Khobar Attack Further Divides Saudi Royal House
Saudi security has thrown up checkpoints and a dragnet for three of the al Qaeda terrorists who escaped during the helicopter-borne Saudi commando attack early Sunday, May 30, that ended the terrorist group’s shooting, hostage-taking spree. The Saudi oil company Aramco pledged to continue smooth supplies of crude to avert further price hikes when the energy markets open Tuesday, June 1.
To subscribe to DEBKA-Net-Weekly click HERE.
The Saudi interior ministry attempted to draw a line on the deadly attack at the heart of the kingdom’s oil country by publishing figures – 41 hostages rescued from the Oasis residential building where 50-60 were held on the sixth floor, 22 officially reported killed, one terrorist captured and three escaped. Earlier, the Saudi figure for freed hostages was 25.
All these measures were attempts at damage control. But none of the figures hang together.
debkafile‘s counter-terror sources which followed the episode, the second against a Saudi oil target in less than a month, are not alone in finding the figures implausible. The first announcement from Riyadh that the Saudi commando operation had ended the attack was greeted by American skepticism and the dry comment that it is not over until all the hostages are free. The US embassy in Riyadh repeated its advice to Americans to leave the kingdom, followed by London which warned that further terror attacks may be in the final stages of preparation, and Canberra.
Some blood-chilling revelations came later. In the May 1 shooting of 6 foreign oil workers in Yanbu, an American victim was dragged through the streets behind a car. In Khobar, the same savagery was meted out to a British oil executive.
debkafile was first to reveal that the terrorists had separated Muslims from Westerners. Initial reports claimed 10 foreigners had been killed and 7 Saudi security guards in the first stage of the attack when an unknown number of terrorists in military uniforms burst shooting into two oil industry office compounds. They then moved up the street to the Oasis waterfront residence in Khobar Petroleum Center. This early figure was later raised to 14. But it is not clear how many died in the first round of shooting or during the hostage siege. Nine who tried to escape had their throats cut, according to an audio statement posted Sunday, May 30, on Islamic Web sites that ran a purported statement by al Qaeda’s Saudi regional chief Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin. He accused the Saudi government of opening the country to “Jews and Crusaders” and swore to continue the battle until “Crusaders are expelled from the land of Islam.”
The Al Qaeda site was understood to report also that Italian, Swedes and Japanese were “slaughtered.”
It is worth noting that Islamic web sites covered the operation closely, indicating, according to debkafile‘s sources, that the terrorists barricaded with their hostages were in touch on line with their controllers throughout the 25 hours of the siege.
That same al-Moqrin issued an order to his men last Wednesday, May 26, to organize in small bands of four and to continually strike at Saudi government and US targets without letup.
What was behind the Khobar attack aside from the “infidel” claptrap? In general, top al Qaeda commanders have stated their determination to overthrow the Saudi throne and shown that they trust in their ability to achieve their goal and pursue it methodically.
In Khobar, for example, debkafile‘s counter-terror sources report Al Qaeda’s target as being to sabotage the secret Bush-Saudi deal on oil prices and frighten foreigners out of kingdom. The Saudis would then fail to make good on their promise to boost production for the sake of curbing rocketing prices.
Al Qaeda’s ability to penetrate and access the well-fortified Khobar Petroleum Complext owes much to Interior minister Prince Nayef’s ambivalence on religious extremists.
On May 14, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 157 enlarged on the weaknesses of Saudi defenses against terror:
The dividing line between terrorist attacks and the succession struggle raging in the Saudi royal house is becoming increasingly hard to distinguish. The May Day attack that killed five Westerners and a Saudi officer at an oil contractor’s office in the Red Sea industrial town of Yanbu was a case in point.
King Fahd’s incapacitation by illness since 1995 leaves Crown Prince Abdullah with heavy responsibilities without the solid authority of a reigning monarch for carrying out innovative reforms or effectively fighting the terror bane bedeviling the kingdom. By common consent, the Saudi king remains in office as long as he lives. Up in the air with Abdullah’s powers is the order of succession, an invitation to interminable infighting among the royal factions.
The opposition to Abdullah is led by the King’s own Sudairi clan, which includes defense minister Sultan, interior minister Nayef, Riyadh governor Salman, a deputy minister each in the defense and interior ministries and their sons, the youngest of whom is Abdelaziz.
Abdullah has been trying to position foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, son of the assassinated King Faisal, as crown prince. But the prince generally expected to succeed Abdullah is Sultan, who is pushing 80. He has lost his enthusiasm for the job and has passed the Sudairi succession torch to Nayef who is ten years younger.
This is where the crunch comes. Nayef, as interior minister, is responsible for the campaign to halt terrorism, waged chiefly by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. His success is questionable. After the Khobar attack on Saturday, May 29, the possibility of “collusion between Saudi security forces and the terrorists” began to be mentioned openly, otherwise how could a large band of terrorists – certainly more than the four men cited officially – have gained access to the most fiercely guarded location in the kingdom but for the royal palaces? This collusion must be seen in the light of the way Nayef is pulling his punches in this crackdown against terror in order not to lose the support of influential Islamic extremist elements, including al Qaeda supporters, in his bid for the first-in-line position to the throne.
He therefore leads the royal faction opposed to Abdullah’s plan to position foreign minister Saud al-Faisal in line for the number two rank of crown prince. To this end, Nayef has been nibbling at Saud’s power base. In 2001, he sacked Saud’s brother Turki al-Faisal from the post of head of General Intelligence and banished him to London as ambassador.
In the past year, the war on terror is increasingly a burning issue in the succession race in Riyadh. The Crown Prince genuinely declared all-out war on al Qaeda and its adherents after last year’s lethal suicide attacks. Interior minister Nayef on the other hand is still playing a double game. While half-heartedly fighting the terrorists, he still engages their tribal and religious supporters in dialogue – even with the kingdom’s oil resources under direct threat.
The May 1 attack at Yanbu made Abdullah furious enough to turn against the half-brother who let it happen. Using the most vicious language in their lexicon, Abdullah and Saud accused “Zionist enemies” of orchestrating the wave of terror afflicting the kingdom. They both know perfectly well who was responsible, but they used language that would be understood by their countrymen as a backhanded insult to Nayef. They were saying that as counter-terrorist chief he was no better than a Zionist collaborator.
In the next round of insults, Nayef’s interior ministry issued a statement on May 4, naming Mustafa Abdel-Qader Abed al-Ansari as the ringleader of the Yanbu attack and reporting he was killed with his brother and two cousins in a shootout later. Stress was placed on the fact that Ansari left the kingdom in 1994 and joined the London-based Committee for the Defense of the Legitimate Rights (CDLR), a group of Saudi dissidents who advocate the monarchy’s overthrow. Ansari, the statement said, “re-entered the country in an illegitimate way and infiltrated the borders to carry out despicable plans”.
This was Nayef’s way of forcing Abdullah to shoulder part of the blame for what was really his own failure to crack down on terrorism. It was Abdullah’s secret 1996 ceasefire deal with Islamic opposition leaders in the kingdom that persuaded the CDLR Islamist opposition-in-exile to call off its campaign against the throne.
What was hinted in Nayef’s statement was that the Crown Prince’s failure to rein in the Islamist opposition was the real source of the evil for which Saudi Arabia was now paying the price.
However, one of the CDLR founders, Saad al-Faqih, quickly dismissed this aspersion. He told reporters that even if Ansari had returned home illegally, he had been a member of the group only briefly and was incapable of staging the Yanbu attack on his own.
Three key points emerge here:
A. Saudi authorities effectively shrouded the actual sequence of events at Yanbu. They also withheld the identities of the perpetrators until the Interior Ministry published its rejoinder to Abdullah’s insult. However, the complexity and ruthlessness of the attack were well beyond the powers of Ansari and his kinsmen.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources, seven targets, including the governors’ offices in Yanbu and Jubail, were hit by squads comprised of eight to 12 men. Several Middle East intelligence sources report that Ansari and his kinsmen were not among the dead.
B If indeed Ansari and kin were indeed the attackers in Yanbu, it would be the first time a terrorist strike was committed by a Saudi opposition group which was not affiliated to al Qaeda.
The same tactic off obfuscation was used in public Saudi states on the Khobar attack to paper over the royal feuds that allow al Qaeda to continue its rampage. The longer the power struggle rages within the royal family, the fewer the chances of stamping out terrorism in Saudi Arabia.
The primary duelers now are Princes Abdullah and Nayef. By the time they come to an accommodation, if they ever do, it may be too late for House of Saud.