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Saudi Arabia: Attacks Suggest Change In Al-Qaeda Strategy

  • Andrew Tully

There have been no terrorist attacks in the United States since 11 September 2001. But attacks attributed to Al-Qaeda have been mounted elsewhere, notably in Kenya, Indonesia, and, more recently, in Saudi Arabia. This raises the question of whether the terror network may have shifted its focus from the U.S. and, perhaps, made the Saudis their primary victims.

Washington, 11 November 2003 (RFE/RL) � A Lebanese woman, hospitalized with injuries suffered in this weekend's terrorist attack in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, expressed bewilderment on 9 November about the attack's target, a residential complex that housed mostly foreign Muslims.

"There are foreigners [among the residents], but three-quarters of them are Arabs," she said. "And three-quarters of those Arabs are Lebanese. I really don't understand the purpose of this strike or what [the attackers] want. This is not an issue of foreigners. This is only a strike to inflict harm."

Whatever the motive, the Saudi government is blaming the 8 November attack and the deaths of at least 17 people on Al-Qaeda. The terrorist network also is widely believed to be responsible for the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, the Bali bombing in October 2002, and the May attacks on Riyadh housing complexes where several Americans and Britons lived.

But the site of the most recent explosion is baffling not only to its victims. It also is a puzzle to Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington.

Brown tells RFE/RL that Al-Qaeda is not known for claims of responsibility, even for its boldest strikes against the United States. He believes some sort of avowal is necessary to explain the meaning of the attack.

"I think we're going to have to wait until we get some kind of statement [before] we understand exactly what the thinking is behind this. It just makes no sense to me. [Al-Qaeda is] a group that's hard to figure out, but this one's almost impossible," he said.

Still, Brown says, if Al-Qaeda is responsible for the attack, it may be a sign the group is shifting its strategy. He notes that originally, Al-Qaeda's goal was to overthrow governments that it saw as insufficiently Islamic and that cooperated with the West, particularly the United States. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden made no secret of the fact that he wanted to overthrow the Saud dynasty, which is widely perceived as subservient to the U.S.

But nearly a decade ago, Brown says, Al-Qaeda decided that its best target was not the governments of predominantly Muslim nations, but the United States, for helping to corrupt those governments. And it objected vehemently to the presence of U.S. forces -- which included Christians and Jews -- in Saudi Arabia, which the group considers holy Muslim soil.

"[Al-Qaeda's] target has been, since the mid- to late '90s, the United States and not their own government," Brown said. "And the most recent attack targets not the Saudi government but Saudi citizens and others who are in Saudi Arabia from Muslim countries. And if this is an Al-Qaeda attack, it's not simply a departure, but a shocking departure."

To Richard Armitage, the deputy U.S. secretary of state, the point of the bombing is clear: to help destabilize the Saudi leadership with an eye toward eventually overthrowing the Saudi royal family. Armitage said as much yesterday during a news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher in Cairo: "It is quite clear to me that Al-Qaeda wants to take down the royal family and the government of Saudi Arabia."

That reasoning makes sense to Judith Kipper, the director of Middle East studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, a private-policy research center based in New York and Washington. Kipper tells RFE/RL that for all of Al-Qaeda's anti-American rhetoric and its devastating attacks on U.S. targets, the group's primary enemy has always been the Saudi leadership.

Kipper also notes that as of three months ago, there have been no U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. The troop presence had been a key Al-Qaeda grievance. The American forces were there since the first Gulf War of 1991 helping to enforce the no-fly zone imposed on Iraq by the United Nations.

The need for no-fly zones ended in April when U.S.-led forces deposed Saddam Hussein, and the last American troops departed from Saudi Arabia at the end of August. For that reason, Kipper says, Al-Qaeda's quarrel with the United States may have been eased somewhat.

"The original target of Al-Qaeda has always been the Saudi royal family, and one of their main grievances was American troops on Saudi territory," she said. "Those have now been removed, but quite clearly they have other grievances."

Kipper also says there may be more attacks in Saudi Arabia than in the United States simply because Saudi Arabia is an easier target: "Saudi targets are probably easier to reach than American targets because Al-Qaeda has been very much diminished over the last two years. And this may be evidence that in fact we have achieved some success in breaking the back of Al-Qaeda."

Of course, the motive for the 8 November attack in Riyadh -- and the targeting of innocent victims -- may simply have been part of the oldest tactic in the history of terrorism: to foster fear and make the government appear incapable of protecting its citizens and visitors. And that raises the question whether Saudi security services are up to the job.

Brown, of George Washington University, says that until now, the Saudi government has faced only limited internal opposition, usually in the form of an outspoken imam. He says Saudi security services have handled such cases quickly.

But now, Brown says, the Saudi government -- and the Saudi royal family -- appears to be confronting a well-organized, well-armed underground movement whose message appears to have some broader resonance in Saudi society.

"[Saudi security services] really haven't had to face this before," he said. "And if the leaders [of the opposition] aren't visible, if the leaders are underground, if the opposition can't be placated, [Saudi officials are] going to have to go and develop a new set of tools. And my guess is, based on their record, they may not be gentle tools."

Brown says the brutality of the attacks in May and this weekend may have persuaded Saudis not to object if their security forces respond equally brutally.

Kipper adds that Saudi Arabia's domestic-security infrastructure is well trained and motivated, and that it is quick to recognize when it needs outside help.

"The Saudis have extremely good security services, intelligence and the National Guard -- certainly [they] are capable of handling it," he said. "And the Saudis have also been quite forward in the sense of reaching out and getting help where they need it -- expertise, equipment, and so on."

Ultimately, Kipper says, she believes Al-Qaeda will fail in its goal to topple the Saudi royal family. Particularly after the Riyadh bombing in May, she says, the country's leaders have recognized the need to be responsive to popular will, and have begun needed reforms -- including plans for elections covering some municipal positions.

Kipper acknowledges that all the reforms in Saudi Arabia will not be in place immediately. But she says the country's royal family now recognizes that they must be implemented before long.
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