Wednesday, May 28, the Saudi authorities claimed to have captured five suspects involved in al Qaeda’s May 12 suicide bombings against three gated housing compounds in Riyadh. They were reported detained at an Internet cafe in the city of Medina. One of those arrested was identified as Ali Abd al Rahman al Ghamdi, suspected mastermind of the assaults and a leading al Qaeda light.
On Thursday, May 20, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef, announced the arrest of another 11 Islamic militants suspected of being members of al Qaeda and of complicity in the recent terrorist acts in Riyadh. The wording was deliberate. He was talking about two groups of detainees. In fact, the minister went on to say that among them were three ulemas (clerics) who called for jihad against the United States and also foreign women whom they called their wives. They were not accused of the Riyadh bombings. He named the clerics as Ali al-Khudair, Ahmad al-Khalidi and Nasser al-Fahd.
This differentiation points to two parallel Saudi operations: One to catch the accomplices of the Riyadh suicides, the second, the beginning of the crackdown ordered by Crown Prince Abdullah (as revealed in last week’s DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 110, May 23) on agitation fomented in the mosques by radical preachers.
It turns out that the second round of arrests caught al Qaeda on the raw. Radical Islamic sources claimed that two of the three clerics were not captured but killed (martyred) – which Nayef denied – and that they were two of Osama bin Laden’s top commanders. As a result, according to a spate of messages picked up from al Qaeda’s e-mail and Internet forums on Wednesday, a local al Qaeda agent brought the ill tidings to bin Laden in person in a direct cell phone call.
This is the first instance recorded of a subordinate reaching al Qaeda’s leader directly by telephone.
An exceptionally intense burst of electronic chatter erupted immediately after the phone call as bin Laden summoned his top executives to a crisis conference. The messages did not betray the meeting’s venue or bin Laden’s location when he took the call.
But after the conference, the level of electronic traffic remained exceptionally high. For the first time, al Qaeda published a statement from a leadership gathering, a second step out of character that went to show how badly the network’s leaders were shaken and how sorely they were affected by the two episodes.
Both departures also point to bin Laden’s accessibility to his men in the Saudi arena, indicating his presence somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula or not far away.
The communique said: “If it is specifically confirmed that… Ali al-Khudair was martyred then our response against the al Saud family will be as great as the Sheikh is to us.”
Al Qaeda has often in the past threatened to strike American and other foreign targets in the kingdom as well as joint Saudi-American enterprises. It also routinely denounces the Saudi regime. But this was the first time the organization declared a vendetta against the princes of the House of Saud.
Second blow to al Qaeda
Al Qaeda also sustained damage as a result of the May 16 Casablanca bombing attack that left 43 people dead five days after the Riyadh assaults. Wednesday, the Moroccan authorities announced that one of its planners was found dead in his detention cell. The official announcement gave heart and liver disease as the cause of death. This diagnosis is unlikely to wash with Al Qaeda who will take it for granted that their man was tortured to death under interrogation.
The Islamic terrorist organization suffered two grave reverses in one week in particularly painful circumstances; both occurred in Islamic countries where al Qaeda counts on strong local power bases and agents of influence buried in high places.
Its greatest loss, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources, was Khudeir, who was killed in Medina. A 47-year old Saudi, he was the head of a radical Wahhabi group associated with al Qaeda called Al Muwahidum – “Those who sanctify the one and only God”. In recent years, he was based in northern Iraq, operating out of the enclave commanded by the radical Kurdish Ansar al-Islam, an al Qaeda ally that American forces smashed during their invasion of Iraq. Khudeir got away in time. Shortly before the Iraq War, he returned to Saudi Arabia and became operational.
Thursday, May 29, the fundamentalist Islamic forums were still chattering at top speed, creating a strong impression that Osama bin Laden and his legion of terrorists, enraged by their treatment at the hands of two Arab kingdoms, are in hectic preparation for something big and bad.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources note that while the Saudi investigation into the Riyadh bombings faces endless obstacles, the Moroccan probe into the al Qaeda attack in Casablanca has run into a blind alley. The network’s attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 and the Mombasa raids in 2002 left forensic evidence that helped trace the perpetrators. However, not a single clue was found in Casablanca, as though the bombers had erased every last trace of their presence at the crime scenes.
Moreover, signals emanating from al Qaeda sources in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, East Lebanon, West and North Africa indicate intensive preparations for a series of strikes inside the United States, to be executed any time up until the presidential election in November 2004. The organization is in an advanced stage of planning to infiltrate a large number of terror cells into the United States. They expect some will be caught, their capture even held up by the Bush campaign team as proof of how well the global war on terror is succeeding, and some may break up. However al Qaeda’s operational chiefs calculate that no more than one or two cells need to survive and penetrate United States anti-terror defenses in order to carry out a major attack. However many strikes the Americans successfully prevent, President Bush’s chances of re-election could suffer a mortal blow from a single terrorist attack on the scale of September 11, 2001