From May 12, the House of Saudi has metamorphosed from an organism in danger of disintegrating under its own weight to a beleaguered unit bending its weight to the task of survival.
The Saudi princes have pulled their wagons round to a tight circle to face up to the menace of extremist Islamic terror spearheaded by al Qaeda – domestic and international – as well as a new peril revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi experts for the first time: the Hijazis of the east, who are showing early signs of separatist restiveness against the Saudi throne’s centralist rule from Riyadh. If allowed to evolve, this movement holds the potential of setting off a chain reaction in other provinces that could eventually fragment the kingdom.
Even the succession challenge posed to crown prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz by his Sudairi half-brothers is taking a back seat for the moment. They continue to grumble that he is taking advantage of the common peril to enhance his strength in the national guard, security forces and kingdom at large; but they also see that his roundups of zealotry-preaching imams and clerics is undercutting his traditional support in the Wahhabist religious establishment. The mouths that were not shut by al Qaeda’s brutal suicide attacks on elite Western housing compounds in Riyadh on May 12 – particularly after one of the three most prominent Sudairi princes Interior minister Nayef bin Abdelaziz was caught napping – fell silent when that same Nayef became the target of an al Qaeda assassination plot in Mecca in June, as revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly. By then, Nayef had remedied his earlier lapse and joined hands with Abdullah and the heads of the dynasty to crush the common enemy, al Qaeda, and attack its international links and alliances. Uncomfortably aware of Teheran’s relationship with al Qaeda, Riyadh was rocked back this week to discover a new hostile Islamic element thrusting into the kingdom on al Qaeda’s back, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
The Saudi are inordinately discreet in going about their diplomatic and security activities. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf, Middle East and intelligence sources have combined to uncover some of these actions and the perils they are meant to ward off.
Al Qaeda and the Iranian Connection
On Saturday, June 14, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal arrived in Tehran for talks with former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is close to the hard-line spiritual ruler Ali Khamenei. This proud Saudi turned up most unusually, cap in hand.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report Saud asked his host to accept on behalf of the Iranian government an urgent appeal from the Saudi royal house for assistance in its war against Al Qaeda.
The Saudis, like Washington, know of at least four high-ranking Al Qaeda operatives “detained” in Iran in a number of sumptuous official guest houses in Teheran and the holy city of Qom. One, Egyptian-born Saif al-Adel, Al Qaeda’s chief of operations and No.3 in its hierarchy, has been directly tied to the organization and execution of the massive terror attacks on three heavily guarded foreigners’ housing estates in Riyadh on May 12.
A second “detained” al Qaeda officer is Kuwaiti Sulaiman Abu Gaith. Generally known as Al Qaeda’s spokesman, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources name him in fact as the network’s senior financial manager with responsibility for directing the flow of its funds. Gaith has the names of the secret recipients of its allocations and the amounts disbursed for terrorist activities around the world – including Saudi Arabia.
Another senior al Qaeda officer living in the lap of Iranian luxury is the Jordanian-born Palestinian Abu Musab Zarqawi, an accomplice in the plot to hijack a Saudi airliner in Jeddah and crash it over a Saudi city a week after the triple Riyadh bombings and an organizer of the suicide attacks in Casablanca, Morocco on May 18. Known as an expert in bio-chemical warfare, he is still wanted in Jordan for his millennium bombing conspiracy against a chain of hotels in Amman. All the information piling up about Zarqawi reveals a new breed of Muslim terrorist – a freelance hireling. Once a ranking “combat commander” of al Qaeda, he is now believed to be an expert in the terrorist trade willing to hire out for ad hoc operations mounted by al Qaeda or any Islamic extremist group, an Islamic version of the Palestinian Abu Nidal, who collects his fee after carrying out his commission. Intelligence officials believe the Jordanian terror-master, while associated with most al Qaeda operations, is no longer entrusted with more information than he needs to know or access to the network’s inner workings.
Nonetheless, Zarqawi is important enough in the terrorist labyrinth to merit two mentions by President George W. Bush. In December 2001, the president spoke of a senior al Qaeda fugitive from Afghanistan who received medical treatment in Baghdad. On July 1 2003, Bush speaking in the East Room of the White House said: “We suspect that the remnants of a group tied to al Qaeda associate al Zarqawi are still in Iraq waiting for an opportunity to strike. We’re also beginning to see foreign fighters enter Iraq.” (US President’s first reference to the Syrian Arab fighters who have joined the anti-US resistance in Iraq, as first revealed in the last DEBKA-Net-Weekly.)
Osama bin Laden’s son Saad has also been traced to Iran. But his senior lieutenant Ayman Zawahiri may have passed through but our sources report is no longer there.
A very senior source familiar with the tactical moves playing out between the Saud regime and Al Qaeda, told DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “Although the Saudis have netted dozens of Al Qaeda operatives and tribesmen linked to radical Islamic organizations associated with Al Qaeda, they sense they are still groping in the dark. The arrests were by and large unplanned. Aside from the captures made in a shootout in Riyadh a few days before the triple attacks on May 12, none, including the latest round of arrests in Mecca last month, were the logical outcome of solid intelligence but only of accidental brushes with al Qaeda cells.
“The way those arrests were made is testimony to the Saudi security authorities’ ignorance of the currents swirling round its main cities and beneath the surface, rather than their knowledge,” said the source. The men captured were therefore mostly small fry with little operational information of importance to impart to interrogators.
For lack of their own resources, the Saudis turned to Teheran for help in eradicating the Al Qaeda scourge. Riyadh’s appeal, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Teheran and the Gulf, placed four powerful cards in Iranian hands:
A. It enabled the Islamic regime to pose, mainly through leaks to the Gulf media, as wholeheartedly cooperative with “friendly elements” by investigating the Al Qaeda operatives in its hands.
B. When taxed by Washington to extradite those operatives to the United States, Tehran could innocently claim to be extending a helping hand to the Saudis by questioning them.
Washington may be frustrated in its attempts to lay hands on these top terrorists but it is not fooled. US intelligence is onto Iran’s double game, aware that undercover agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards smuggled Adel’s men into Saudi Arabia via Iraq and Dubai prior to the Riyadh attacks. Their conditions of detention are also known to be far from stringent. Those terrorists enjoy lavish hospitality, their every creature comfort provided. The “detainees” may also avail themselves of vehicles with attendant bodyguards whenever they wish to take the air.
However, the Saudi foreign minister left Tehran empty-handed except for an eye-opener that left him in a state of shock. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-intelligence sources report that Rafsanjani, with typical guile, turned aside his guest’s questions, advising him that the Saudi authorities were looking for solutions in the wrong direction. Al Qaeda’s most dangerous networks, according to the Iranian official, were operating out of the Hijaz province on the western Saudi Red Sea coast – not in the south or the north. The networks functioning in the Hijaz, he said, came from Egypt – not Iran or the Gulf as the Saudis imagined.
This information touched an extremely sensitive Saudi nerve. Rafsanjani also hinted that Tehran knew all about American moves against al Qaeda and had updated itself on the progress of the Saudi campaign against the terrorists.
Al Qaeda’s Egyptian offshoot in Saudi Arabia
According to the exclusive data reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, Samir Taufik Shalbi, the terrorist picked up in the second large wave of arrests in Riyadh in late May, is the key to the clandestine Egyptian link in al Qaeda’s Saudi ring.
The circumstances of his arrest are mysterious. According to various versions he was caught by the Americans or he turned himself in at some unknown location only to be turned over to the Saudi authorities in the interests of improving US relations with Riyadh. The surprise was his identity. An Egyptian Copt from Port Said, he converted from the Christian faith to Islam, becoming like many converts a zealot. In Port Said, he joined a cell of the Egyptian Jamaa, a branch of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad with ties to Al Qaeda. Shalbi told his interrogators that Jamaa cells were sent in early 2002 to Saudi Arabia in the guise of imported Egyptian laborers. They were told to find work in the Hijaz cities of Mecca, Medina and Jeddah and await instructions.
Dozens of Jamaa sleeper cells, he revealed, were now scattered across the Hijaz, buried among the five million foreign workers in the kingdom and poised for action on orders from Al Qaeda. He provided a rundown of the methods used by the Jamaa sleeper cells and organization in Egypt to communicate with Al Qaeda. The Egyptian extremists easily evade detection because no Saudi security agency keeps close tabs on the foreign labor community.
The Saudis have now woken up to the possibility that if dozens of Egyptian sleeper terrorist cells can live and work in the country undetected, there may also be as many or more Pakistani, Indian Muslim, Indonesian or other al Qaeda units waiting in secret to burst into action.
In the last two weeks, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-intelligence sources report the Saudi authorities in an exhaustive effort to track those hidden cells. The Saudis and Yemenis have also launched a large-scale military operation to eradicate Al Qaeda concentrations on their border. Some 15,000 Saudi and Yemeni troops, backed by armor, warplanes and helicopters, are sweeping a stretch of badland ranging from the Red Sea in the west to the Empty Quarter desert in the east.
On Saturday, June 28, Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef visited combined operational headquarters in Sanaa to review progress and reach a decision with Yemeni leaders on whether to continue the offensive.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report meager resistance in the targeted regions. Local tribal chiefs sent emissaries to greet the Saudi and Yemeni commanders with offers to collaborate in return for a guarantee that their tribes and property will be immune from attack. They offered to hand over suspected terrorists against a pledge that they would not be interrogated under torture, handed to a third party, the United States, or executed.
Saudi crown prince Abdullah authorized Saudi commanders to accept those terms as applicable to Mohammed al-Ghamdi, Al Qaeda’s chief representative in the Ghamdi tribes who control the frontier territories of Assir and Najran. Mohammed al-Ghamdi is cousin to Ahmed al-Ghamdi and Hamza al-Ghamdi, two of the Saudi hijacker-pilots aboard the planes that slammed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
The biggest Saudi catch thus far is the suspected mastermind of the Riyadh May bombings, Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqa’si al-Ghamdi, who escorted by tribal chiefs surrendered to Prince Nayef in person on June 26. Known in al Qaeda by his nom de guerre Bassam Abu Bakr al Azdi, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources describe this tribesman as one of Osama Bin Laden’s closest personal associates, who fought alongside him in the Tora Bora battle in November-December 2001.
One of Abu Bakr’s two wives is a Moroccan. He is therefore suspected of taking a hand in the Casablanca bombings a week after the triple attacks in Riyadh.
His capture was important enough to rate a mention by President George W. Bush on July 1, when he said: “Recently, Saudi security services apprehended Abu Bakr, believed to be a central figure in the Riyadh bombing…”
Our sources report that the extradition deals with tribal chiefs have placed around 44 al Qaeda suspects in Saudi hands. Four are Saudi women-terrorists, a hitherto unheard of phenomenon.
The second top al Qaeda fugitive sought in connection with the Riyadh bombings, Turki Nasser al-Dandani, eluded capture until this week when he is reported to have used a hand grenade to blow himself up with two other terrorists when cornered by Saudi police in the northern province of al-Jawf, 560 miles north of Riyadh.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and counter-terrorism sources note that toward the end of the week, the operation began to slow down as the tribal chiefs posted fresh terms. They demanded an official Saudi pledge that captives would be treated with the degree of mercy dictated by Islamic tradition to be broadcast over radio and television.
Abdullah is reluctant to accept the new terms, fearing a public announcement would bring out more support for al Qaeda among Saudi tribesmen and clergy.
The Hijaz Versus the Royal Family
Even before al Qaeda’s Egyptian penetration of the Hijaz came to light, Abdullah’s campaign to drum up provincial support for the royal house brought an unfortunate discovery.
Immediately after the Riyadh bombings, Abdullah decided to convene a National Dialogue, an extraordinary event summoned only when the House of Saud finds itself in dire straits. In the early 1990s, the royal house beset by internal discord convened a National Dialogue, a series of conferences to which religious, academic, trade and financial leaders were invited. In the absence of an electoral system, these gatherings give the people who count in the power structure of the quasi-feudal kingdom a chance to air opinions and let off steam.
This time Abdullah sought to focus discussion on the state of the kingdom in the wake of the Al Qaeda attacks and ways to cut the terrorists down.
What has been kept dark is that the National Dialogue was in fact called in response to a petition submitted to the crown prince in the name of several hundred influential citizens with a demand for political freedom in Saudi Arabia and immediate, free elections. The conferences were organized by the chairman of the Ashura Council, Sheikh Shalh ben Hmeid, an Abdullah loyalist, as a series of moving symposia in different parts of the kingdom. For the first time in Saudi history, Shiite Muslim and Ismaili notables were invited to the encounter in the Eastern Provinces, as well as prominent anti-monarchist campaigners led by Salmen Al Odeh and Maruk al Faleh.
The National Dialogue yielded a series of symposia lasting much longer than usual, three or four days each – and spread over more than a month.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in the Gulf reveal that the last one, which opened in Jeddah Sunday, June 22, under the chairmanship of an Abdullah henchman, Abdel al Majid, produced a sensational demonstration of defiance by the 150-strong gathering. The kingdom is said to be still buzzing over the event.
Barely waiting for the proceedings to begin, speakers rose one by one to slam the House of Saud and the state of government. Going a lot further than routine demands for free elections and the establishment of trade unions, prominent local citizens for the first time called for corrupt princes to be sacked and senior appointments made according to qualifications not merely kinship ties and personal patronage. Crooked cabinet ministers whose dismissal was demanded were named, headed by treasury minister Dr. Ibrahim al-Assaf, who was accused of making the Saudi banking system one of the most corrupt in the financial world.
After two hours of rowdy exchanges, Jeddah’s most powerful merchants demanded the floor and were even more outspoken in their criticism, particularly Ibrahim Effendi, one of the richest men the city and a major investor in shipping, hotels and the tourism industry. Chairman al-Majid, fearing the proceedings were spinning out of control, hurried out of the hall to brief Abdullah by telephone. When he returned, he interrupted the speaker and adjourned the gathering, promising its reconvention in Mecca in a month’s time.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that the National Dialogue conference in Jeddah revealed the first overt sparks of a simmering separatist revolt in the Hijaz against the Saudi throne and Riyadh’s centrality.
Al Qaeda, especially its Saudi component, appears to have been quicker off the mark in spotting the unrest brewing up in the Hijaz than the Saudi authorities and have lost no time in exploiting it to further stir the pot.