“Most probably, terrorist activities will not stop. Perhaps more lists with the names of most wanted terrorists will be published, in addition to the list of 19, the Ishbilia cell and the most recent list of 26 most wanted fugitives. Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia does not hide its intention to continue its activities.”
“The best case scenario would be for terrorist activities to remain at their current level. In the worst case, violence will escalate.”
4 January 2005
“This fundamentalist organization has not yet disappeared. More exasperating, it is, in its own words, “an intellectual current” capable of interacting with society. It will not come to end in the near future. It surprises many with occasional flare-ups. After a period of inactivity of almost 6 months in Saudi Arabia, it returned last months to target the U.S. consulate in Jeddah and later attack Riyadh.”
These are two excerpts from articles I wrote a year apart, the first at the end of 2003 and the second in the beginning of 2005. Both discuss religious violence and terrorism in Saudi Arabia, they relate what has occurred and speculate on what might happen. In both cases, the situation was not pleasant!
At the end of 2004, prior to the attacks against the American consulate, the Ministry of Interior and the Special Emergency Forces compound training center on December 29, some were speaking with glee about the end of the war on terrorism! But the terrorists thought otherwise… On the other hand, a Saudi dissident abroad predicted that 2005 would be the year where terrorism will peak and that terrorists will escalate their attacks and target the Royal family! Of course, none of this happened and we hope terrorists fail to reach their targets. However, the question remains; Has an analysis of terrorism become a chandelier for people to hang their wishes on?
To return to terrorism in Saudi Arabia, fate determined that al Qaeda ended the year 2005 as it has ended the previous year, with clashes in al Qassim, which claimed the lives of five police officers and two militants whose name appeared on the list of 36 most wanted. We do not except this confrontation to be the last. The men were Mohammed al Suwaylimi and Abdul Rahman al Mutib. Both in their twenties, the militants belong to the new generation of al Qaeda, thereby indicating that terrorism is still breeding.
Many ignore the process necessary to produce an al Qaeda fighter such al Mutib and al Suwaylimi. They were not born all of a sudden or cried out one day: “What should I do today? I know, I will take part in a suicide attack!”
I intend to focus on religious violence in Saudi Arabia even though I realize that terrorism has struck Egypt, England, Jordan and Kuwait in the last year and it continues to target Iraq.
Two important issues need to be investigated: What is the future of terrorism in 2005 compared to the previous year? What is the effect of the continuous absence of Osama bin Laden on al Qaeda and its supporters?
Regarding the first question, the statistics compiled by the Saudi security services are reassuring if not ideal, especially with regard to the fields of education and the media.
Last February, Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz revealed that the Saudi authorities thwarted 52 terrorist attacks in 2003 and 2004. The Kingdom witnessed 22 operations, including bombings, attacks and kidnapping, in the same period. 90 civilians were killed as a result and 507 were injured. 39 security men lost their lives and 213 were injured in these confrontations, which claimed the lives of 92 terrorists and injured 17. Property losses totaled more than $266 million.
These numbers and statistics do not cover 2005, which was eventful in its own right.
In March, the security services detained 18 members of a terrorist cell in al Zulfi, north of the capital Riyadh.
In April, several militants whose names appeared on the list of 26 most wanted were killed, most prominently, Saud al Utaybi and the Moroccan Abdul Karim al Majati, in a fierce battle in the city of al Ras in al Qassim. This group was connected to the bombing of a residential compound in Riyadh on 8 December 2003.
In June, the authorities published a new list of 36 most wanted militants. Less than a week later, one of the names on the list and a prominent al Qaeda figure, the Moroccan Younes al Hiyari was killed in Riyadh.
In September, the security services clashed with militants in the al Mubarakiyah neighborhood in the eastern city of Dammam for three consecutive days, resulting on several deaths on both sides.
Towards the end of December, the confrontation in al Muznab governorate in al Qassim occurred.
Despite these violent incidents in the war against terror in 2005, Saudis are feeling less anxious than in the two previous years, when terrorism in the Kingdom was at its peak and Abdulaziz al Muqrin sullied the image of the country when he slaughtered his victims. Some people cite carelessness and getting used to terrorism as caused for this relaxed attitude. Others believe the rush to make money and profit from the booming stock market, especially in light of an unprecedented budget surplus, is responsible for this lack of care. This prompted King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to tell his ministers, “There is no excuse now… Praise to God the wealth is abundant.”
Financial experts believe that a trillion US dollars have been circulated in the Saudi stock market in the last year alone.
In other words, citizens might be busy with exploiting the second Saudi economic boom in order to increase their fortunes. There is a feeling the current period is exceptional and requires everyone’s attention, disregarding other events, even if it were a bombing or an exchange of gunfire nearby.
The fear is that this interest in the economy will undermine our focus on the crucial issue that is the war against terrorism by leaving it to the specialists. Terrorists might benefit from no longer being in the spotlight and regroup.
The second issue I would like to examine is If Osama bin Laden were to be killed, would this weaken Islamic terrorism?
Bin Laden has roused our curiosity and interest with his yearlong absence from al Jazeera’s screens. His number one aide, Ayman al Zawahiri has compensated for this absence, appearing 7 times on television. In one message, he asked Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq for a 100 thousand dollar loan.
His absence has been bewildering, to the extent that Donald Rumsfeld indicated, a few days ago, “I think it is interesting that we haven’t heard from him for close to a year”.
Personally, I do not believe the death of bin Laden or his capture will have a positive effect on his supporters in the Islamic world. On the contrary, his continued absence is unconstructive! By remaining alive, bin Laden is bound to continue to make speeches and claim responsibility for terrorist attacks but he is also certain to commit mistakes and provoke the anger of a Muslim society with his predictable endorsement of terrorism, which will undermine his symbolic image. Whether we like it or not, the man has become a symbol for many, even amongst the non-religious, across the Muslim world.
In this respect, an interesting remark I heard lately caught my attention. Will Osama bin Laden become the equivalent of Khomeini for the Sunnis? In other words, can the leader of al Qaeda inspire the Sunni revolutionaries just as Khomeini did for the Shiaa?
Perhaps there is more than one answer to the question. The two men differ in that Khomeini build a state whereas bin Laden is hiding, as many expect, in the mountains of Waziristan, not to mention the differences between the Sunni and Shiaa theories of political authority.
Yet, this does not negate that both men revolutionized their surrounding and became a symbol for revolutionaries, each in their sectarian milieu. Herein lays the importance of bin Laden staying alive in order for him to become more of a danger and less of an inspiration, especially as the rate of terrorist attacks will not be affected by his presence or nonappearance. On the other hand, the purity of his Jihadist image and his sanctity amongst his followers will. This is what matters most to us.
In conclusion, just as I wrote at the end of 2003 and 2004, I say today: Religiously motivated terrorism is here to stay. It might take on other forms or reconfigure itself according to the politics of the time and strike temporary alliances with one side or another. The problem is that terrorism is connected to a variety of cultural and political factors, thereby creating a complex picture.