Who Let al Qaeda out of the Bottle?
On Monday, May 19, the White House stated it would “pay close attention to what we hear and what we see” in the way of an Iranian response to American complaints that senior al Qaeda members were in Iran under the protection of Iranian government elements.
Two days later, an administration official said the United States now “expects an authoritative answer from Iran on what we’ve been picking up.” This was backed up at a Pentagon briefing by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld who said, “There’s no question but that there are al Qaeda in Iran, and they are busy.”
Those testy comments indicated that, well before the May 12 suicide attacks in Riyadh, the US government had enough intelligence data on al Qaeda activities in Iran to be able to predict when and where the fundamentalist terrorists would strike. They had also picked up a raised level of electronic chatter among al Qaeda cells and bases around the Saudi kingdom and movements of terror operatives from the Pakistan-Afghan frontier region into Iran and on to Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Yemen.
For some time, American intelligence and surveillance agencies have been tracking the movements of al Qaeda figures of interest such as Abu al Walid, Al Masri, Saif al Adil and Osama bin Laden’s eldest son, Saad bin Laden, whose itineraries take them from places like Herat in Afghanistan, to Zahedan in Iran and on to Tehran or Bandar Abbas, thence to Dubai and Yemen, through which entry into the southern Saudi province of Asir is a breeze. With all this information, the Bush administration took no action other than to pass a portion on to the Saudi government with a request to lay on more security.
Specifically, the information was laid before the Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef, whose first reaction, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources, was amazement – after which he declared, “No one in Saudi Arabia has the number of men you are asking for to guard the locations you say al Qaeda is planning to attack.”
He made the same response to British and German requests for thousands of armed troops and security men to guard their embassies, consulates and business centers in the kingdom – the Germans demanded one thousand soldiers – together with a threat to shut their missions down. “Fine,” said the prince. “Go ahead. Even with the best will in the world I don’t have that kind of manpower.”
By that time, no one ought to have been surprised when al Qaeda struck – especially in view of events leading up to it. The battle Saudi security men fought with a large group of al Qaeda terrorists around their secret hideout in Riyadh on May 7 took place not 500-600 yards from the Al-Hamra compound which was attacked five days later. A large number, 19 of the al Qaeda operatives assigned with carrying out the attacks got away, leaving behind a mountainous cache of weapons and explosives and plain evidence that the Saudi authorities’ grip on internal security was sorely deficient.
Dialogue with Iran held US hand
So why did the Americans – from top officials in Washington down to security and counter-terror specialists – insist on making security demands of the Saudi authorities that they were obviously not up to meeting?
It was also self-evident that 19 men, some of them injured, could not have vanished in thin air without accomplices on hand who must have tucked them away in prepared safe hideouts, where a fresh supply of weapons and explosives awaited them for their next mission.
Since Washington must have been conscious of the great danger hanging over Americans in Riyadh, Saudi royals and the throne as such, why did not Washington offer to fly in several hundred US commandos in civilian clothes to take up security duties inside the targeted compounds for the duration of the threat and leave the kingdom as soon as the menace was foiled.
This omission has several explanations, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf and counter-terror experts, starting with Prince Nayef’s extreme sensitivity to outside intervention in Saudi affairs and his suspicion that the Westerners’ inordinate demands of him were connected with the succession struggle dividing the royal house between Crown Prince Abdullah and the Sudairi brothers.
But Washington’s most compelling inhibitor lay outside Saudi Arabia – or even al Qaeda’s operation in the kingdom. It emanated from the existence of the long-running secret US-Iran dialogue and its bewildering twists and turns. The Shiite rulers of Iran are proving almost impossible to pin down to a consistent position. They are negotiating in the manner of a prickly flirtation with danger – beckoning on the one hand, menacing on the other. Harboring senior al Qaeda operatives based in Pakistan and Iran and permitting them to carry out terrorist hits in Saudi Arabia is part of this game of brinkmanship.
Al Qaeda, which was hard hit by America’s global war on terror, saw its opportunity to regroup and revive its worldwide terror offensive, proving it was alive and kicking and still capable of provoking Western jitters. This is partly an optical illusion. Osama bin Laden’s network is maimed. It could not have pulled off the three suicide bombing attacks in Riyadh without a logistical hand up from Tehran and Iran’s license for stranded Qaeda elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan to re-establish contact with elements based in Saudi Arabia with which they had been out of touch since January 2001.
An Egyptian boat gives Tehran’s Palestinian game away
It is hard to understand how Bush administration’s negotiators come to let the dialogue with Tehran advance to the point that the Iranians had the effrontery to believe they could get away with encouraging al Qaeda to strike American targets in Saudi Arabia. The Shiite Islamic regime of Iran, generally described as tottering, nonetheless has the brass to brandish four sticks over the Bush administration’s head. One is al Qaeda. Another is the Lebanese Hizballah; the third is the Palestinian Jihad Islami terror group, which is funded from Tehran and used as a conduit to the fourth, Yasser Arafat, his al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and the Hamas.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources reveal that May 12, on the night of which al Qaeda terrorists blew up three residential compounds in Riyadh, Iran’s rulers decided to bring out two and a half sticks. This was discovered on Wednesday, May 21, when Israeli naval commandos intercepted an Egyptian boat that had made its way from Alexandria to Lebanese waters, collected Hizballah passengers and lethal cargo and was heading for the Gaza Strip.
This was no second Karine-A arms smuggling venture, which Iran was caught sending to the Palestinian Authority in January 2001. But some of its features were similar.
This new operation was put together by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Lebanese Hizballah and Arafat’s close advisers at his Ramallah headquarters. Its purpose was to upgrade the terrorist capabilities of Arafat’s combined force of Fatah and its suicide arm, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hamas and Jihad Islami, with a new explosive. Hizballah’s chief bomb expert, Hamad Amara, was aboard the boat on loan from the Hizballah with samples of the tank-busting super-powerful explosive he had developed and a course of instruction in its use for Arafat’s partisans and allies in the Gaza Strip. His capture was quite a catch for Israel after a string of Palestinian suicide attacks claimed 12 lives and a painful setback for the Lebanese terror group.
Al Qaeda’s attacks and the use of Hizballah to enhance Palestinian anti-Israel terrorist capabilities demonstrate how close to the wind the ayatollahs of Tehran are prepared to sail for leverage in their dispute with the Americans and for high ground in negotiating an accommodation. The Iranians believe they have another stick and a half in reserve: activation of the Iraqi Shiites against the American presence and military action by the Hizballah, even while the Shiite terror group licks its wounds from the loss of its top bomb specialist.
Time will tell whether the Iranians really did catch Washington off-guard by letting al Qaeda and the Palestinian terrorists out of the bottle, or whether the Bush administration prepared its response in good time. In either case, the two demons cannot be easily thrust back and the administration will have to move fast to contain them.