Al Qaeda Takes Root in Key Tribes

Saudi royal authorities were forced at last to climb down from their high horse of haughty denial and tell the world that the most reviled terrorist group on earth, Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, had robust roots in the tribes that form the kingdom’s indigenous backbone. The threat to the throne jerked them out of their secretive mold – adhered to even after the 9/11 disasters – and drove them into committing the unthinkable act of publishing on December 7 – in the media, no less – the faces and names of 26 most wanted terrorists. Even more incredibly, a reward scale was posted for any person helping to apprehend the miscreants and prevent further terror attacks like the suicide assaults on Riyadh residential compounds, which drew dangerously close to the palaces.

A $267,000 bounty was placed on the head of every terrorist. A cool $1.3 million is on offer to anyone turning in more than one fugitive. Prevention of a terrorist attack carries the top prize of $1.9 million.

Information emanating from official Saudi sources on the 26 wanted men often tends to be contradictory, whether to lay false trails or evidence of genuine confusion. Sources close to Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef, the royal in charge of internal security, insist they have little personal information on the suspects. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts have gathered in-depth profiles of most, with the help of experts linked to a Middle East intelligence agency.

Al MakkrenAl Qaeda’s No. 1 in Saudi Arabia

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, the ringleader of the Saudi networks is Abu Hajar Abdul Aziz al-Makkren. An activist in the radical Muslim movement since the age of 17, this 35-year old Riyadhi was recruited and trained by Al Qaeda back in 1985 and has since amassed a wealth of experience in terrorist attacks in both open and built-up areas. For years, he traveled back and forth between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, visiting the bin Laden family’s ancestral Yemeni tribes. He cut his teeth on the famous Blackhawk Down battle of October 10, 1993 on the mean streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Beleaguered US special forces, Delta Force and Ranger contingents believed at the time they were fighting militiamen loyal to Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aideed. The combatants were actually members of Al Qaeda.

From Somalia, Makkren traveled via East and North Africa to Spain, where he smuggled purchased or stolen weapons to Muslim movements fighting in Algeria. In 1994, he moved to Zagreb to fight with an Al Qaeda brigade in the Bosnian conflict. Part of that brigade was equipped and trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards intelligence officers with whom al Qaeda was already cooperating.

Three years later, Makkren was in Afghanistan, an instructor in an Al Qaeda training camp.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington and the US invasion of Afghanistan in October that year, he took part in battles around the city of Khost. Makkren later fled to Pakistan and eventually reached Saudi Arabia. Last June, he took over from Youssef Abiri, who was killed in a battle with Saudi forces in Mecca, as Al Qaeda’s Saudi commander.

Al-Majati – Al Qaeda’s No.1 recruiter

Until a few weeks ago, Karim al-Majati, one of the 26, was Al Qaeda’s main liaison officer in Morocco. He has proved an exceptionally versatile terror executive. Known by his nom de guerre “Abu Elias”, the 30-year-old is married to a woman with US citizenship. His mother, a Frenchwoman, runs a cosmetics business in Saudi Arabia, which is 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.

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.

Youssef Fikri, leader of the fanatical Moroccan Salafia Jihadia group and Majati’s top lieutenant, does not figure on the wanted list. He is already in a Moroccan prison and faces trial proceedings as a self-confessed murderer whose specialty is Jewish targets. From prison, he is believed to have aided Majati in setting up the Casablanca bombings.

Strong tribal core

Ten of the 26 people on Saudi Arabia’s most-wanted list hail from nine different Saudi tribes. Thirteen are city-dwellers from al-Qasim in Nejd province, Riyadh in the center of the country, Mecca and Medina in the Hijaz and Jizan in the south. The remaining three are foreign nationals. The suspects’ disparate city and tribal origins belie the Saudi officials’ steady insistence that most Al Qaeda operatives and backing centers on the Assir province bordering Yemen in the south.

In fact, several belong to the central tribes of the Hijaz. For instance, the Harb tribe, which inhabits lands near Medina and Mecca; the Utaiba tribe whose lands lie between Mecca and Riyadh; the Zahran tribe which controls part of the al-Baha district, south of the district of Mecca. Some come of tribal groups living in the oil-rich Eastern Provinces. Ghamid tribesmen, also from the al-Baha district, have surfaced in terrorist operations.

Analysis of the wanted men’s identities brings out three outstanding features:

  1. Al Qaeda and its support base have swelled and seeped through the Saudi kingdom in the two years since 9/11. Fourteen of the 19 suicide-hijackers were found then to have hailed from Assir. Saudi and US counter-terrorist accordingly focused their pursuit on that region where heavy al Qaeda concentrations were thought to be found. The main thrust of these operations in the past now appears to have been much too narrow. Osama bin Laden’s network has spread far and wide and penetrated Saudi society more deeply than admitted.

  2. Quite amazingly, members of the same fundamentalist Wahhabi Utaiba tribe that led the November 21, 1979 revolt in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, have joined al Qaeda as combatants. Their insurrection 24 years ago against the Westernization of Saudi society and government corruption was crushed and Utaibi insurgents put to death – but not before they seized the Grand Mosque and Black Stone and brought the House of Saud close to collapse by their claim that the ulema, the clerical establishment and the throne it supported were spiritually bankrupt and not fit for the authority of determining which Muslims were heretics. This power is paramount in the eyes of fundamentalists. So fierce was their uprising that it defied the combined efforts of the Saudi Army and the National Guard for two weeks.

  3. Al Qaeda’s new Saudi networks, by declaring war on foreign infidels – Christians, Jews and other non-believers – have for the first time brought together two Sunni Islamic schools of fundamentalism, those fighting what they regard as the taint of heresy in the kingdom and those dedicated to war against unbelievers at large. Organizations that once scorned Bin Laden’s venture have now come in under his umbrella, providing him with a far broader entree that once conceived into different parts of the kingdom. Domestic Islamic radicals have for the first time gained the operational ability to wage a war of terror against the perceived foes of their faith.

A case in point is the participation of Abdel Majid Manie of the Utaiba tribe, whose name appears on Riyadh’s most wanted terrorists list. Manie’s tribe is dedicated to combating what it regards as the root of evil in the kingdom, deviation from the austere precepts of state Wahhabism, the rationale of the 1979 Mecca Uprising. His kinsman Jamiyan al-Utaibi led the revolt, his father is a blind cleric much venerated by the tribe which faithfully obeys his fatwas.

Al Qaeda’s threat to the Saudi throne is seriously aggravated by its strong religious bond with the Utaibi fundamentalists.

A large number of terrorists graduated from a university called Imam Mahmood bin Saud, whose center is in Riyadh with branches in Buraida, capital of Qasim district, in Jeddah and smaller cities in the Hijaz and Jizan provinces. Of the four Islamic universities in the kingdom, this is the largest and appears to be the main reservoir for al Qaeda recruits and supporters.


Although they are townsmen, one particular group chooses to live in small remote towns, far from the large urban centers of heresy. This tendency of Islamic radicals is not new to Islam or to Saudi Arabia. Muhammad and Islamic reformers who came after him were wont to seclude themselves in isolated places to consolidate their positions and strengthen their faith. Al Qaeda may have adopted this practice for adherents seeking to prepare themselves spiritually in seclusion for the move into operational activity in the al Qaeda network. The families of some of the wanted men claim that one day their sons disappeared, some several years ago. They may have gone through this reclusive phase in remote locations preparatory to their integration in the terrorist network in the big towns.

After Integration

Ten men on the wanted list who are not identified as tribesmen lived in four cities – three in the Hijazi towns of Mecca, Medina and Jizan; one in Buraida, the capital of the Qasim district north of Riyadh. The last is known for piety and conservatism and is the source of many groups in opposition to the throne and the national religious hierarchy.

The large number of Hijazis among al Qaeda activists can be attributed in part to the government bureaucracy’s preferential policies from the early 1980s towards the Najd, where King Fahd and his Sudairi brothers endeavored to build their power base, to the detriment of the Hijaz. This discrimination sowed a sense of injustice in the Hijaz and a harking back to symbols of the past, such as the bygone Hashemites and the old non-Wahhabi Sunni schools like the Maliki and the Shafi’l as expressions of opposition to the Saudi throne. Osama bin Laden found the Hijaz to be a fruitful source of recruits to his flag.

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