In the past two weeks, four terrorist attacks in as many places have put paid to any notion that the West has got Islamic fundamentalist terrorism on the run. Al Qaeda showed its paces in four of those places – Jeddah, Fallujah, Sinai and Amsterdam. These violent jihadists are proving again that no matter how badly they are disabled by crackdowns and counter-terror measures, they are capable of regrouping, activating their operational cells, enhancing training standards and catching the infidels unawares by learning from past mistakes.
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, interior minister with charge over domestic security in the kingdom, announced on November 11 that his forces had succeeded in “stripping the terrorists of all means of carrying out criminal acts”. Less than a month later, he was forced to eat his words when al Qaeda struck the US consulate in Jeddah. He discovered to his chagrin that he had merely cut off one of the hydra’s heads. The threat had not been eradicated. In fact, the lull he celebrated was illusory. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror experts, the terrorist cell made good use of the breathing space to reorganize for the purpose of pressing on with their campaign of death.
The Saudi prince was not the only one to jump the gun.
Several Israeli counter-terrorism experts and politicians boasted recently that Israel had substantially cut down the number of Palestinian terrorist attacks this year.
The slowdown in Palestinian suicidal terrorist action is real, excepting only the Gaza Strip. But Yasser Arafat‘s lingering illness and demise may have contributed as much to this improvement as tough Israeli countermeasures. For the moment, many terror networks have shut down. But our Palestinian sources maintain they are like their Saudi counterparts on time out for taking stock and regrouping operationally and financially. Once the shock of their leader’s death wears off and money and weapons are back on spate, they will return refreshed to their deadly pursuits and are likely to demonstrate improved and more lethal tactics. Like other terrorist groups, they use any respite to retrain, concoct better and bigger explosive devices and gather intelligence for their next missions.
In Jeddah, al Qaeda Outsmarted Security
The ease with which Al Qaeda’s gunmen penetrated the US consulate compound in Jeddah on Monday December 6 exposed a gap in US intelligence and anti-terror defenses in Saudi Arabia. It represented a fiasco for Saudi security forces and intelligence agencies.
Al Qaeda owed the success of its assault to a well-trained band, including suicide fighters, who were armed with accurate intelligence and aided by inside collaborators.
The fundamentalist terror group timed its first operation on classical military lines for the absence overseas of Prince Nayef. Its planners figured correctly that without his commanding presence and firm hand, Saudi security forces’ responses would be slow and indecisive.
American and Saudi security units at one of the most heavily guarded US facilities in the kingdom were in fact caught napping. Saudi special operations units were dropped by helicopter at the consulate more than one hour, 20 minutes, after the attack began at 11.30 a.m. They would have arrived faster by road. But, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, Saudi and US top brass feared al Qaeda had set up ambush squads on the approach roads to waylay the commando units rushing to the rescue.
While some details are sketchy because of the blackout the Saudis have clamped down on the investigation, there is no concealing that this was one of al Qaeda’s most audacious daytime strikes. This is the picture gleaned by our sources:
The assailants reached the scene in three tightly-coordinated bands of between 8 and 12 men – all in Saudi army uniforms carrying standard issue Saudi weapons. They drove up in one or two explosives-packed vehicle – or vehicles – painted with Saudi military colors. This truck or convoy was waved unquestioningly through all three Saudi security checkpoints positioned on the road approaching the consulate. This alone has led the investigation to conclude that the assailants had inside help.
They then operated at speed with clockwork precision
The first group used a truck to drive directly to the gate on the eastern wall leading into the visa, immigration and public services department. They waited for the gate to open for a departing car and then burst in spraying automatic weapons fire and hurling hand grenades. The guards manning the watchtower at this gate fled before sounding the alarm, leaving the attackers in control.
At this point, the ongoing assault had still not registered with the Americans in the building and the Saudis outside the facility, despite the surveillance cameras at the watchtowers and gates. However, at that moment, the second group blew up the same truck – or a second vehicle – at the main gate. This was the signal for the third band to blow a big hole in the 17-foot high western perimeter wall with dozens of kilos of explosives and burst in to link up with the first group.
The large crater at the main gate prevented consulate staff for escaping; the blast distracted attention from the two groups of intruders.
Once through the perimeter walls, the terrorists appear to have known their way about well enough to shut down the consulate’s electronic surveillance systems, before storming the building.
Some got away, with inside help
By then, the American staff had been alerted and evacuated to vault-like security rooms sealed off by reinforced steel doors. With no chance of breaking through, the raiders climbed up to the consulate’s roof, where they lowered the American flag and burned it. There were no armed guards to stop them as they went through the building, room by room, collecting documents – some of them top secret, before setting the offices on fire. Only then did the Saudi helicopters carrying the commandos appear overhead, albeit high up and out of range of possible ground fire.
At least one feature of the Jeddah consulate assault plan recalls al Qaeda’s modus operandi in its May 29 strike against foreign oil company offices in Khobar. Then, when Saudi commando helicopters put down on the roofs of captured buildings, the terrorists cut off the heads of eight or nine non-Muslim hostages they had seized. They then made off ahead of capture.
In Jeddah, the terrorists simply shot dead in cold blood eight of the people waiting in line for US visas – and ran. The bodies of three attackers were later found in the compound, two more were injured and taken alive. One died later.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources challenge the official estimate of five assailants for this precisely-plotted operation. It glosses over the escape of four or five terrorists and leaves unanswered the question of how they escaped safely through the cordon of some 200 Saudi police and security officers surrounding the building. Once again, inside connivance with al Qaeda is indicated.
Two questions stand out of the most cursory examination of the Jeddah raid:
1. Who passed to the attackers sensitive data on the locations of the mission’s security and surveillance equipment and the vulnerable gaps in its security system? Aside from the “safe rooms” that saved the lives of the American personnel, al Qaeda had been briefed on the exact points of the building’s electronic control centers and the keys to disarming them. Security experts fear that in their next raid of a US diplomatic facility, al Qaeda will be in possession additionally of the codes for penetrating the terrorist-proof “Americans-only” shelters inside the building.
2. How was an armed “military” convoy able to move unchallenged through Jeddah’s downtown business district – Saudi Arabia’s economic heartland — at a particularly tense time when the kingdom’s security and intelligence services are on high alert?