Qaeda Demons Haunt Saudis

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A Saudi family walks past paintings of King Fahd and King Abdul Aziz in a storefront in Riyadh

The world waited this week for news of another gruesome terrorist execution of an American hostage, and it finally came on Friday, posted on extremist web sites and reported on Arab TV. This time, however, the bad news came not from Iraq, but from Saudi Arabia. Lockheed-Martin engineer Paul Johnson, 49, of New Jersey, was kidnapped in Riyadh, last Saturday, and an al-Qaeda aligned web site on Tuesday posted video footage of him in captivity with a warning that he would be executed within 72 hours unless a list of named Qaeda suspects currently in Saudi custody were released. The webcast ultimatum and Mr. Johnson's murder highlights a growing sense of crisis over the apparent inability of Saudi authorities, despite tough talk and often effective police action against Qaeda cells, to snuff out the terror campaign that has raged on their own soil for more than a year.

Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, and policy debates among the powerful princes at the top echelon of the Royal Family occur under a veil of silence. But divisions within the House of Saud over how to respond to al Qaeda's campaign are increasingly plain to see. A recent public statement by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, appeared to chide some of his uncles responsible for the nation's security as he demanded an all-out war on al-Qaeda: "War means war," wrote Bandar. "It does not mean Boy Scout camp. It is a war that does not mean delicacy, but brutality." More important, he said, was to clearly define the enemy: "If we deal (with them) hesitantly, in hope that (the terrorists) are Muslim youths who have been misled, and that the solution is that we call upon them to follow the path of righteousness, in hope that they will come to their senses — then we will lose this war, and this means that we will lose everything that this state and this people have accomplished over the past 600 years."

Bandar's statement was a harsh, if thinly veiled criticism of some of his uncles responsible for security in the Kingdom. Indeed, when he demands, "Enough blaming others when the reason lies within our own ranks!" he is explicitly criticizing a tendency, seen at the highest levels of the Saudi ruling family, to blame terror attacks in the kingdom on alien forces. Prince Nayef, the Interior Minister responsible for fighting terrorism in Saudi Arabia maintained long after 9/11 that the attack was the work of "Zionists," while even Crown Prince Abdullah, the day-to-day ruler of the kingdom in light of the debilitating illness of King Fahd, blamed the same mythologized foreign element for the recent terror spree in the oil town of Khobar.

The problem as defined by Prince Bandar was clearly on display in the authorities' botched handling of that attack, during which three of the four perpetrators managed to slip through a heavy security cordon after a 24-hour killing spree that claimed 22 lives — an escape that raised eyebrows among many foreign diplomats, who saw it as improbable without somehow being sanctioned by the authorities. Others believe it was precisely because of squabbling among different elements in the Royal family with competing authority and approaches that it took 24 hours to check the rampage, only to see the perpetrators get away.

While some, like Prince Bandar, have called for a no-holds-barred jihad against Saudi Arabia's homegrown Qaeda element, others incline towards more conciliatory approaches, treating the problem as one of criminal deviance and premised on the idea that many who have been "misled" onto the al-Qaeda path need to be brought back into the mainstream. Some have emphasized the need for strong intelligence to accurately pick off terrorists through targeted police work, while avoiding any kind of mass crackdown on some of the wider ideological base that shares al-Qaeda's outlook but may not be directly involved in violence — so as to avoid alienating this larger element and potentially provoking a civil war. Others say that while the security forces have shown considerable skill and courage in locating specific al-Qaeda cells, arresting more than 600 suspects and killing scores more in fierce gun battles, little has been done to challenge the extremist outlook with deep roots in Saudi society that replenishes the ranks of the fallen fighters. But right now, the more cautious element may be prevailing: Riyadh is aggressively pursuing known al-Qaeda cells and networks, but elements — particularly in the clergy — who express similar ideas in the public domain are treated with kid gloves despite public promises, reiterated by Crown Prince Abdullah on Wednesday, to do more to crack down on extremism. And a bi-partisan investigation under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations has concluded that Saudi Arabia has failed to fully live up to its commitments to crack down on terror funding and the propagation of extremist ideas.

Saudi society is under the tremendous strain of a social crisis decades in the making. The most visible element of that crisis right now may be the apparent inability of the authorities to eliminate the threat of al-Qaeda attacks within their own borders. But its causes may be rooted in a variety of factors ranging from an increasingly unpopular alliance between the ruling family and the United States — widely perceived in the Arab world today as a power hostile to Muslim interests — to a monocultural economy whose oil earnings are unable to meet the aspirations of a rapidly growing population. And the absence of democratic channels for the expression of dissent and frustration has amplified the appeal of religious extremism as a form of politics.

So, when the day-to-day ruler of the Kingdom blames the Khobar attack on foreign elements — "Zionists" being his rather bizarre choice — the coded message to the Saudi public is that the confrontation has no connection with the dynamics of Saudi society, and that the security forces are confining their crackdown to known criminals rather than the far wider element that may sympathize with the ideological outlook of the gunmen. Such mixed message inevitably impacts on the thinking of the Saudi security forces, and Western diplomats suggest there may even be a measure of sympathy for or collusion with the extremists among some security personnel.

Al-Qaeda, for its part, appears to have evolved its approach to dealing with the House of Saud. For years, the movement refrained from mounting attacks inside the Kingdom, and Osama bin Laden's public statements advocated a reforming of the Royal Family — ousting those allied with the U.S. and empowering those more sympathetic to al-Qaeda's worldview — rather than ousting them altogether, a prospect that even alarms substantial sections of the clerical hierarchy. But that approach appeared to change last May, when al-Qaeda launched its current campaign of terror inside the Kingdom. Today that campaign targets two of the key support structures of the ruling order — the oil industry, and Western expertise — and has brought violence and uncertainty to the Kingdom's major cities in what appears to be a calculated move to exacerbate a crisis in Saudi Arabia.

It's not only timing of the terror campaign, which began after the fall of Baghdad, that links it to events in Iraq: A number of Saudi jihadists appear to have crossed the border to join the Iraqi insurgency, and some of the tactics used in Iraq — abusing corpses, seizing hostages and broadcasting images of their captivity — have also been repeated in Saudi Arabia. Most important, however, there appears to be a strategic awareness of the impact that attacks on the oil industry on both sides of the border can have both on Western economies and on pro-Western governments in both countries. Repeated insurgent attacks on pipelines have effectively this week taken Iraq offline as an oil exporter, at least until the damage to the pipelines leading to the export terminals at Basra can be repaired — and the sprawling network of oil pipelines in both north and south remain vulnerable to further attacks. Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia have not thus far directly effected the Kingdom's physical ability to pump oil, but targeting oil towns and Western personnel — to the extent, for example, that all U.S. citizens have been urged by the State Department to leave the Kingdom — send a signal of instability that can wreak havoc on the sensitive futures markets for oil in the West.

Saudi Arabia's rulers are watching events in Iraq with considerable trepidation. They opposed the invasion on the grounds that the resulting instability would imperil the region, and they fear that the current dynamic could break up Iraq into ethnic enclaves, an outcome that would spark new troubles throughout the region, not least in oil-rich eastern Saudi Arabia where secessionist voices among the Saudis Shiite minority would likely be amplified. Riyadh's best-case scenario had been to maintain a Sunni-dominated polity in post-Saddam Baghdad, but right now that looks unlikely. Iraq's future hangs in the balance between a wide variety of contending forces, and the outcome is impossible to call. If it proves unable to contain the Qaeda insurgency within its borders, the same may also be true for Saudi Arabia.