Just a few hours after Al Qaeda struck terror in the Saudi capital of Riyadh with its most lethal multiple suicide attack since 9/11, US vice president Dick Cheney issued a tough statement:
“The only way to deal with this threat ultimately is to destroy it,” he said. “There’s no treaty that can solve this problem. There’s no peace agreement, no policy of containment, of deterrence, that works to deal with this threat. We have to go find the terrorists,” he thundered.
There was nothing new in this speech. It was a restatement of existing Bush administration guidelines in regard to the global war on terror. But it leaves an unanswered question. If that policy stands, why then was it not implemented to prevent the devastating assaults of Monday, May 12, on the elite gated compounds inhabited mostly by foreign nationals and their families?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terrorism experts are informed that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, orchestrated the attacks. Their objective was to erase America’s psychological and strategic gains from its lightning war in Iraq in order to refocus international attention on al Qaeda and its enduring threat to wield the weapon of terror. According to our sources, the two terror chiefs are currently in the Arabian Peninsula. Accompanied by their senior operational lieutenants, they are constantly on the move, cutting paths from the Assir province of southern Saudi Arabia through to Yemen and the vast Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter) desert which thrusts fingers into the Saudi oil-rich Eastern Provinces and into most Gulf states.
The scholarly treatises hailing al Qaeda’s demise – and its broken chain of command – on the grounds that the network omitted to bring off a single strike to impede the Iraq War – were abruptly proven premature by the shocks rocking Riyadh this week. By that assault, the two strategists of terror sent Washington the same message they conveyed in Tora Bora at the tail end of the Afghan War. They fought ferociously in November and December 2001 in the daunting cave complex to prove a military and psychological point, that the US-led alliance may have subdued Taleban-ruled Afghanistan but the war was not over. It was merely the opening stage that had ended – and on the fundamentalists’ terms. After all, Bin Laden and Zawahri remained in command of sufficient intelligence and logistic resources to elude an American siege.
(At the time, DEBKAfile revealed bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora between December 8 and 10 under cover of heavy battles, leaving a very small group of fighters as a diversionary force)
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources, bin Laden borrowed his own Tora Bora tactic this week in Riyadh. From a forward headquarters near the Saudi city of Juka in the Assir mountains, he and Zawahiri plotted the chain of events leading up to the Riyadh bombings. On May 4 or 5, the pair left this command post. Their departure came two days before the large-scale battle that erupted in the Saudi capital between Al Qaeda fighters and Saudi security forces.
According to exclusive information gathered by DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources, the two Al Qaeda leaders and a party of senior operations officers moved east, circling the town of Haruf and heading into the Najarn region, from which they crossed the desert into Yemen. They had nothing to fear along this route. Several hundred Al Qaeda fighters, mostly Saudis or Yemenis, control the Assir mountain region that stretches from the Juka suburbs to the outskirts of Ad-Darh. The Ghamid tribe which dominates the region provides the al Qaeda with protection, and keeps it well supplied with logistics, ammunitions and a messenger service.
About seven months ago, US special forces based in Djibouti carried out discreet counter-terror operations in the area, flying in directly or transiting the Yemeni frontier into Assir. Supported by the spy ship and helicopter carrier USS Mount Whitney and Predator drones, they ransacked the rugged, snow-covered terrain for al Qaeda hideouts and command quarters. Their success was limited, although they set up a base in the mountains and engaged the terrorist-fighters in several skirmishes.
Washington blamed Riyadh for chaining the operation down by undue secrecy. The US task force, under the counter-terror arm of US General Tommy Franks’s Central Command, was not allowed to fly in heavy bombers or launch large-scale assaults. The operation ended in stalemate. The withdrawal of American forces allowed Al Qaeda and its fighters, some of them local Saudi nationals, to operate unrestrained.
By mid-January 2003, as preparations for the Iraq War accelerated, US special forces were pulled out of Eritrea and Djibouti as well as Assir, leaving al Qaeda in full control. Neither the Saudi army nor its National Guard has since made the slightest effort to rein them in or keep the fundamentalists out of Saudi cities. They did nothing to stop the network’s commanders from moving back into the Assir mountains and assuming direct and active command of the teams of suicides and operatives assigned to the Riyadh bombings.