Tuesday, June 28, Saudi Arabia released a second list of 36 most wanted al Qaeda operatives. Twenty-four hours later, Number 14, Ibrahim Aiser, turned himself in at the Saudi embassy in Beirut. Thursday, as we went to press, he was still waiting for a Saudi plane to take him to Riyadh for interrogation.
Aiser is 30. He has been away from home from seven years since 1998, but he is one of the few absentee terrorists who stayed in touch with his family. His relatives persuaded him to surrender.
Aiser’s case is unique. One feature common to the rest of the listed men is that no one, whether Saudi intelligence or their own families, knows where they are. Apart from two, all are under 30.
Another common characteristic is that for three years, from 2002, Saudi intelligence knew their whereabouts and addresses and kept them under surveillance. But in 2004, they all suddenly dropped out of sight and confounded every effort to pick up their trails.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report that, when American and Saudi officials exchanged views before publishing the latest list, the Saudis were hard put to explain how they had lost so many wanted men. They claimed that during the period they were kept under surveillance, none was engaged directly in terrorist activity. Their job was to provide logistical backup for al Qaeda terrorist networks. They located hideouts without being informed who would use them, laid on cash and passports for terrorists on the move, and looked after al Qaeda’s propaganda machine and Internet Web sites for the Saudi cell.
Terrorists in a collective disappearing act
At the time, Saudi intelligence did not suspect that the men they were watching constituted the third al Qaeda generation in the oil kingdom. The appeared simply to be marking time until summoned for action. It was only after they disappeared – and some of their names surfaced in the lists of Saudi terrorists operating in Iraq, Syria and the Balkans – that the Saudis caught on.
According to our sources, Saudi counter-terror agencies believe that no more than 15 listed men remain in the country or one of the Persian Gulf emirates, while 21 are abroad, mostly in Iraq. Thirty of the wanted men are Saudi nationals, 3 Chadian, and one each Kuwaiti, Yemeni and Mauritanian.
Eleven men belong to the same network which was based in an isolated desert oasis called Kharj east of Riyadh. Saudi security agencies had never reached that far; nor did they suspect that a cell of that size could get organized in a location so small. Less than 100km from Riyadh, it suited the network as a convenient launching pad for attacks in the capital.
At the beginning of 2005, the entire group of 11 disappeared.
Now the Saudi authorities speculate that the mastermind behind this group was al Qaeda’s Saudi leader Salah Oufi, whom they claimed to have killed more than once. Now they are not so sure and suspect he may be alive and active – either in the kingdom or somewhere else.
Since early 2003, Riyadh has released three lists of wanted al Qaeda men. The first had 19 names, of whom 15 were killed by Saudi security forces. In December 2003, they aired a second list of 26 names. Sixteen were killed in battle, 2 in Iraq and 2 captured alive.
Saudi officials dealing with al Qaeda admit that the publication of list after list of wanted al Qaeda terrorists in so short a space of time means that they keep on discovering new layers of the network about which nothing is known. They now believe that al Qaeda is running five times the number listed of prominent operatives, which brings the total size of its Saudi operation to at least another 150 or 180 active terrorists.