Proving that reports of his death were exaggerated, the al Qaeda leader, Saudi-born Osama bin Laden reached Saudi Arabia three weeks ago, shortly before the latest upsurge of international terrorist attacks against the French oil tanker Limburg and the shooting of American Marines in Kuwait.
This exclusive information has just reached DEBKA-Net-Weekly from its most credible intelligence and counter-intelligence sources.
They report two sightings of the elusive terrorist chief – both of them in the wildest, most inhospitable regions of southern Saudi Arabia. In the first, he was seen on horseback – the way he was often depicted in Afghanistan before the American 2001 invasion – in the 220,000- sq. m Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter of southern Arabia. This vast sand sea, the largest on the face of the earth, straddles Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Yemen and Oman. He was reported riding through the barren Shaybah lands of the nomadic Al Murrah tribe, about 100 m southwest of the Al Ghawar oil field. No signs of disability or ill health were on view.
The Al Murrah are renowned as first rate field scouts. They are also among the fiercest elements of the extremist Muslim Wahabi sect, Saudi Arabia’s state religion, and number some of Bin Laden’s most fervent followers. Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, who established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, found refuge with the Al Murrah in 1902. From there he mounted the assault that conquered a kingdom for the Sauds and the Wahabis. Aramco carried out thorough anthropological surveys of the tribe and paid out good money to hire its services. Without friends in the Al Murrah, this empty wasteland is impassable and uninhabitable.
The second bin Laden sighting took place in the Najran, a region lying across the frontier between the south Saudi province of Asir and north Yemen. This time, he was observed on Saudi Bani Yam Saudi tribal land, on the fringes of the Empty Quarter. The Bani Yam are close allies of the neighboring Yemeni tribes of the Hadhramauth, the Saudi-born terrorist’s ancestral homeland.
In the Najran, Bin Laden is not only within reach of his friends and kinsmen in the Yemen, but in a position to control and deploy the 700 al Qaeda fighters who escaped Afghanistan at the end of 2001 and early 2002 and set up base in the Asir province.
(This new al Qaeda base in southern Saudi Arabia was first revealed in the last DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 80.)
Al Qaeda fugitives from the Afghan War have settled at strategic points in the Gulf and Middle East Region, a fighting legion of close to 2,000 battle-seasoned zealots, ready and waiting for orders. Intelligence estimates reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly place around 1,000 fighting men inside Saudi Arabia, most concentrated in the Asir, the rest scattered round the kingdom; 300-400 in Yemen; 150 in the south Lebanese Palestinian refugee camp at Ein Hilwa; 300 in Mashhad, northern Iran; and 150 in the north Iraqi Kurdish districts of Bayara and Tawalla, where Iraqi instructors trained al Qaeda operatives in chemical warfare earlier this year.
With Companions and Family
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources are also certain that Bin Laden has arrived with his close companions – his Number Two and chief of operations, the Egyptian Ayman Zuwahri, the hard core of the Islamic terror group’s command, his close family and his bodyguard. The size of this party informs those sources that the al Qaeda leaders believe they have found a safe hideout, situated in the Rimar Ar Rakabh (Rider’s Dunes), deep inside the Empty Quarter. The gravel dunes typical of this patch of desert rise to heights of 240 to 600 ft between the 20th and 21st latitudes, creating narrow crevasses with wadis at the bottom, a natural fortress through which men can move freely without disturbing the surface of the desert. The area is too desolate to support human habitation. Only the Al Murrah know the way to the scarce waterholes and are believed to have laid in supply stores of water and food in several locations for Bin Laden and party.
The terror chief’s re-appearance in Saudi Arabia brings to a close the debate and speculation over whether he is alive or dead, and his whereabouts if alive.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly alone reported on December 12 that Bin Laden and family had made good their escape from Tora Bora and reached Pakistan between December 6 -9 2001 and that Bin Laden was alive. No evidence to the contrary was ever forthcoming.
His presence in Saudi Arabia explains the easy flow and frequency of statements and messages reaching the Arabic satellite TV station al Jazeera and other media in the region this month from Bin Laden and his lieutenant. The first pre-taped message from Bin Laden was carried to al Jazeera in the first week of October by Saudi journalist Yousri Fudah. According to our Gulf intelligence sources, in the last week of September, Fudah received an invitation to visit Afghanistan from relatives close to al Qaeda, who promised him an interview with Bin Laden or at least an important taped message from him that would show he was alive. In Afghanistan, the Saudi journalist was handed a cassette-recording of a statement in Bin Laden’s voice. The key phrase translated literally was:
Osama ben Ladin is a quarter and he will appear a near and (the asleep cells) she will wake and the firebrands under the ash.
It now appears that the Fudah invitation was a ruse to lead US intelligence in the wrong direction. While the journalist was in Afghanistan, Bin Laden made his move to Saudi Arabia. The word “quarter” was taken by intelligence analysts to be an error or a mix-up in wording. In fact, Bin Laden in an apparently cryptic message threw out a precise hint to his whereabouts, a sort of morale-boosting clue to his followers, telling them he was alive and well and would soon have work for the sleeper cells.
Days after his landing in the Empty Quarter, al Qaeda was back in action in the Persian Gulf region.
Washington Checks out Sniper’s Terror Link
A theory is current among some Middle Eastern intelligence and terrorism experts, some in Israeli intelligence, claiming that the unidentified sniper – or sniper team – who murdered nine Americans and injured two in the Washington area are terrorists. The sniper’s mission would have been to immobilize American law enforcement and public attention to the exclusion of every other concern shortly after Bin Laden relocated. The sniper’s first attack occurred on October 2. He missed his target, a man standing in front of a Michaels craft store in the Aspen Hill area just north of Washington, shattering the store window.
On October 2, Yousir Fudah returned to Jeddah with the Bin Laden recording. Before he went to hand it in to al Jazeera, he notified the official Saudi newspaper Okaz of its content. To his surprise, they refused to publish.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, October 2 was exactly one week after Bin Laden landed in the kingdom.
There is no real evidence tying the sniper campaign to al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization. However, intelligence experts are finding it hard to believe that the killer in the Washington area is acting alone or that a private individual has the expertise to carry out so many murders without giving himself away. They postulate a group of snipers who take turns for shooting victims. Law enforcement investigators in Washington say that at this stage they cannot rule out the terror option. It was only a matter of time before al Qaeda detainees were questioned, as they were on Thursday, October 17.
New Headache for Bush
Bin Laden’s presence in Saudi Arabia confronts President George W. Bush with fresh complications as he plans the US campaign against Iraq. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s analysts enumerates some:
1. How does it affect Washington’s order of priorities? Should America reshuffle them, namely, start by stalking Bin Laden, Zuwahri and the top al Qaeda command, ahead of the Iraqi campaign? After all, they were the missed targets of the Afghan War whose long lost whereabouts are known at last. Or should the Bush team proceed with its current plan of action and keep Saddam Hussein’s overthrow at the top of its agenda?
If they were asked, the American people might well opt for closure of the Afghan War by nabbing Bin Laden. That course would also be endorsed by the critics, domestic and foreign, of the Bush-Cheney war plan for Iraq. European and Arab leaders would much prefer the Americans to chase after bin Laden than fight Iraq.
2. By turning up on Saudi soil, the fundamentalist super-terrorist throws Washington-Riyadh relations into fresh turmoil after a brief period of calm. Those relations settled down somewhat after Saudi crown prince Abdullah came round to understanding, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported, that refusing to play ball with the Bush administration over the Iraq offensive would land him personally as well as the kingdom in hot water, especially in view of the escalating Iraqi threat to Saudi oil fields.
(See separate item on how Saddam Hussein dabbles in terror)
But to target Bin Laden, the United States would have to obtain Saudi permission for American special forces to enter the kingdom and pursue their quarry. A favorable response to Washington’s request could produce a backlash that would shake the throne to its foundations. Most of the kingdom’s young – 70 percent of the Saudi population of 22.5 million are under 30 – admire bin Laden and identify with al Qaeda’s ideals, ideals that are in fact an extreme form of the strict and puritanical Wahabi tenets. Furthermore, Saudi ruling clerics, the Ulama, and the tribal leaders harboring bin Laden would never tolerate American forces landing on Saudi soil for hunting down the al Qaeda leader.
3. Ignoring the al Qaeda’s incendiary presence in Saudi Arabia – should Washington and Riyadh decide on this course – is a non-option. Our experts have no doubt that Bin Laden will gladly upset this tactic by forcing his presence into the limelight in public appearances. Indications that one is impending are contained in the latest of his and Zuwahri’s statements and messages. Once that Bin Laden is out in the open, Bush will have to take the bull by the horns and send American troops to Saudi Arabia to catch him, even if that means throwing relations with the Saudis to the winds.
4. The US president’s failure to act expeditiously will leave bin Laden free to strike from his Saudi base – both to step up his terrorist operations against other countries in the region and to try and topple the Saudi throne in fulfillment of a longstanding threat. The grandstand performances will be staged after every terror operation.
The most intriguing question is this: How did the Islamic terror master manage to slip into Saudi Arabia? What political and intelligence elements lent him a hand? The American and British maintain an extensive military intelligence presence in the Gulf region for the buildup to the war on Iraq. Without a helping hand from some governmental body or official, Bin Laden and his top staff could not have touched land undetected in any part of the Persian Gulf region, let alone reach Saudi Arabia.
Who is the intelligence entity that smoothed his way to circumventing the intricate system of pits and snares the Americans laid for him?