Abha, Saudi Arabia, Asharq Al-Awsat- It appears that members of the Al Qaeda terrorist cell whose activities were disrupted by Saudi security forces last month were in the process of trying to revive their Afghan experience by hiding out in the southern region of Saudi Arabia, which is the closest thing in Saudi Arabia to the rugged Afghan Tora Bora mountainside.
This [theory] is reinforced by the arrest of Osman Hadi, a fugitive member of the dismantled cell whose name was included in the list of 26 dangerous terrorists who previously fought for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and who are being pursued by Saudi authorities following the infamous May 12 Riyadh compound bombings.
This Afghan experience was reflected in members of the Al Qaeda cell that has become known as the “southern cave” cell choosing this location for its hide-out. Asharq Al-Awsat was recently the first newspaper to visit the southern cave.
The main cave was used by members of the cell for the storage of arms and foodstuffs, and occasionally as a temporary place of shelter also. The cave is located 155 km or two hours from the city of Abha, which is the capital of the Asir province. The cave is one of a series of small isolated caves in the Sarwat mountainside, which stretches from the Western region of Saudi Arabia to Yemen. This mountain range is 1000 meters above sea level at its lowest point and 2200 meters above sea level at its highest.
Access to the region where the Al Qaeda cell’s cave is located requires detour around villages such as Ballahmar and Ballasmar, as well as travelling through the region of Al-Namas. Al Namas is only a stones throw away from the opening of the cave where the terrorist cell that was planning on carrying out a series of assassinations against senior security figures was holed up.
One of the [governmental] escorts that accompanied Asharq Al-Awsat on the trip to the cave which took approximately 8 hours, revealed that “The security services operation to uncover [the location of] the cave took place quietly without any of the local population being aware of it” or even “the local residents knowing about the existence of the cave, or its location.”
The rugged terrain of this mountainous region does not suggest that life can easily flourish under these harsh geographical conditions, and this is not to mention the cold atmosphere at these heights. It is clear that this is what made it easy for the members of the Al Qaeda cell to move around in this mountainous region. Indeed the majority of those arrested are originally from mountainous regions, and so traversing such areas is not difficult for them.
Asharq Al-Awsat’s trip to the cave was divided into three stages; the first two made use of jeeps in order to traverse the rugged and rocky mountain roads, while the third stage had to be undertaken on foot after entering an area that it is impossible for cars to access.
According to one of the [governmental] escorts, the cave that the Al Qaeda cell used overlooks the village of Said Ali Al Shihri, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who recently appeared in a video attributed to the Al Qaeda in Yemen organization threatening to carry out attacks against Saudi Arabia.
The Southern Cave is in close proximity to the border region between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where 26 suspects wanted by Riyadh for various terrorist activities are said to be in hiding, this is not to mention the 85 most wanted who are thought to be hiding out abroad in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
According to some of the suspects that have been arrested and who gave televised confessions, regional countries are behind the attempts to bring about instability in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Last month the Saudi Interior Ministry discovered links between the Al Qaeda cell that it had arrested and terrorist groups in Yemen, obtaining information that indicates clear coordination between the cell that was arrested, and some of those whose names appear on the most wanted list of 85.
According to information obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat, Abdullah Faraj Juweir, whose name is included on the list of 85 most wanted, is also included in the list of 26 being pursued by Saudi authorities for committing terrorist activities on Yemeni soil. This may explain the association between terrorist elements in Yemen and the arrested terrorist cell.
It is worth noting that the Al Qaeda organization has failed to re-build itself inside Saudi Arabia, particularly in the urban areas, after Saudi security forces drove them out. This is what had made Yemen an alternative for these terrorist groups.
The discovery of the cave that is located in a remote and difficult to access area by the Saudi security authorities is evidence of their strength, and their ability in pursuing armed [terrorist] members to all places, even the unexpected. According to data revealed by the Saudi Ministry of Interior, Al Qaeda has been split into two divisions, those that fled to Yemen to rebuild and recruit more members, and those that have been given the task of choosing training locations similar to those where elements of the Yemeni organization trained or those that had previously been used in Afghanistan.
It appears that the location of the cave was chosen very carefully by the 11-strong terrorist cell, and it is not unlikely that the location of this cell is known to those that fled to Yemen, especially since it overlooks the village of Said Ali Al Shihri. Shihri, of course, is one of the 11 detainees to return to Saudi from Guantanamo Bay, and whose name appeared on the most wanted list of 85. Information indicates that these 11 former detainees are present in Yemen, and one of whom, Mohamed Al Awfi AKA Abu Al Haritha, has already handed himself over to Saudi authorities.
The televised broadcast of Al Awfi’s confession which came a few days after the arrest of the Southern Cave cell, revealed the existence of ties between Al Qaeda and some regional countries. Al Awfi named Iran specifically, and said that it had been supporting the Huthis militant group in Yemen, who in turn support Al Qaeda, despite the ideological differences between the two.
Reaching the Al Qaeda cave is not easy, for in addition to the path to the cave being extremely rugged and requiring detours around outcrops of rocks and boulders, one can only enter the cave by rope, as the cave’s entrance is three and a half meters below the mountain path.
With regards to the types of equipment used by the Al Qaeda movement in Yemen, Abdullah Hassan Asiri informed Asharq Al-Awsat that he had trained with SA-7’s [surface to air missile], MILAN [anti-tank missile], mortars, RPG’s, and B10 recoilless rifle. This indicates the desire of the organization to take the fight to the mountains of Saudi Arabia, especially since all of the above weapons are heavy weapons that have the capability of targeting large distances. This promotes the theory that the organization has planned to inflict the maximum amount of casualties against the security forces in the event of the conflict entering Saudi Arabia.
Amongst the items found in the cave were; military uniforms, boots, helmets, knives, various types of weaponry and other miscellaneous items. This gives a clear indication to the type of terrorist operation planned by the cell. It seems that the location of the Southern Cell’s cave was chosen in mind of the difficulty of it being discovered, and the ease with which members of the cell might flee in the event of this actually occurring. The Al Qaeda cell did not even discount the possibility of escape from the security authorities by use of parachute, and Asharq Al-Awsat has learnt that a number of the cell members were intending to use parachutes in order to jump from the high mountainside and land safely in an effort to escape the security authorities.
The location chosen for the cave indicates that it was to be used as a safe house for their operations, and may have been used to imprison hostages, and film them for propaganda purposes, as well as in order to shelter the cell members from the security forces.
The southern cave cell has tried to stock the cave with as much provisions as possible in preparation for these hostage operations. This is consistent with Al Qaeda practices in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as with the operations of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in Iraq. The security authorities seized a number of video cameras in the cave, as well as a large quantity of batteries to power them, which is how such operations continue to be carried out in Afghanistan.
Asharq Al-Awsat noted that the date on some of the provisions stored in the cave was May 2008, which coincides with the disappearance of a group of Saudis who illegally entered Yemen to join Al Qaeda, according to information.
Asharq Al-Awsat has obtained footage of the cell firing rifles full of blanks in the Saudi mountainside, which indicates that this cell was carrying out military training here, and simulating the training methods used in Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
A source informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the Al Qaeda movement in its post-9/11 phase is no longer a jihadist movement that originally was fighting in order to drive out the Soviet occupiers [from Afghanistan], but the organization [is now] a jihadist phenomenon that is supported on the ground by regional intelligence agencies to achieve the interests of some countries at the expense of others.
The source added that Iran is an essential supporter of Al Qaeda operations in the region, in spite of the ideological differences between the Shiite nation and the Sunni organization. This is evident in the fact that Iran shares borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Gulf region, which are currently three of the most volatile regions [in the Middle East]. Afghanistan and Pakistan have also witnessed a growing Al Qaeda presence, which is reflected in both countries confrontation with the Taliban insurgency. April was also the bloodiest month in Iraq for over 8 months, and only a few days ago Bahrain announced that it had thwarted the plans of a terrorist cell. This is not to mention the Al Qaeda cell that was recently arrested in Saudi Arabia plotting a series of assassinations against senior Saudi security figures, and whose cave Asharq Al-Awsat visited.