingdom. The Saudi Princes' New Groove? The Saudi authorities redoubled their pledges to crack down on al-Qaeda in the aftermath of the Riyadh bombings, something they'd been promising to do ever since 9/11. Normally this means that a few terrorists get arrested while al-Qaeda's valuable financial, propaganda, and recruiting infrastructures inside the Kingdom remain alive and kicking. However, what happened in Riyadh seems to have been enough of a wake-up call for the Saudi government to fire 200 Wahhabi clerics and to arrest 3 al-Qaeda operatives and 2 clerics in connection with the bombing. The clerics, Ali Khudhair al-Khudair and Ahmed bin Hamid al-Khaldi, are two key ideologues for al-Qaeda. Upon their arrest by Saudi authorities, MIRA leader Saad al-Faqih claimed that they had been killed. Al-Qaeda's reaction to MIRA's claims is certainly interesting. An E-Mail purportedly from anonymous bin Laden lieutenants warned the Saudi government that more attacks were coming if their clerics were dead, prompting Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef to tell the Arab News on May 29 that both the two clerics taken into custody, plus a third cleric, were all alive and in good health. Clearly, even after the original Riyadh bombings the Saudi leadership was still terrified of al-Qaeda. Then we get to the long and wonderful saga of Ali Abdul Rahman al-Ghamdi that I chronicled at least in part in one of my first special analyses for Winds of Change. It notes the fact that he has now been arrested by Saudi authorities on at least 3 separate occasions: May 15, May 28, and June 26, and in every case save the last one has been subsequently listed as still at large. These types of anomalies aren't doing the Saudi political establishment any favors to those of us who tend to question just which side the Saudis are on. Signs, Signs, Everywhere A Sign Nevertheless, the Saudis do appear to at least made some effort at a visible crackdown against al-Qaeda, as can be seen here and here. This crackdown, which led to several shoot-outs taking place in Mecca, a chopper going down in Assir province, shoot-outs in Jouf, uncovering an arms cache in Riyadh, yet another shoot-out in al-Qasim, and yet more shooting in Riyadh, all of which seem to be a positive sign that at least someone in Riyadh is taking the issue of al-Qaeda rather seriously. On the other hand, incidents like the al-Hair prison fire that killed most of individuals who were arrested during all of these raids, suggesting at the very least that someone had something to hide regarding these detainees. Apart from Ali Abdul Rahman al-Ghamdi and his numerous psychopathic relatives, the Kingdom also managed to kill Yousef Saleh Fahd al-Ayyeri, the al-Neda webmaster who was carrying a letter from bin Laden when he was killed. Al-Ayyeri's fan club very likely made up of the same people who perpetrated the DoS attack on Hosting Matters several weeks ago with the intention of taking down Internet Haganah. Another notable victim of the Saudi crackdown was Ali Abdul al-Ghamdi's second-in-command Zubayr al-Rimi, who was killed in a stand-off with Saudi authorities in Jizan. Al-Rimi was one of four men who were the subject of a worldwide terrorist alert in September by US authorities. What's Goin' On In any event, what appears to have been going on in Saudi Arabia over the last several months is a crackdown, abeit a half-hearted one (perhaps due to the fact that man responsible for the crackdown, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, was just this last December musing about how the Jews were really the ones responsible for 9/11), on al-Qaeda's activities in the Kingdom. One might aptly note that this crackdown is in no way directed against either Wahhabism or even militant Wahhabism - Saudi funding reportedly still accounts for 50% of Hamas's budget. More to the point, to date Saudi authorities have only arrested or apprehended individuals who can be definitively linked to planning terrorist attacks in the Kingdom. The financial side of al-Qaeda, best personified in a report submitted to the United Nations Security Council that documents the top seven financiers of al-Qaeda: Khalid bin Mahfouz, Saleh Abdullah Kamel, Abdullah Suleiman al-Rajhi, Adel Abdul Jalil Batterjee, Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi, Wael Hamza Julaidan, and Yasin al-Qadi, remains largely untouched. All of these men are extremely wealthy Saudi business magnates and all of them have been allowed to operate freely within the Kingdom even after the Riyadh bombings. Nor are these individuals the only major Saudi al-Qaeda financiers, according to al-Qaeda documents recovered from Bosnia, the organization's financiers also at least thirteen additional Saudi magnates, including members of the Bin Laden Group. Then there's the case of Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Bin Laden's brother-in-law. Khalifa financed and helped to establish the al-Qaeda infrastructure in the Philippines that enabled the organization to plot Oplan Bojinka, the prototype for 9/11. Khalifa was arrested shortly after the 9/11 attacks but subsequently released by Saudi authorities. As of this date, he remains a free man in the Kingdom. Shutting down the al-Qaeda financial infrastructure in Saudi Arabia will go an extremely long way towards the final destruction of the network as well as ending the long-standing conflicts in Algeria, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Mindanao. Shutting down the entire terrorist infrastructure in Saudi Arabia will at the very least severely diminish Hamas's capabilities with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ultimate test of whether or not the Saudis are prepared to fully sever their ties to al-Qaeda will be whether or not the Kingdom is willing to cut the financial umbilical chord for international terrorism once and for all. Until that occurs in some fashion or another, everything that happens in the Kingdom should be the subject of intense skepticism, particularly claims to the press or even by public figures that the Saudis are no longer turning a blind eye to terrorism. The royal family has known about the activities of these individuals for well over a year at this point, and to date have done absolutely nothing to hinder them. Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting Saturday's events may change that dynamic; I sincerely hope so, anyway. Right now, the death toll at the al-Muhaya residential compound is currently at 17 (though some reports put it as high as 30) with over 100 wounded. Among the wounded are said to be 6 American and Canadian nationals, all of whom came from the same two families. The Saudi government has already blamed al-Qaeda for the attack, noting that the pattern simultaneous bombings fit all the classic hallmarks of the group. I don't have any doubt for a moment that this is al-Qaeda, but while the Saudi claim that this attack was intended as proof of the group's determination to bring down the House of Saud as well as payback for the loss of the network's chief ideological theorist and two mid-level commanders, these recent attacks certainly did bring to mind an article in The Voice of Jihad. The Voice of Jihad is an online al-Qaeda magazine that appears on the server of the month for the dozen or so websites that are controlled by the organization's media committee. The latest edition carried an editorial by Suleiman al-Dosari that was translated by MEMRI and explains that the real enemy right now is the American forces currently residing in Iraq, not the Saudi security forces. Rantburg's analysis on this one is (as usual) right-on, but the events of this Saturday appear to have thrown a major monkey wrench into the organization's plans if Saif al-Adel and the rest of the military committee currently based in Iran planned to have their minions in Saudi Arabia simply lay low until they could patch things up with the royals. Conclusion: Oops, They Did It Again Once again, it appears that al-Qaeda's famed decentralization may in fact be as much of a bane as it is a boon to the terrorist organization. This latest bombing has gotten the network plenty of bad PR and may well be completely disavowed or regarded as an American plot much the same way that the bombing in An Najaf was. One might even expect Abu Mohammed al-Ablaj, Thabet bin Qais, or Abdul Rahman al-Najdi to issue some sort of a media appearance within the next couple of days to place blame for the attack on the US or Israel. Alternatively, if al-Qaeda's military committee decides that enough is enough and chooses to go on the offensive, one could easily foresee similar activities on the rise throughout Saudi Arabia as part of a concerted effort to finally depose the royal family. In my estimation, I would say that it is altogether possible that the very thing that makes al-Qaeda so difficult to detect has come back to bite it in the ass - it's not like such things haven't happened before.