London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In the week of the tenth anniversary of the Riyadh Compound Bombings, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to US counter-terrorism expert Brian Fishman on the implications this attack had on the domestic, and global, war on terror.
Brian Fishman is a counter-terrorism research fellow at the New American Foundation, he is also a Fellow with the Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, having previously served as CTC’s Director of Research.
Fishman is the author of a number of studies on terrorism and Al-Qaeda in particularly, including investigations into Al-Qaeda’s foreign fighters in Iraq.
The Riyadh Compound Bombings saw coordinated suicide attacks against three residential compounds frequented by westerners in eastern Riyadh on May 12, 2003, killing 34 and wounding 149. This represented the first Al-Qaeda strike on Saudi territory and the beginning of a fierce conflict between Saudi security authorities and the terrorist organization that ultimately saw Al-Qaeda withdraw to neighboring Yemen.
Asked whether these suicide bombings marked the beginning of the end for Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, Fishman acknowledged that “this hammered home, for the Saudi government, the risk represented by Al-Qaeda and similar groups domestically.”
Fishman said: “The crackdown by the Saudi government in general was very effective. Since that time, there has been increased cooperation on an intelligence-level. Therefore, I think it is important to understand that while 19 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and you still see fundraising and those kinds of activities in Saudi Arabia, since 2003 Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have largely been pushed into Yemen.”
“The Saudi government has been instrumental in helping manage and understand the threat from that particular Al-Qaeda branch,” he added.
Commenting on reported ties between Al-Qaeda and Iran, Fishman told Asharq Al-Awsat: “There have been many reports of Bin Laden family members being present in Iran, including Suleiman Abu Ghaith, who was just arrested and is now in the US, among others.”
“The order to attack in 2003 was reportedly given by Saif Al-Adel who at the time was in Iran,” he added.
Fishman emphasized: “The relationship between Al-Qaeda figures living in Iran and the Iranian government is one of the great mysteries of the last ten years or so. This is because there have been times when those figures have been able to contribute operationally, including in 2003 in Saudi Arabia, while at the same time we know that Al-Qaeda and Iran have very different goals and ideologies. They don’t have the same vision of the world.”
“We can see that in Syria today where the Iranian government is backing the Assad regime and Al-Qaeda is working with some of the rebel groups,” he added.
As for Bin Laden’s killing in 2011, and hopes that this would spell the end of global terrorism, Fishman said: “I think the ideology doesn’t go away; the ideology remains. I think that the threat from Al-Qaeda central has declined substantially but implicitly there has been a trade-off made by the west by intervening directly in the heart of the Islamic world, whether we are talking about Afghanistan or Iraq.”
“Over time, the ability of the US to put pressure on AQAP in Yemen for example, has reduced its ability to conduct an attack from the outside into the US or the West in general. However, this [also] raises the risk from Muslims living in the west who may feel like they need to do something—although obviously that is extremely rare in the grand scheme of things,” he added.
However Fishman emphasized that “the vast majority of American or British Muslims are well integrated into society; they are just everyday people, living their lives, taking care of their kids.”
He affirmed that “I do think that the strategy that we have taken has downfalls. It has upsides too, it reduces the risk of those attacks from outside the country but it increases the risk that there will be domestic radicalization.”