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Analysis: Counterterrorism Conference Signals That Saudi Kingdom Is Preparing For Stormy Future

  • Roman Kupchinsky

Saudi security troops preparing for this year's hajj, which went off without any major violence By most media accounts, the Riyadh conference on counterterrorism on 5-8 February was a qualified success. The conference brought together representatives from more than 50 Arab, Asian, and European countries, excluding Israel, which was not invited.

The conference concluded with a call to establish a global antiterrorism organization, a proposal criticized by some delegates as having little practical use. Delegates also agreed on a list of recommended security measures to battle terrorism around the world. Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal said on 7 February the recommendations included using money seized from terrorist groups to compensate the victims of terrorist attacks.

Crown Prince Abdullah also warned that combating terrorism means fighting arms smuggling, drugs smuggling, and money laundering.

Saudi Arabia's 'Irreversible Step'

The conference was held on the eve of Saudi municipal elections, the first such polls since the founding of the modern kingdom in 1932 and described by the Beirut "Daily Star" on 11 February as "an irreversible step." And despite the limitations of the vote -- women were allowed neither to run for office nor to vote, and half of the seats are filled by appointment -- most commentators still regarded it as a minor revolution in the country and, as such, a possible target for a terrorist attack.

The initial voting took place peacefully, but Saudi security forces are fearful terrorists might strike in an effort to derail future polls. Second-round elections, covering the eastern provinces and the southwest, are scheduled for 3 March, while a third round in Mecca and Medina in the west is set for 21 April. Such attacks could discourage other regimes in the region who might be considering reforms in order to keep pace with such regional democracy-building events as elections in Iraq and in the Palestinian Authority.

The conference signaled that Saudi Arabia and its often-criticized leaders are preparing for what might well be a stormy future. It was also intended to show the world that the homeland of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is now squarely set against not only its infamous former citizen but all of his diverse followers as well. The construction conglomerate owned by the bin Laden family placed an advertisement in Saudi newspapers to coincide with the opening of the antiterrorism conference. "We strongly condemn all kinds of terror," it proclaimed.

The symbolic nature of the conference was also meant to dispel persisting doubts about the Saudi royal family's commitment to combating terrorism. Kevin Rosser, an analyst with the London-based Control Risks Group, told AP on 6 February, "When they speak about internal security, nobody believes them." Such opinions are widespread and have both irritated the royal family and pushed them into action.

The counterterrorism conference was held 21 months after militants attacked three Western residential compounds in Riyadh in May 2003, killing 23 people, including nine Americans. After those incidents, the kingdom embarked on a sustained counterterrorism drive, arresting some 600 people, including some of the top leaders of a group calling itself Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula that had claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud told the conference that more than 220 people, including more than 90 suspected militants, have been killed in terrorist incidents in Saudi Arabia over the past two years.

The Definition Of Terrorism

The Riyadh conference was not immune to the unresolved debate over how to define a terrorist. The question, needless to say, was not resolved at the forum and remains a divisive issue in the Middle East.

Iranian and Syrian representatives insisted that fighters combating an occupying army should not be labeled terrorists. The Saudi Islamic affairs minister was quoted by "The Jerusalem Post" on 7 February as stating his ministry had issued an edict condemning suicide bombings as acts of terrorism. "But he added that those fighting occupation were not terrorists," the paper reported.

These views were countered by the U.S. representative at the conference, Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend, who reiterated U.S. accusations that Iran and Syria are state sponsors of terrorism. But she praised what she called Saudi Arabia's increasingly effective response to terrorism. She said Al-Qaeda attacks in December targeting the Saudi Interior Ministry and the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah were fairly rudimentary and poorly planned.

The official U.S. position on what constitutes an act of terrorism is somewhat vague. According to a clarification to the "Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003" report, posted on the U.S. Department of State's official website (http://www.state.gov): "Most of the attacks that have occurred during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom [in Iraq] do not meet the long-standing U.S. definition of international terrorism because they were directed at combatants, that is, U.S. and coalition forces on duty. Attacks against noncombatants -- that is, civilians and military personnel who at the time of the incident were unarmed and/or not on duty -- are judged to be terrorist attacks."

How then does one classify the bombing of the "USS Cole," the U.S. destroyer crippled in October 2000 in the port of Yemen by two men in a small boat loaded with explosives? That attack killed 17 U.S. crewmembers. Was the crew on duty and armed at the time of the attack? Were the attackers "terrorists"?

Apparently, some in the U.S. government define the "USS Cole" incident as a terrorist attack. Kurtis Cooper, a State Department spokesman, was quoted by "The Washington Post" on 30 September as saying, "The United States believes terrorists should be brought to justice for their crimes, and we are therefore pleased that the USS Cole bombers are facing the rule of law."

In the end, participants at the Riyadh conference agreed to disagree about who is and who isn't a terrorist, and left the definitive answer for another day.

Preparing For The Future

As has already been noted, the Saudi royal family seems to be preparing the kingdom for dramatic changes. Long-term stability is the name of the game for the present Saudi monarchy and its inheritors. Without security for its oil fields and those who work there, the kingdom could come crashing down. Such a crash could threaten globalization and create chaos in the economies of the developed and developing world.

Higher oil prices do not necessarily buy security, a fact of which the Saudis seem painfully aware. Security in the Middle East is intrinsically linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which presented the organizers of the counterterrorism conference with a difficult decision.

Had Israel been invited to participate, the conference might not have taken place at all, or with only limited representation by key states. Without the Israelis, participation in the conference was broader but lacked the regional consensus needed to adequately prepare for future dangers.

The Saudis chose the path of least resistance by refusing to invite Israel. Ironically, while the conference was in session, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and newly elected Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas held a historic meeting to redefine the path to peace.

If their efforts succeed, a significant victory will have been won in the war against terrorism, and a major beneficiary will be none other than Saudi Arabia.
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