One Step forward, Two Steps back

Saudi security authorities last week submitted to Crown Prince Abdullah a report summing up the results of the month-long general amnesty that King Fahd declared June 23 in a bid to persuade al Qaeda operatives to turn themselves in.

The report, obtained by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources, lists six main points:

  1. Al Qaeda’s leadership structure in the kingdom is divided into four committees: military, Sharia (Islamic law), propaganda and political affairs.

  2. The Saudi security crackdown against the organization has caused it very little damage, taking toll only of the military committee, four of whose operational leaders – Nasir Rashid, Rakan al-Saihan, Abd al-Aziz Muqrin and Faisal Dakhil – were killed before the amnesty was announced. Saleh al-Oufi, who succeeded Muqrin, seems to have escaped the country.

  3. The Sharia committee is intact and none of its members has been apprehended or killed.

  4. The propaganda committee is also in good shape, with only one member captured.

  5. The political affairs committee, which sets al Qaeda policy, is fully operational. Only one member, Faris al-Zahrani, described by the Saudi media as an al Qaeda ideologue, has been taken into custody. He was caught in Abha, capital of the Asir region, in flight to Yemen.
    A day later, Saudi authorities grabbed an al Qaeda activist disseminating Zahrani’s philosophies on the Internet. But our sources report that three other key members of the committee – Abdullah Rashood, Sultan Utaibi and Al-Majid Almani, remain at large.

  6. For the moment, Al Qaeda’s Saudi cell can stop worrying; most of its members ignored the royal amnesty and escaped capture.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror experts, the Saudis have only themselves to blame for this state of affairs.

The amnesty was offered belatedly – more than a year after the Saudi al Qaeda cell had embarked on full-scale terrorist attacks in the kingdom. First, the crown prince and interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz had to patch up their differences over how to deal with Saudi al Qaeda activists. As always, in Saudi Arabia, the amnesty was a weak compromise, attained after the two princes managed to agree on a one-month time limit for terrorists to surrender.

The measure was further weakened by the exigencies of the on-going war of succession in the royal house and the intricacies of relations between the throne and the powerful religious establishment.

Pro-dialogue Nayef Prevails over Abdullah

Abdullah is close to the mainstream Muslim clergy and leans on its support. Those clerics, who view the fundamentalist terrorists as a threat to their own influence, back Abdullah in his effort to root out al Qaeda’s religious, political and military bastions in the kingdom

Nayef, in charge of domestic security, takes a different approach, seeking dialogue with al Qaeda in hopes of using the group to weaken Abdullah’s religious allies. The amnesty deal was Abdullah’s chance to try to rein in the terrorist group. But execution of this policy was awarded to Nayef. Abdullah bought his consent to the amnesty by giving way in the broader argument on domestic reforms, which Abdullah espouses and Nayef opposes.

The interior minister proceeded to capitalize on his advantage.

In keeping with tribal tradition for efforts to calm internal strife, Nayef appointed mediators who included prominent members of the so-called Islamic opposition that was active in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. Two of the men, Hassan ibn Muhsin al-Awajih and Safar al-Hawali, are well-known radicals within the Saudi educational system; Hawali, a lecturer at the Islamic university in Mecca, was arrested in the 1990s for his opposition activities.

Their appointment to do Nayef’s bidding with al Qaeda clearly bespeaks the growing extremism of religious circles in the kingdom in recent years. In the past, senior mainstream clerics were chosen to mediate between the royal family and Saudi radicals, as in the case of the 1979 revolt in Mecca led by Juhaiman al-Utaibi, when moderate clerics stepped in to mediate between the radicals and the throne. Nayef, by bringing the radicals forward as mediators in place of the moderates, has turned the tables and dealt a powerful blow against the religious establishment at Abdullah’s expense.

And who better than Nayef’s own son, Mahmoud, an assistant for security affairs in the Interior Ministry, to serve as the point man between the minister and the mediators?

For the amnesty, Nayef’s mediation system worked like this:

Mahmoud passed on messages from his father to the mediators, who in turn contacted clerics close to al Qaeda. The go-betweens then met al Qaeda operatives willing to turn themselves in and convey any counter-demands to Mahmoud.

A small number of deals were clinched.

Saudi media report that in some cases, the pardon became a package that included the authorities’ pledge to pay the debts of al Qaeda members who surrendered, as well as monthly stipends to their wives and children. They were also promised comfortable conditions in prison.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi sources, Mahmoud and Nayef agreed to refrain from prosecuting the religious leaders close to the radical mediators after the month-long amnesty ended. The interior minister also agreed to reduce the punishments due to al Qaeda’s political leaders and propagandists. They would be arrested, but not be subjected to crackdowns.

In contrast, members of the al Qaeda’s “military wing” had lost their chance of amnesty and would be hunted to their death.

Talking instead of fighting

In terms of the power struggle in Riyadh, the amnesty gave Nayef the edge over Abdullah.

But from now on, Nayef, who has balked at confronting al Qaeda, will find it hard to avoid wielding his security forces against the militants to prevent further terrorist attacks in the kingdom, or placing the organization’s political agitators and masterminds under detention.

A preference for dialogue rather than shooting is manifested not only by the Nayef faction in the royal house but also by parts of Saudi al Qaeda, especially the spiritual and propaganda wings. This faction maintains, as its guiding principle, that al Qaeda has dedicated itself to jihad against the Americans, not the Saudi throne. Therefore, the king and crown prince erred in calling on the organization’s adherents to lay down arms and surrender. This view holds that, when the Saudi royal house abandons this demand, it will find that al Qaeda has no real quarrel with Riyadh’s rulers and is not committed to their overthrow. Naturally, the terrorist group expects the royal house to adopt its interpretation of jihad and back it all the way.

The willingness of certain princely factions to buy this thesis as the path to a gradual process of conciliation provides the background for the secret dialogue between the throne and al Qaeda to continue.

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