Without deep penetration of Saudi intelligence and security services, al Qaeda’s June 6 shooting attack against a BBC team would not have been possible – any more than the May 30 shooting-hostage taking spree in the Khobar oil center that claimed at least 22 lives.
BBC cameraman Simon Cumbers was shot dead while the news organization’s al Qaeda expert Frank Gardner was critically injured.
Cumbers and Gardner had entered a known Islamic terrorist stronghold in Riyadh accompanied by Saudi intelligence officers. They had no sooner arrived when a vehicle carrying al Qaeda gunmen raked them with gunfire. The Saudi security escorts were not hit and are under interrogation on suspicion of having tipped off the terrorists.
Two days after the Riyadh shooting, Fawaz bin Mohammed al-Nashmi, who claimed to be the ringleader of the Khobar attack, described it in gory detail on an al Qaeda Internet site. The first time Osama bin Laden‘s killers wrote up one of these Web logs was, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, on May 1 after killing six Westerners at a petrochemical plant in the Saudi city of Yanbu. The accounts of the operations, experts found, were highly accurate in every detail and are seen as indicating how confident the Saudi terrorists have become of their murderous prowess.
Nashmi’s Internet offering on the Khobar episode was particularly instructive.
He disclosed that a key al Qaeda target was the palace of Prince Mohammed bin Fahd, son of the Saudi monarch and governor of the kingdom’s eastern province (See lead article in DEBKA-Net-Weekly, 158, May 21, 2003). Nashmi called the palace a den of prostitution and drunkenness in eastern Saudi Arabia, but did not explain why it was not actually attacked. He went on to provide a chilling description of how the hostage-takers slit the throats of “heretics and Crusaders” – non-Muslims – who fell into their hands.
In addition, Nashmi boasted how he called up the newsroom of the Arab satellite channel al Jazeera in the course of the operation and provided a running commentary on every step of the event. At one point, he let an Italian hostage talk to al Jazeera before plunging a knife into his throat in a live broadcast. The al Qaeda gang, he reported, had moved freely around the housing compound and office complex after the initial attack. They even eavesdropped on Saudi and foreign security guards and heard them saying they were too frightened to get near enough to the terrorists to tackle them. Nashmi said gloatingly that by the time the security officers plucked up enough courage to approach one of the targeted buildings, the terrorists had been gone 45 minutes.
Our experts note that in all these Internet rundowns, no mention has been made of the Saudi National Guard. Nor has the National Guard figured in intelligence reports or the Saudi media in reference to clashes with, or the pursuit of, al Qaeda gunmen.
The force, under the direct command of Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, has a constitutional mandate to safeguard domestic security and the persons of the royal princes as well as to protect the kingdom’s oil fields and installations.
So where was the National Guard when terrorists struck cities under its protection, Yanbu and Khobar?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi experts see this puzzling omission as a symptom of the crown prince’s declining position in the royal house. He appears to have lost the authority to order the National Guard into action when other senior royals, particularly the rival Sudairi brothers who are engaged in a secret dialogue with al Qaeda, think differently. According to intelligence updates reaching the US government – and reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive sources, the number of active al Qaeda fighters in the kingdom is surprising small in relation to the scale of their attacks – no more than 500. Only 57 are Saudis who fought in Afghanistan; the rest are new faces unfamiliar to Saudi intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies around the world. Cutting them down should therefore not be a task beyond the ability of Saudi security forces.
Another startling fact: Despite the Saudi government’s public pledges of a crackdown to eradicate terrorism at home, since 9/11, its security services have questioned no more than 1,500 Saudi nationals on suspected association with al Qaeda.
This minuscule sampling, barely up to the scale of a major drug smuggling roundup, proves Saudi Arabia has scarcely raised a finger since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon to expunge Osama bin Laden‘s terrorist blight
It can no longer be doubted that someone pretty high up on the Saudi royal ladder has interceded to make sure that the number of suspects undergoing interrogation is held down to the minimum so as not to antagonize the Saudi public and the popular religious circles that support al Qaeda. This marriage between an ambitious princely faction and a radical clergy that lets al Qaeda get away with bloody mayhem is eating away at Abdullah’s power base and his grass roots backing.
Saudi Arabia’s decision last week to dissolve the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a large Riyadh-based charity, was less a crackdown against terrorist funding than action against the foundation managers who use it to personally bankroll specific terrorist operations.
Aqil al-Aqil is one such individual. A Saudi national who has not been home for years, Aqil arranged financing for al Qaeda’s terrorist attack at Khobar from three countries.
He has set up a financial center in the Albanian capital of Tirana, where DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources report the Saudi branch of al Qaeda has established cells and funds the Chechnya Islamic insurgency. He also operates out of the Bangladeshi capital of Dacca and Harare, Ethiopia. This network enabled Aqil to transfer Islamic Foundation money to al Qaeda from Saudi Arabia to the Horn of Africa, then on to the Indian subcontinent and finally to Europe and back.
In the hope of burnishing its image in the West to offset the constant attacks on Western expatriates in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia recently asked Hamas to give up suicide attacks on Israelis. The appeal was addressed to Hamas leaders in Gaza by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain, former intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal. He advised them they could greatly help their Saudi benefactors with a public pledge to renounce their campaign of suicidal terrorism. However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report Hamas had no problem with biting the hand that feeds it. Despite a Saudi stipend worth $1 to $2 million a month and the disarray in its chain of command since Israel’s targeted assassinations of the terrorist group’s two leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi, Hamas-Gaza turned Riyadh down cold.
Instead of putting out the kind of announcement Saudi Arabia needed, the Palestinian fundamentalist group issued a grudging condemnation of the terror attack in Khobar.