Eight years after the September 11 attacks, Saudi Arabia, where most of the perpetrators were born and bred, has received a rude reminder that its war on terror is far from over. In late August, an Islamic militant attempted to assassinate a member of the kingdom's royal family - the first ever such attack.
A few years ago, Abdullah Al-Asiri was a young Saudi citizen who loved listening to Western music in the night clubs of the coastal city of Jeddah. Three years ago he went to Yemen to join his brother, a member of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. He then returned on August 28, and after passing the security checks at the airports of Najran near the Yemeni border and at Jeddah, with half a kilogram of dynamite secreted inside a bodily orifice, he headed for the palatial residence of the deputy interior minister, Prince Mohammed Bin Naif.
According to an Al-Qaida Web site, Al-Asiri flew to Jeddah on Bin Naif's private jet, as part of the prince's amnesty program for militants who give themselves up and renounce terrorism. According to the official Saudi version, Bin Naif aides had telephoned a liaison in Yemen by the name of Tamaar to report that Al-Asiri had arrived safely. This call apparently served as the signal to those controlling Al-Asiri, who then dialed the cell phone that set off the blast.
Al-Asiri, who had refrained from eating or drinking for 40 hours to avoid damaging the explosives in his body, was blasted into dozens of pieces. The prince, who had been standing near him, was unharmed. King Abdullah, his half-uncle, called to congratulate him on his escape. But there are several unanswered questions. How, for example, did Al-Asiri, one of 85 men on the Saudis' list of wanted terrorists, manage not only to board the prince's aircraft but then get so close to him inside his home without the explosives being discovered? Indeed, Al-Qaida Web sites claimed the incident was actually a well-planned execution, not a miraculous escape by the prince. As Bin Naif controls the Saudi media, it is difficult to obtain objective or authoritative details about the event.
Nonetheless, it is clear that Saudi Arabia's campaign against Islamic terror is far from over and that the kingdom is actually one of the movement's main breeding grounds. In addition to the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil, Saudi citizens operating abroad have also been responsible for terror attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. At the same time, however, Western intelligence organizations regard Saudi Arabia as the most effective of the countries combating terror. According to Saudi figures, 45 terrorists on two previous wanted lists have all been killed since 2003. The numbers on the current list of 85 are also dwindling. Since Abdullah took over the monarchy from his brother Fahd in 2005, Saudi Arabia has been cooperating closely with American intelligence, which not only gathers information but also trains anti-terror units for the kingdom - all financed by the Saudis.
However, unlike the king, the interior minister, Prince Naif Bin Abdul Aziz, the father of Prince Mohammed (the deputy interior minister), opposes this close cooperation. His position is important because he is officially in charge of internal security. He has also claimed in the past that the 9/11 terrorists were not Saudis, but those who wanted to besmirch the name of Islam. In addition, he headed the Palestinian intifada committee that gave huge sums to the families of suicide bombers and is not enthusiastic about the democratic notions the United States has tried to disseminate.
Prince Naif has transferred most of his powers to his son Mohammed, including the complex task of waging war on terror. His plan is based on two basic tenets: unrelenting pursuit of extremist groups and educational activities, as well as financial incentives for those who lay down their weapons and break away from terrorist organizations. He cooperates closely with the FBI and CIA, and is investing vast sums in setting up an intelligence infrastructure and training anti-terror troops. His agents keep a close eye on what is taught in the kingdom's schools as well as the sermons of the Muslim clergy.
It is a protracted and uphill battle. It is enough to glance at Saudi Arabia's topography and its long and easily penetrated borders with Yemen and Iraq to realize the difficulty in preventing the movement of terrorists into and out of the country. The kingdom's 28 million citizens are not necessarily ardent supporters of the ruling dynasty, and they don't all have the same view on fighting terrorism or cooperation with the United States. A Saudi intelligence operative, by way of explaining the complexity of the struggle, was quoted on CNN as saying the country's youth are taught to fight for Islam in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia, but that when it comes to Iraq, it is forbidden to fight for Islam.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, is the model for what the United States hopes to achieve in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria - turning them into countries where the government takes it upon itself to fight the local war on terror, without any reservations. This is why the United States refrains from criticizing the Saudis, despite the many terrorists that cross its borders at will. It has not met much success in other countries. In Pakistan it is not clear how much the government, and especially the army, is really willing to fight the Taliban; in Afghanistan the Taliban, not the government, controls large areas of the country; and Syria does not see the struggle against external terror as a national goal.
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