Al Qaeda Beats Path through US-Saudi-Yemen Shield
Since mid-2002, the United States has been working with Saudi Arabia and Yemen to put in place a counter-terror shield along the Yemeni-Saudi frontier in the southern Saudi provinces of Najran, Assir and Jizan, as well as inside Yemen itself. That shield was meant to bottle up Osama bin Laden’s concentrations in a corner of Arabia, where he enjoys the support of allied tribes, and then pick them off. It found itself at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources say that the permeability of vital sections of that defensive infrastructure tipped the United States into its highest state of security readiness since the 9/11 attacks, just in time to cast a dark pall over the end-of-year holidays.
It had suddenly become apparent that masses of al Qaeda men and weaponry were on the move, filtering through the American-Saudi-Yemen defenses and heading for jumping off points at international airports for their next terror offensive. Those defenses were misplaced, partly as a result of tendentious disinformation pumped out by the Yemeni ruler, Abdullah Salah, and out-dated intelligence on discarded al Qaeda tactics. (More in separate article on this page)
US Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge’s orange terror alert announcement on December 21 represented the biggest failure of the global war against al Qaeda since Osama bin Laden with family and top lieutenants fled to safety under cover of the end-of-2001 Tora Bora battles in Afghanistan. Then, Bin Laden and his henchmen were on the run; today, they are very much on the offensive. Here are some quick facts:
For four months, Al Qaeda has been immersed in the clandestine construction of a new fundamentalist terrorist army and a large arsenal of war materials at its Yemeni stronghold of Hadhramauth east of the capital of Sanaa. Outfitted with shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles and a vast array of weapons and explosives, the new recruits underwent training in anti-aviation attacks, aircraft hijacking and strikes in urban areas. The jury is still out on whether the arsenal was an old cache hidden for years or smuggled in recently from secret storage in the Gulf and Iran.
The mass movement towards departure points began, according to our sources, in the first week of December. The trained al Qaeda terrorists emerged from hiding places with Hadhramauthi tribes and made for the provincial towns of Sayun, Tarim, Al Qatan and Siban. From those wayside stations, they divided into two heads and slipped north and west towards the Saudi border along two dry riverbeds, Wadi Mahrat and Wadi Kidyut. (Click on map for routes)
Once inside southern Saudi Arabia, the terrorists carrying weapons and gear split up again. One branch headed north into the Najran provincial town of Kitaf and onto the town of Najran. The second group cut west through Jizan province, taking two routes to reach the big Red Sea port city of Jizan; one, via the towns of Sa’dah and Najad, the second through Abu Arish. Both Najran and Jizan have airports handling domestic and regional flights, including routes to the Middle East, Gulf and Africa.
Local liaison operatives waited at the staging points to lead the terrorists onto the next station, provide resting-places, transportation and funds for the next lap.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly went to press, our counter-terrorism sources learned of an eleventh hour US-Saudi intelligence coup.
On Wednesday, December 23, a joint operation uncovered a mainline al Qaeda rendezvous point. It was at a large computer store in the town of Abu Arish. The shop was raided and seven al Qaeda men arrested, among them the administrator of the two travel routes in Jizan province, as well as a clandestine printing press for manuals on bomb-making. The top route-man is under intensive interrogation to uncover every possible detail about the Jizan itinerary and the terrorists’ destinations.
Approaching overseas targets from Najran and Jizan
The ease with which the outbound al Qaeda terrorists were able to defeat monitoring, surveillance and security precautions at both airports is heavily underlined by four facts:
Incredibly, they were able to board passenger airplanes and fly out of the two important Saudi airports armed to the teeth with an arsenal that included anti-aircraft missiles and explosives. How they managed this is under urgent investigation together with a desperate attempt to establish their destinations.
Once again, the terrorists split up into two groups. One boarded flights to other Saudi cities, including Riyadh, Jeddah and Medina. A second took overseas flights. Investigators are checking to see if some of the passengers to Saudi destinations switched there to connecting flights and continued their journeys to Europe, the Far East or North America.
There are strong fears that some of bin Laden’s men may have traveled aboard unmarked aircraft, such as executive jets, waiting to pick them up and carry them to points unknown. Other terror operatives are thought to have departed Saudi Arabia by sea from ports along the Red Coast. According to one DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence source, large freighters may have been waiting for them off the shores of the strategic Farasan Archipelago ready to carry them through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean and Europe. Other sources report they made their way to ports in East Africa.
Al Qaeda somehow managed to hire or train pilots for the small civilian aircraft used to lift terrorists out of the oil kingdom without Western intelligence catching wind of the operation. Our sources do not rule out the possibility of pilots employed by large civilian airlines in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen or Pakistan -or Saudi air force aviators – being tempted to fly in the service of al Qaeda. This is still speculation – although al Qaeda operatives have been seen hobnobbing with Saudi military and civilian pilots in a bid to recruit them.