Waiting in the shadows [Archives:2004/744/Opinion]
By John R Bradley*
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif's persistent denial of the existence of sleeping terror cells inside the kingdom after the September 11, 2001 attacks was again contradicted by another incident of violence inside the country. Since the 12 May Riyadh bombings last year, when extremists carried out a series of coordinated attacks on Westerner-populated residential compounds, the Saudi authorities have lost more men to the militants, and killed more of the militants themselves, than any other security force in the Arab world.
This week, the Al-Saud family's new resolve to deal with militants with an 'iron fist' was reinforced during the hostage drama in Al-Khobar, during which militants killed 22 people, mostly foreigners, before apparently striking a deal to win their freedom. Only the unnamed ringleader was captured. It was the second attack on an oil-related target in the Islamic kingdom in the space of a week, but the first in the Eastern Province, a region of densely packed refineries and export terminals that make up the nerve centre of the Saudi – and global – oil production.
A claim of responsibility from Al-Qaeda posted on the internet made only brief reference to the oil sector, focusing instead on a familiar rallying cry of 'ridding the Arabian Peninsula of infidels' while renewing a 'determination to repel the crusader forces, to liberate the land of Muslims and to introduce Sharia'. Meanwhile, there were already signs that the 'infidels' in the Eastern Province, whose expertise the Saudis largely rely on to run the vital oil industry, were starting to move to neighbouring Bahrain for fear of new violence, the Gulf News daily reported.
Bahrain, known for its Western-like lifestyle, is linked to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. Executives in the Saudi oil sector can live there without obtaining a separate visa. In a new twist, The Sunday Times quoted intelligence officers in London as saying a possible 'spectacular attack' in the near future could target the causeway itself.
Saudi officials, nonetheless, sought to reassure foreign oil executives – and quell a dramatic rise in crude oil prices – after the lethal attack on the offices and homes of expatriates working in the country's most important industry. The government has reportedly decided to expand its protection of sensitive facilities to include offices with significant expatriate staff. A battalion of the elite Saudi National Guard, which reports directly to de facto leader Crown Prince Abdullah, would be deployed from its base in the country's Eastern Province to fulfill that task.
For many participants on radical Islamic websites, the attacks in Al-Khobar did not go far enough. A typical posting on the site of the London-based Saudi opposition group 'The Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia' – accused by the Saudi government of having had advance knowledge of the attack on Yanbu last month in which five Westerners were killed – called for Al-Qaeda to learn from the Iraqi resistance and to start targetting oil facilities, rather than just their personnel.
The Saudi oilfields are remarkably vulnerable to a major terrorist assault. Over 16,000 kilometres of pipeline crisscross Saudi Arabia, mostly above ground, an oil web more than double the size of Iraq's, which insurgents have repeatedly managed to sabotage despite the massive US military presence in that country.
In his book Sleeping with the Devil, former CIA operative Robert Baer wrote that Ras Tanura in the Arabian Gulf, the world's largest oil-exporting port, is a possible terrorist target. A small submarine or boat laden with explosives could knock out much of Ras Tanura's output, he said.
Meanwhile, Crown Prince Abdullah, the Kingdom's de facto ruler and a moderate, blamed 'Zionists' and 'followers of Satan' for recent terror attacks. 'We can be certain that Zionism is behind everything,' he said after the attack on Yanbu earlier last month in which five Westerners were killed. The Crown Prince's chief ally, Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, also a moderate, has since criticised the United States-led war on Iraq as a 'colonial' adventure aimed only at gaining control of Iraq's natural resources.
While that argument could be made quite strongly by anyone else, it is a bit surprising coming from a member of the Al-Saud family. During the Iraq war, Saudi Arabia secretly helped the US by allowing operations from at least three air bases, permitting special forces to stage attacks from Saudi soil and providing cheap fuel. The American air campaign against Iraq was essentially managed from inside Saudi borders, where military commanders operated an air command centre and launched refuelling tankers, F-16 fighter jets and sophisticated intelligence-gathering flights.
Why all this musical chairs? Before the Iraq war began, everyone seemed to be talking about how Saudi Arabia would be targeted for a regime change after it ended. The bombings in Riyadh and subsequent terror-related events also clearly brought home the reality of the domestic threat to their rule. It was in the context of the Iraq war, too, that the reform process was initiated by Crown Prince Abdullah and Prince Saud Al-Faisal.
Prince Naif is now telling the reformers that have been arrested, while he is clamping down hard on the terrorists, that he is acting on the orders of Crown Prince Abdullah. The fear is that moderates in the Al-Saud family have been buying time with their reform agenda without intending to fully implement it. Historically, the ruling family has been a force for modernisation. But when it initiated earlier reforms, for example under King Faisal in the 1970s, it managed to consolidate its power base in the process, as well as that of the Wahhabi religious establishment with which it still rules in partnership. Then the kingdom was in the middle of the oil boom. Today, it is in the middle of an economic crisis, facing challenges that are among the most serious to its political stability since its founding, for which there is no historic precedent.
The signs are not promising. With the Iraq war having descended into chaos, the Saudis are blaming Israel for everything that goes wrong, and attacking the US for staging a war that could not have been launched without their assistance. Postings on Al-Qaeda-oriented sites claim that the Saudi royals are now being attacked primarily because they allowed the US to invade Iraq from the land of the two holiest Muslim shrines, but it seems obvious that while this may have increased radicals' appeal, the attacks would have occurred on an alternative timeline even if the US had not invaded Iraq.
Attacks like those in Yanbu and Al-Khobar are likely to become more frequent in the lead-up to the first partial elections next February. It goes without saying that the militants are anti-democracy. A statement last week purported to be from the Al-Qaeda chief in Saudi Arabia, posted on a website, urged his followers to continue an urban guerrilla war of assassinations, kidnappings and bombings. Two days later, one cell acted on his command. There are many, many more waiting in the shadows, and for a sign.
* The writer, a former managing editor of the Jeddah-based Arab News, is author of the forthcoming book, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers & Puritans in the Wahhabi Kingdom (Palgrave-Macmillan, March 2005). His website is www.johnrbradley.com.