Accessibility links

Breaking News

Analysis: Saudi Security Versus 'Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula'

Osama bin Laden (file photo) An Arabic-language website broadcast on 17 December taped message purportedly from Osama bin Laden in which the Al-Qaeda leader commented on the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah.

In this, his latest proclamation, parts of which were transcribed by, bin Laden stated: "The necessity of security and safety, the sanctity of Muslims' blood, the necessity of harmony and union, and the dangers of conflicts and separation (division) have been discussed a great deal in Saudi Arabia.... They [the Saudi leadership] have claimed that the mujahedin are responsible for the continuing incidents in Saudi Arabia. But it is very clear that it is the government's responsibility as it has ignored all conditions required to ensure safety and prevent bloodshed."

Bin Laden was apparently referring to the 6 December attack in Jeddah in which five militants drove up to the U.S. Consulate and assaulted the building with small-arms fire and grenades, killing five Muslim members of the consulate's local staff. Saudi special forces moved in on the compound within hours, killing four of the terrorists. A group claiming ties to Al-Qaeda and calling itself the "Committee in the Arabian Peninsula" later took responsibility for the attack.

The attack did not come as a total surprise. According to newspaper reports, the U.S. Consulate has been the target of several drive-by shootings over the past year, but this was the first breach of the heavily guarded compound.

Subsequently, as is a routine after an attack, Western and Saudi security officials evaluate the effectiveness of Saudi security organizations and their ability to prevent further attacks on foreigners, including 35,000 Americans, living and working in the kingdom.

After a 29 May attack on a Western housing compound in the oil center of Khobar in which four Westerners were killed along with 15 Asian, non-Muslim workers, "Stratfor Commentary" wrote on 2 June that the "Saudi security and intelligence understaffed, spread too thin and, in some cases, unwilling to combat the militants."

This view contrasted with a report by "The Economist" of 4 June, which said that "since September 11th 2001, the Saudi authorities have made some headway against terrorism by making their long borders less porous, by controlling suspicious financial transactions, by protecting obvious targets, by purging school curricula of lessons inciting sectarian hatred, and by using the media to inflame opinion against the 'jihadis'. But their struggle ahead is long."

Saudi Security Prior To 9-11

A former intelligence analyst with the State and Defense departments who specialized in Middle East issues, Anthony Cordesman, described the state of Saudi Arabia's security system prior to the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States in a paper published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in June 2001 entitled "Saudi Internal Security Forces and Capabilities."

In Cordesman's view, Saudi security at the time reflected "a system of layered forces designed to protect the regime, as well as specialization around different military and internal security missions."

The paper showed that the Saudi monarchy relied heavily on loyal tribes in the National Guard who were separate from the Public Security, Special Security, and General Directorate of Investigation, which were under separate command. At the time, the Special Security and Public Security forces were responsible for antiterrorist operations.

The Coast Guard and the Frontier Force were under yet another command and the regular army, which provided external security, was separated from the other forces.

After 9-11 it became clear that this system was ineffective, cumbersome, and unable to cope with a serious terrorist threat.

The Aftermath Of The Khobar Attack

Major changes in the security forces -- along with a greater determination to fight terrorism -- were implemented in 2003, and this shake up resulted in the arrests of more than 300 suspected members of radical groups. In the course of the crackdown, police reportedly discovered bomb-making equipment along with cameras, computers, and electronic equipment belonging to suspected terrorists.

In October, Salih al-Awfi, the alleged leader of Al-Qaeda's organization in the kingdom, was shot and killed by police in October. His replacement, Saud al-Utaybi, was reputed to be a lower echelon member of Al-Qaeda who assumed leadership of the group after the depletion of leaders due to arrests and fatalities.

The fact that Al-Qaeda had to resort to a small-arms attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah and not make use of a car bomb or launch a rocket attack on the building could be an indication that the organizational structure has been severely weakened by the Saudi police. Five armed men attacking a heavily guarded installation can be regarded as an act of desperation, meant more to show the flag than do serious damage.

A message posted by Al-Qaeda's Committee in the Arabian Peninsula in which it claimed responsibility for the attack hints at such a scenario. "Know that the mujahedin are determined to continue on their path, and they will not be weakened by what has happened to them," quoted the message as saying.

In a study entitled "Deterrence and Influence in Counter-terrorism" by Paul K. Davis and Brian Michael Jenkins, published by the Rand Corporation in 2002, the authors point out that mission success is vital to the existence and operational capabilities of a terrorist group.

"A foot soldier may willingly give his life in a suicide mission, and organizations may be quite willing to sacrifice such pawns, but mission success is very important and leaders are in some ways risk-averse," the study reads. "Terrorists recognize that their power depends on perceptions of whether they are winning or losing; their leaders are deeply concerned with control; and martyrdom in a stymied mission lacks the appeal of dying in a spectacular, successful attack."

Saudi Arabia's Al-Qaeda unit is seemingly under pressure to perform but apparently is finding it more difficult to arm its fighters and is more willing to risk killing Muslims during attacks. This is sure to create a negative perception of the group as being desperate and its acts as counterproductive.

It is highly likely that bin Laden's latest message of support for the perpetrators of the consulate attack is meant to shore up Al-Qaeda's image despite growing evidence that effective security measures have marginalized it the eyes of Saudi society.