Saudi security forces were understandably carried away by their triumphant three-day battle this week with al Qaeda gunmen in the posh Jawazat neighborhood of al-Rass, 190 miles north of Riyadh. They boasted having wiped out the entire top level of the organization’s Saudi command in a region known as a stronghold of Islamic fundamentalists.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources confirm that the damage inflicted on al Qaeda’s organization was considerable: Saudi security forces and the group barricaded in a villa exchanged fierce fire in possibly the longest and bloodiest battle in their two-year offensive against al Qaeda. At least 14 terrorists were killed and prisoners taken, including some of the cell’s key figures. An important command base was smashed.
But still two or three top leaders are on the loose, the objects of massive dragnets across the kingdom.
Our exclusive sources report that top men Talib Saud Talib and senior Saudi ideologue Abdullah Rashood escaped. The fate of chief commander Saleh al Oufi is not known. Saudi officials have warned his Jizab tribe in the southern Asir province not to give him sanctuary if he is on the run. They have also taken DNA samples from his family to check through the bodies and find out if he is among the dead.
The Battle of al-Rass was a full-scale operation undertaken by three Saudi brigades of special army forces. The entire town was cordoned off and the district where the battle took place evacuated. Its 15,000 residents only began returning home late Thursday, April 7.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, on the second day of the battle, April 4, Saudi commanders realized they were not making headway against al Qaeda’s firepower. They sent messengers over to the enemy to propose a ceasefire to allow the two sides to evacuate their dead and wounded. Al Qaeda unit agreed and the battle zone fell silent. But soon after, when the terrorists spotted Saudi troops assembled for a briefing near one of the villas, they broke the truce and trained heavy gunfire and grenades on the soldiers, inflicting heavy casualties.
The al-Ras battle claimed more than 100 casualties among Saudi security forces. Initial reports of fatalities were vehemently denied. The government had no wish to admit to losses. But among the critically wounded was General Ali Bin Dakail al-Rahili, commander of Saudi Arabia’s special forces, who is not expected to live.
Trail to Sudan and extraditions
Saudi helicopters were then brought in. They pounded the villas in which the terrorists were holed up with missiles, setting them ablaze. The carnage on both sides was terrible. That was when several uninjured al Qaeda fighters managed to escape through sewers and melt into the surrounding desert including the men now sought.
Two leading lights of al Qaeda’s operation in Saudi Arabia are known for certain to have died in the Battle of al-Rass. They were identified as Saud al-Oteibi and Abdulkarim al-Majati. Oteibi was a senior lieutenant of Oufi and Rashood. He was also responsible for the organization’s “publications”, its Internet site and the dispatch of coded messages on the World Wide Web.
Majati, a Moroccan, was an important al Qaeda officer in North Africa and Europe, about whom more below.
Some of Al Qaeda’s top men were seriously wounded and taken to the capital for hospital treatment and interrogation, among them Saleh al-Samsan and Hamad al-Humidi, two senior operational officers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals here that al-Humidi, though badly hurt, was interrogated and gave Saudi security sources valuable information. The first was the address in Riyadh of two houses linked by underground passage that served as an al Qaeda facility. As the smoke cleared in al-Rass, on Wednesday April 6, Saudi forces descended on the address, a gun battle ensued and another senior al Qaeda figure, Abdulrahman al-Yazji, died. The underground passage was found to contain a supply of passports from different countries.
Al-Humidi also gave away the whereabouts of six key al Qaeda Saudi operatives in Sudan. Wednesday night, Riyadh demanded their extradition. Thursday, the six wanted men were on a Saudi special military plane on their way home from Khartoum.
But this coup is not thought to have rolled up the entire al Qaeda network in Sudan.
On July 30, 2004, DEBKA-Net-Weekly described al-Oufi’s strategy of moving large groups of combatants over to East Africa, mainly Sudan, to escape Saudi intelligence surveillance and crackdowns. Our sources learned they were hidden in mountains near the Egyptian border. According to one theory, they may have been responsible for the October 2004 bombing attacks in Sinai. More Sudan-based al-Qaeda hits are feared inside Saudi Arabia in view of its easy access from Sudan across the Red Sea by small boats.
Al Qaeda ran base under the authorities’ nose
For more than a year, al Qaeda maintained its regional headquarters right under the noses of the kingdom’s security and intelligence services in the upscale part of al-Rass, very much in the Saudi royal family’s “home court”, as it were.
It was no low-key operation. Evidence from the scene and interrogations of captives revealed a three-villa complex containing a bustling command center and a storage area holding vast supplies of arms and ammunition. A small weapons factory worked day and night. Trucks must have been in and out constantly to transport the materiel and other provisions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources report that the base’s exposure was not the result of efficient intelligence by the authorities. The suspicions of a neighbor brought the hammer crashing down on Qaeda’s first operational venture outside Saudi Arabia’s main cities.
Nevertheless, the fact that a local resident was prepared to squeal on the fundamentalist terrorists was some indication of how far Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on terrorism has succeeded in gaining public confidence. Until recently, the ordinary Saudi preferred to shut up rather than report on terrorists to the authorities – whether out of fear, sympathy or lack of faith in the official counter-terror campaign. But the climate is changing. People are less fearful and more willing to lend a hand to the increasingly credible government offensive to eradicate the al Qaeda scourge.
So delighted was Crown Prince Abdullah with the outcome of the al-Rass operation that he sent a rare message of congratulations to interior minister Prince Nayef. The units who took part in the Battle of al-Rass are celebrating with promotions, decorations and money awards.
Al Qaeda loses a most versatile operative
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror experts kept track of Abdulkarim al-Majati’s exploits from mid-2003.
In issue 137 of December 12, 2003, we found him acting as Al Qaeda’s main liaison officer in Morocco. He proved an exceptionally versatile terror executive. Known by his nom de guerre “Abu Elias”, the 30-year-old was married to a woman with US citizenship. His mother, a Catholic Frenchwoman, runs a cosmetics business in Saudi Arabia, a convenient front for his “business trips” between the kingdom and Morocco. Majati it was who planted Al Qaeda operatives in Saudi palaces as royal servants – an operation uncovered in detail for the first time by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources in issue 135 on December 5.
Between the years 1997 and 2000, Al-Majati used the family business and his habit of travel as the front for his real employment as al Qaeda’s chief recruiter of Moroccan volunteers for training in the network’s camps in Afghanistan. He knew the men well enough to re-enlist them in 2002 and 2003 for Al Qaeda’s revived operation with allied groups in Morocco which contributed terrorist manpower to every important operation since then.
According to our sources, Majati was the mastermind of the five synchronized suicide attacks on Jewish and Spanish targets in Casablanca on May 16, which left 44, including 11 bombers, dead and more than 100 injured.
He was also behind the Riyadh bomb assaults four days earlier that killed 35 people, including nine assailants, in three housing compounds for foreigners in the Saudi capital. Both attacks were meant to betoken the peril in store for the Moroccan and Saudi royal families.
Majati also played a role in the March 2004 Madrid train explosions that killed 201 people. According to our counter-terrorism sources, a member of Majati’s cell, Hussein Hasaki, is also in Saudi custody. Hasaki was captured in Brussels last month and handed over by Belgian authorities.
But there is still no knowing for sure if the dwindling Saudi wanted list represents the organization’s real leaders in Saudi Arabia, or whether the top men still at large have created a new command structure to fill the gaps. It is feared in Riyadh that as soon as al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zuwahiri learn of their debacle at al-Rass and the extraditions from Sudan, they will order Saudi operatives in Iraq to unleash full-scale violence to prove they have not been vanquished.