Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saudi authorities are investigating reports that three shells fired from Iraq on Monday struck near a residential complex in Arar in the Northern Borders Province close to the Iraqi border.
Nobody was injured in the attack, which represents the second time in the past year that Saudi territory has been struck by projectiles from neighboring Iraq, where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is fighting against government troops.
Saudi Border Guard spokesman, Gen. Mohamed Al-Ghamdi, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “At around 1:40 am local time on Monday, three shells struck near a residential complex in Arar in the Northern Borders Province. Thank God, nobody was injured in the attack.”
Ghamdi confirmed that Saudi authorities were investigating the source of the attack, which originated inside Iraqi territory.
The Saudi Border Guard spokesman confirmed that other Saudi security organizations, including the Air Force, were coordinating with the Border Guards to protect the country’s borders.
“The Air Force is conducting ongoing overflight operations to monitor any irregularities along the border,” he said.
Ghamdi stressed that the Ramadan period had not seen any decline in the state of alert of the Saudi Border Guards.
His comments come amid international reports that Saudi Arabia has deployed as many as 30,000 troops to its border with Iraq amid fears of ISIS’s advancing presence in the neighboring country.
“We are in possession of thermal imaging equipment and other advanced technological tools to prevent any illegal infiltration. Saudi Border Guards also patrol the border around the clock,” Ghamdi told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Six mortars were fired from Iraq into Saudi Arabia last November, striking a remote and uninhabited area of the country’s Eastern Province, close to the Kingdom’s borders with Iraq and Kuwait.
Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—A Saudi border post along the Saudi-Yemeni borders was attacked by suspected Al-Qaeda militants on Friday. The commander of the Wadia border post in Saudi Arabia’s southern province of Sharura was killed in the attack along with three of the assailants; two other assailants were shot and captured by Saudi security forces.
A well-informed Saudi security source, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, said that the assailants were Saudi nationals and members of the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) franchise which has a strong presence in parts of Yemen. One of the suspected Al-Qaeda members who was captured during the attack is believed to be Saleh Mohamed Abdul Rahman Al-Suhaibani, aged 22, who has been on the run from Saudi authorities since 2006.
The attack on the Saudi border post had been preceded by an assault on the Yemeni side of the border post with a car bombing killing one Yemeni soldier and wounding another, according to Yemen’s state SABA news agency. The suspected Al-Qaeda assailants were seeking to infiltrate Saudi Arabia’s territory from Yemen, possibly with the intention of carrying out further terrorist attacks. Saudi security forces seized machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades from the vehicles that were being used by the assailants.
Saudi security sources confirmed that the suspected Al-Qaeda attackers, whose identities have yet to be released to the public, were wanted on terrorism charges.
The Saudi Interior Ministry issued a public call in August 2006 for Mohamed Abdul Rahman Al-Suhaibani to come forward and explain his alleged involvement with a terrorist cell in Riyadh affiliated to AQAP. Saudi authorities arrested the terrorist cell, which had been in the process of planning operations against government infrastructure and security figures.
“Suhaibani was a member of the terrorist cell which was exposed after a Yemeni member of the cell was arrested in Riyadh during advanced planning for a terrorist attack targeting three locations in the capital,” the security source told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Wadia Border Post commander Fahd Al-Dossari was killed in the Al-Qaeda attack. His brother, Khalid, told Asharq Al-Awsat that Fahd was a veteran commander who had been involved in a number of front-line actions over the past years and that he sacrificed himself for the security of the nation.
Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters “liberated” prisons in Mosul after soldiers and guards abandoned their posts, a Saudi national who was among the prisoners has told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the Saudi citizen said that prison guards at the Tasfirat (Transfer) Prison in Mosul removed their uniforms and donned yellow prison uniforms to disguise themselves as prisoners out of fear of being killed by the Islamist militants.
“The [ISIS] gunmen, most of them Iraqi nationals, stormed Tasfirat prison in Mosul where I was being held and freed me. They were shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ at the top of their voices and did not ask anything in return for freeing us,” he said.
“There were only around 15 of them, but they were carrying heavy weapons, and they were in possession of Iraqi army and police vehicles,” he added.
The Saudi national, who told Asharq Al-Awsat that he was arrested in Baghdad Airport in 2012 on charges of smuggling, said: “The gunmen were dressed in black and wearing masks. From their accents, it was clear that they were Iraqis and Syrians.”
The freed Saudi prisoner, who is currently staying with a local Iraqi family, affirmed that the ISIS militias have been moving freely throughout Mosul, Iraq’s second city. “Life in the city has practically returned to normal. Gas stations are working again under the supervision of the gunmen, and some restaurants have also reopened.”
“There are no [ISIS] checkpoints near the neighborhood where I am currently staying, but I have seen a lot of army and police vehicles being driven by the militants, they have also seized three helicopters from a military airbase in Mosul,” he added.
The Saudi national said that he has met a number of prisoners who have been freed from other jails in the area, including some who had been imprisoned on terrorism charges. Recounting the chaos and confusion that has prevailed across the region during the ISIS advance, he said that Iraqi prison officers had sought to kill prisoners rather than allow them to escape. Describing an incident that occurred at another prison, he claimed that a prison officer, Major Faris, threw a hand-grenade into a prison cell killing seven prisoners during an ISIS attack. “The militants were able to kill Major Faris,” the Saudi national added.
ISIS confirmed that it has captured a number of prisons in its recent advance in Iraq, freeing “thousands” of prisoners. International media put the number of prisoners freed by ISIS at around 2,500, including ISIS members convicted by the Baghdad government who may have rejoined the fight.
London and Manama, Asharq Al-Awsat—US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that US commitments to its Gulf allies would not be affected by an Iranian nuclear deal during a visit to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.
Hagel took part in a meeting of defense ministers from Gulf Cooperation Council member-states in Jeddah on Wednesday. At the beginning of the meeting, Hagel told the assembled ministers that “the United States remains committed to our Gulf partners’ security.”
“As negotiations progress, I want to assure you of two things,” he said. “First, these negotiations will under no circumstances trade away regional security for concessions on Iran’s nuclear program.”
“Second, while our strong preference is for a diplomatic solution, the United States will remain postured and prepared to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon—and that Iran abides by the terms of any potential agreement,” he added.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat ahead of the meeting, a Gulf source with knowledge of Hagel’s agenda who asked to remain anonymous said: “Hagel, through his visit to Saudi Arabia—the first stop in a tour which will also take him to Jordan and Israel—will discuss issues which are sensitive to Gulf states, such as the Iranian issue, the ongoing Syrian crisis, the political situation in Egypt, and terrorism and security developments in Yemen.”
The source added that Hagel would also likely to push GCC allies to develop their cyberdefense capabilities in order to defend their infrastructure from electronic attack.
He said: “The Americans look to exchange information on the evaluation of the capabilities of the Gulf states and to prepare experts in this field, so that Gulf states can develop cyberdefense policies.”
He said Hagel’s latest trip to the region was designed to strengthen common positions in light of the Gulf states’ concerns regarding Iran and attempt to find common ground on approaches to the conflict in Syria. Both issues have been sources of recent tension between the US and its allies in the region.
Following Wednesday’s meeting, Hagel said that the US and the GCC states “agreed that our assistance [to the Syrian opposition] must be complementary—and that it must be carefully directed to the moderate opposition.”
The chairman of the Gulf Center for Strategic and Security Studies, Dr. Abdulaziz Bin Saqr, said there was a desire on both sides to evaluate the risks regarding Iran and the situation in Syria, adding that Saudi Arabia was still pushing the US to provide sophisticated weapons—including anti-aircraft missiles—to the Syrian opposition.
In regards to Iran, Bin Saqr told Asharq Al-Awsat that Gulf fears revolved around Iran’s development of new weapons and ballistic missiles, and Iranian naval activity and the intensive exercises carried out by the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps around oil installations, adding these maneuvers gave rise to concerns about the security of oil infrastructure in the Gulf.
He also pointed to the alarm caused by reports of Iranian plans to build a drone base near the Straight of Hormuz, saying: “The Gulf states have concerns about the uncontrolled arms buildup in Iran, as it produces arms and uses them at will and provides them to other parties with no controls.”
Bin Saqr also said a recent major military exercise in Saudi Arabia was partly aimed at signaling that the Kingdom “was moving towards building defensive capabilities which allowed it to rely less on its allies.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Ashraf Kashk, researcher at the Bahrain Center for Strategic Studies, said the meeting was part of a new approach by the US, in which it deals with the GCC as a single entity in defense matters.
He said the US was aware of Gulf fears regarding US defense policy, which is gradually moving towards Asia, and the corresponding reduction of military presence in the Middle East and the Gulf.
Kashk said the timing of the meeting was highly important, as it comes days ahead of a possible permanent nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers—including the US—and fears in the Gulf that an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program may herald a wider agreement on regional issues, at the expense of the Gulf states.
Obaid Al-Suhaimi contributed reporting from Manama.