The large al Qaeda air terror network rolled up in Saudi Arabia on April 27 sneaked up on the royal security authorities. The plotters hatched their scheme to crash hijacked planes across the Middle East completely unsuspected by any of the regional or even US counter-terror agencies, DEBKA-Net–Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report.
Had the ring not been caught in the nick of time, al Qaeda would have loosed hell during the months of May and June, 2007 on a scale that rivaled or surpassed the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
Several trained pilots and other operatives had prepared air strikes and booby-trapped car attacks for oil terminals, air ports, military installations and cities across the Gulf and Middle East.
In the oil kingdom, the giant refinery center at Abqaiq, which al Qaeda failed to damage in its Feb. 24, 2006 attack, was marked as the main target. Then the price of a barrel of oil shot up by $2. Had the facility been blown up, oil might have hit $80 or even $90.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s al Qaeda experts stress that since that flop, Abqaiq has remained fixed in Osama bin Laden‘s sights, not only because it is the biggest refinery complex in the world, but because, as 9/11 and other atrocities have proved, he never gives up on a target once it is set
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources reveal that Saudi security services were almost overtaken by events. They were unaware of what was going on until the last week of March – and only then, when tipped off by two guests at the Arab League summit in Riyadh: Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf and Turkish prime minister Tayyep Erdogen.
When they arrived in the Saudi capital, the two rulers requested an urgent audience with their host, King Abdullah. They brought with them their intelligence chiefs, heads of the Pakistani ISI and the Turkish MIT.
Abdullah also summoned interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz and his son and deputy, Prince Mohammed, who are in charge of the war on terror, as well as the head of Saudi secret service Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz.
Muslim rulers keep al Qaeda intelligence in the Muslim family
A western intelligence source familiar with their secret, all-night meeting, commented to DEBKA-Net–Weekly that in all fourteen years of the international war against al Qaeda, it was the first time that the heads of two Muslim nations had presented to a third a fully baked al Qaeda mega-attack conspiracy ready to go.
They told the king their security services were alerted to the plot in April 2006, when an unusual volume of travelers started moving between Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Saud Arabia through Turkish airports.
Our terror experts note that the Pakistani and Turkish intelligence agencies have a long history of working relations, intensified since Musharraf assumed office in Islamabad. The Pakistani president received his schooling in Turkey and is a graduate of Turkish military academies. He is one of the few Muslim rulers to speak fluent Turkish. On his initiative, the two intelligence services have established a bank for sharing information on al Qaeda and other extremist Muslim terrorists, their names and descriptions. Any time someone on that list takes a plane for Turkey from anywhere in the Indian subcontinent, the information is flashed to Ankara and surveillance put in place.
In mid-2006, the Pakistani and Turkish secret services joined forces to keep track of the unusual volume of al Qaeda travelers to Saudi Arabia.
In the autumn of that year, they picked up the graduate of a civilian aviation school near the Bangladeshi capital of Dakka among the travelers. Since 9/11, many covert eyes have been trained on flying schools in the region. Both Islamabad and Ankara decided to find out how an al Qaeda operative came to slip through the surveillance, get himself admitted to the school, complete a pilot’s course and receive an official Bangladeshi pilot’s certificate.
The probe unearthed another 12 al Qaeda adherents, who too had slipped past the covert scrutiny and managed to earn flying licenses in schools in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
Upon graduation, they immediately set out for Saudi Arabia.
According to our counter-terror sources, this group of pilots was given three missions:
The terrorist-pilots plotted attacks “outside the kingdom” too
1. To hijack airliners in Saudi Arabia, Persian Gulf, Egyptian or Jordanian airports, and crash them over important military installations – domestic and American, and such strategic targets as oil fields and infrastructure. It was taken for granted that al Qaeda maintains local cells in all these places for preparing the logistical groundwork in advance of the hijack operations.
2. To hijack or commandeer warplanes or military transports belonging to local air forces, and use them for strikes against local military bases.
3. To plant terrorist agents in local airline companies and travel agencies to aid the hijack operations. This is being checked out, as is also the possibility of al Qaeda’s infiltration of Egyptian, Saudi or Jordanian air force flight crews, to enlist its members as either silent or active abettors.
Directly after the Pakistani and Turkish leaders had laid this information before the king, Saudi, Turkish and Pakistani security forces swung into action. In addition to the 172 suspects rounded up in the kingdom, our sources reveal another 35 network members were picked up elsewhere.
Saudis and foreign nationals were among the detainees. They included terrorists trained to fly aircraft and carry out suicide attacks against “public figures, oil facilities, refineries and military zones” – some outside the kingdom, said the interior ministry spokesman Brig. Mansour al-Turki Friday.
“They had reached an advanced stage of readiness and what remained only was to set the zero hour for their attacks,” he said.
According to our sources, the danger is ever present.
While 207 members of the al Qaeda ring are under lock and key, some 50 or 60 are believed to be still at large. Under Saudi questioning, the detainees claimed that extreme compartmentalization of the organization seals them from knowledge of cells outside their own.
All they were ready to admit was that their outfit had been training and making ready for simultaneous attacks coordinated with other cells against Saudi Arabia and other countries. They would not reveal the identity of the operation’s senior coordinator.
At this stage of the investigation, three factors stand out, in the view of DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s terror experts:
Osama bin Laden is obsessed with destroying oil resources
1. Musharraf and Erdogan instructed their security services not to share information with any Middle Eastern or Western agencies other than the Saudis. The Saudi swoop therefore caught the Americans, the Egyptians, the Jordanians and, obviously, the Israelis, completely by surprise.
The services fighting al Qaeda in all these countries are extremely disturbed by this gap in international intelligence-sharing for the common battle against the jihadists. The Pakistani and Turkish rulers have undertaken an unacceptable risk in leaving these countries unarmed and unprepared to thwart attacks. Egyptian and Israeli intelligence in particular believe the risk is high; eleven months have been needlessly wasted since Pakistan and Turkey first spotted al Qaeda’s moves, giving the radical organization plenty of time to plant sleeper cells deep out of sight.
2. Contrary to the assumptions of some experts in the US and the Gulf that al Qaeda has called off its hits on oil targets to protect its own investments in the industry, bin Laden has never abandoned his obsession with setting Arab oil resources on fire.
His bombers went for Iraqi oil in 2005 and mounted abortive attacks on Saudi installations in 2006.
3. Another primary target is Israel at large – and Israeli and American military installations, in particular. An aerial strike would represent al Qaeda’s biggest attack ever on Israel.
The statement released by Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef on April 30 did not refer to the wider picture and omitted a lot more than it revealed.
He reported: “The Cabinet commended the country’s security forces for their pre-emptive strike on terrorist cells, thus foiling their plans to carry out attacks. Everybody must be vigilant and immediately report any suspicious terrorist activities,” he said. “We cannot say that we are done with these ‘deviants’ (al Qaeda extremists in Saudi official parlance). But efforts will continue. The eyes… are wide open and efforts are under way to cleanse our country of every evil.”
The Saudi government furthermore enacted a three-year ban on the use for agricultural purposes of ammonium, calcium, potassium and magnesium nitrates as well as their by-products in solid/granule/powder forms. These chemicals can be used to manufacture explosives. The ministry of agriculture nominated four Saudi companies as sole importers of these materials and approved their sale only to licensed farmers. The King Abdul Aziz City of Science and Technology and Saudi universities were instructed to conduct studies on dangerous agricultural chemicals and find alternatives.