A rare beam of light this week illuminated an unforeseen dispute at the top level of the Saudi al Qaeda network – rare because its ways are so arcane and compartmented and because Saudi security and intelligence authorities are extremely shy of sharing information with outsiders, such as American or British secret agencies, and usually keep what they know to themselves.
Al Qaeda-Saudi Arabia’s acknowledged spiritual leader and most respected mentor, Fares Zahrani, this week distributed an audio tape among the organization’s cells in the kingdom announcing he was renouncing Saudi citizenship and giving up his Saudi passport to mark the end of the month-long amnesty offered the terrorists by the royal house.
The amnesty expired last Friday, July 23.
Zahrani said he had combed through Islamic history and canon law books and found no precedent for a civilian authority like the Saudi royal house being authorized to determine the nationality of tribesmen. Therefore, went his taped message, “I, who come from a famous family belonging to the Azd tribal federation (which is distributed far and wide across the southern regions of the kingdom and Yemen) am in no need of an identity conferred by heretics. And since when do the proud tribes of Arabia fear foreign invaders (Ed. The royal house) from the north!”
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources, the tape was made Tuesday, July 20 and circulated a week later. It amounts to a directive to adherents from their holy teacher to give up Saudi citizenship and thus step up their vendetta against the throne and lend the struggle a religious rather than a national character.
On the day the tape was passed round among the fighters, a web site linked to al Qaeda polled viewers with a question: Is it right to execute hostages? The results were 91 percent in favor, and only 4 percent against.
Our counter-terror experts conclude that these two events brought to the surface a sharp dispute between Zahrani and Shaleh al-Oufi, who has been identified as the new al Qaeda commander in Saudi Arabia. The two seem to be vying for the topmost al Qaeda rank in the kingdom.
Zahrani is not an operations man. He only provides the spiritual backup. But he insists that the line pursued by the late al Qaeda Saudi chief Abdelaziz Muqrin who died in a shoot-out in Riyadh on June 18, must be followed by his successor. Al Muqrin’s policy was to strike at the centers of royal power, government, security, oil installations and firms, and, when possible move up to airfields and palaces.
Zahrani also advocates the abductions of infidels, i.e. foreign workers, but not necessarily executing them all.
In contrast, Al-Oufi argues that the entire range of targets cited by Zahrani has already been attacked, except only royal palaces. Some of these operations were successful, other less so.
Furthermore, Saudi security forces, with outside aid, have learned a thing or two about al Qaeda’s modus operandi and improved their fighting and intelligence aptitudes. Therefore, says al-Oufi, operations on the lines urged by Zahrani will henceforth be much tougher to pull off.
Instead, the new operations commander proposes hitting the Saudi throne outside the kingdom.
“We have never yet attacked Saudi airliners or Saudi Air check-in counters at international airports,” he says. “Neither have we hit Saudi embassies or the offices of Saudi firms in the Gulf emirates, the Middle East and Europe.” He believes all these targets are not properly secured and are fairly vulnerably to terrorist attack.
In order to focus on overseas Saudi targeting, Al-Oufi proposes cutting down on the quality and number of terrorist actions in the kingdom.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that he has begun to translate words into action. Some sources claim he has taken a large group of combatants over to East Africa, possibly Sudan; others, that he has severed ties with his family, including his wife and children who are in Saudi custody, and is hiding up somewhere in southern Arabia or the Hijaz until he can travel out of the kingdom and get started on his next stage of operation.
The poll he ran on whether to execute hostages was an index to the mood of al Qaeda grassroots operatives. He was heartened to find how ruthless they were and determined to fight the infidel to the last drop of blood. This encouraged him to strike out in new fields.
Our experts judge al-Oufi’s plans to be more dangerous for the House of Saud in the short term, while Zahrani’s way poses a greater peril deferred. The fundamentalist cleric does not recognize Riyadh as the national Saudi capital and wants Mecca declared the capital of the Islamic Saudi state. He argues that Al Qaeda in control of the Islamic capital would strip the royal house of its religious legitimacy as guardians of the holy shrines of Islam.
The cleric believes fervently that weakening Riyadh’s links with Washington will strengthen the cause he espouses. Al Qaeda's operations, he says, must be geared to the essential goal of making Washington withdraw the honors and privileges showered on visiting Saudi princes. This will downgrade the importance of the Saudi royal branch opposed to al Qaeda, which is led by foreign minister Saud al-Faisal and his sons and Ambassador Bandar al-Sultan, son of the Saudi defense minister.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Saudi experts note that this is the first proof that al Qaeda differentiates between the various branches of the royal house according to those who seek to destroy the terrorist organization and those, like interior minister Prince Nayef and King Fahd’s son, Abdulaziz, who are prepared to engage in secret, indirect dialogue – further confirmation of our frequent reports on this feature of the Saudi-al Qaeda conflict.
Zahrani wants the royal partners in this dialogue strengthened in the belief that they will eventually come to accept al Qaeda as the source of the throne’s power and legitimacy.
According to this doctrine, there is no need to topple the Saudi royal house to attain al Qaeda’s objectives, only to bolster the princes wiling to convert their ties with the fundamentalist organization into the rock foundation of royal power.
It was this controversy inside al Qaeda’s Saudi leadership that produced the poor response to Crown Prince Abdullah‘s amnesty. He was tempted to make the offer by a piece of intelligence from contact men between Saudi security and al Qaeda assuring him that many terrorists were anxious to take advantage of the pardon and given themselves up. He was even promised the big prize of Zahrani himself and had made arrangements for a series of television and radio appearances in which the mentor of terrorists would relate why he was throwing in the towel.
However, none of the promised al Qaeda names turned themselves in. Zahrani’s audio tape gave the game away: al Qaeda had tricked the crown prince by lulling him into the hope that hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists were about to lay down arms. Instead, they capitalized on the break for rest, reorganization and internal disputation.