Arar, Asharq Al-Awsat – The Saudi Arabian border guards successfully controlled the 812 km of the Saudi – Iraqi border, preventing border infiltrations during the peak of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s activities. Now, other ways to prevent militants from Iraq infiltrating Saudi territory, or [Saudi] Al Qaeda sympathizers crossing into Iraq via the Saudi border have been implemented. The Saudi border authorities have decided to establish surveillance towers to monitor the border, equipping these towers with the latest technology in advanced surveillance, from radar technology to 24-hour thermal imaging and surveillance. In addition to this, Saudi Arabia is also constructing a huge security fence along its border with Iraq; construction began more than one year ago and is expected to be completed in the coming months.
Saudi Arabia. A State with Continental Borders
The primary results of this security fence are both surprising and expected. All the figures point to a huge reduction in the number of attempts to infiltrate Saudi Arabia [from Iraq]. This can be attributed to the security fence that measures 2.5 meters in height, and is made up of three sections; each section consisting of a set of inter-connected bared wire fencing that is extremely difficult to surmount. This represents the first stage of the security fence, which will be enhanced in the future with technologically advanced surveillance equipment and cameras which will be directly linked to command centers that are assigned to oversee specific sections of Saudi Arabia’s border with Iraq.
The relevant authorities in Saudi Arabia are working to deploy border security along the entirety of the Saudi – Iraqi border, which has witnessed unrest since the collapse of the former Iraqi regime. Cross-border terrorism from Iraq was not a concern within Saudi Arabia until 2003, as prior to this Iraq was a relatively stable country in terms of security.
However fears of Iraqis infiltrating Saudi territory grew following the economic blockade imposed on Baghdad prior to the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Those who attempt to infiltrate Saudi Arabia can be divided into two camps. The majority of the infiltrators seized along the border since 1991 have been attempting to enter Saudi Arabia in order to earn a living. There was a huge explosion in the number of Iraqis seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia following the Second Gulf War; these Iraqi refugees were hosted by the Saudi Arabian government at its own expense.
As for the second group [of those attempting to infiltrate Saudi Arabia via Iraq], this is comprised of those seeking to smuggle weapons and drugs into Saudi Arabia.
The majority of those seized by Saudi border guards during the Saddam era were arms smugglers, as arms smuggling during this period was a particularly lucrative business.
However the situation today is different. The weapons that were previously being smuggled from Iraq into its neighboring countries are today worth more in Iraq, due to the huge presence of armed militias in the country following the collapse of the Saddam regime; this is not to mention the Al Qaeda organization’s presence on Iraqi soil, and it’s stockpiling of weapons there for future activities.
The Saudi border guards’ official figures confirm this, and just one year after the US invasion of Iraq, figures show that only 24 weapons were seized by the Saudi border guards between 18 July 2004 and 7 July 2005. Weapons smuggling declined even further throughout 2006, with only 12 weapons being seized by the Saudi authorities in this period. As for today, it is almost impossible for arms to be smuggled into Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi border guard informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “now the smugglers on the other side [Iraq] are seeking to smuggle goods that are lighter and more expensive, and this means drug smuggling.”
The confessions of drug smugglers caught over the past year by the Saudi borders guards trying to infiltrate the Saudi – Iraqi border indicates that all of the drugs that were seized in their possession came by way of Iran. Iraq is known to be a gateway country for drug smugglers, rather than a country where illegal drugs are produced.
There are 28 border command centers along the Saudi – Iraqi border, responsible for monitoring and controlling the 812 km border.
Saudi border guard media spokesman for the Al Hudud Ash-Shamaliyah region, Major Fahd al-Shahlan told Asharq Al-Awsat that approximately two thirds of the forward section of the security fence has already been completed, along with 243 km of the rear section of the security fence.
Asharq Al-Awsat began its tour of the new security fence along the Saudi – Iraqi border at the Arar border crossing and command post. This border crossing was closed by Saudi authorities during Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Saudi Arabia’s Arar border crossing is opened each year during the Hajj season, allowing Iraqi pilgrims to enter the country. However the border guards informed Asharq Al-Awsat that security is beefed up during this operation in order to ensure that only legitimate Iraqi pilgrims are allowed entry into Saudi territory, preventing any illegal attempts to infiltrate Saudi territory.
The Kingdom’s border guards are responsible for the extremely important job of monitoring the Saudi – Iraqi border, which has become even more vital following the US invasion of Iraq, and the decision made by U.S. Administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer to disband the Iraqi army in the wake of the collapse of the Saddam regime. This caused huge security problems in Iraq, particularly in the borer areas, as Iraq no longer had a security presence along its borders, which represented a threat to all neighboring countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.
There was a huge security vacuum in Iraq in the period following the collapse of the former Iraqi regime; however Saudi Arabia managed to obtain promises from Iraqi officials [of the provisional government] with regards to border control, and preventing cross-border infiltration by Al Qaeda elements or sympathizers, whether this is those attempting to infiltrate Saudi Arabia from Iraq or vice versa.
The Saudi authorities have established dozens of command centers along the Saudi – Iraqi border, where hundreds of border guards and officers are stationed in order to enforce security in the border area.
The Riyadh government has also strengthened the capabilities of the border guards in general, and particularly those operating along the Saudi – Iraqi border, providing the forces there with thermal surveillance cameras to monitor any attempted infiltration, whether this is drugs or arms smugglers or Al Qaeda elements.
The Al Hudud Ash Shamaliyah border guard commander, Major General Ali Nazal al-Anzi, told Asharq Al-Awsat that Al Qaeda terrorists, drug smugglers, and arms smugglers “represent a huge threat which must be combated seriously.” He added that “all of these dangers are closely inter-connected; no threat exists in isolation from the others, and therefore all of these threats represent the same degree of danger whether this is on the Saudi – Iraqi border, or any other border.”
Al-Anzi did not link the acts of violence witnessed in Iraq following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime to the Saudi government’s decision to establish a security fence. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that the “security fence project is the result of previous planning and is well-thought out, without looking into what happened and is happening in neighboring countries.” He also revealed that “this security fence is expected to be established along all borders of Saudi Arabia.”
Speaking about the objectives of the security fence along the Saudi – Iraqi border, al-Anzi indicated that this is to ensure the highest degree of security and safety along the border. The preliminary results of this security fence have been positive.
Major General al-Anzi also revealed that the security fence resulted in the reduction in the number of infiltration attempts, revealing that “between 28 December 2008 and 13 October 2009, the Al-Shaba sector saw 278 infiltration attempts, while in the period following this until 26 November 2010, the border guards only saw 16 attempted infiltrations and one case of attempted smuggling.”
Major General al-Anzi said that he believes that the security fence has achieved “excellent” results, and that this represents “clear evidence of the effectiveness of the security fence in lowering the number of infiltration and smuggling attempts.” He added that “once the [security fence] project is completely, we expect security control to be even tighter.” Al-Anzi told Asharq Al-Awsat that he expects the security fence to be completed in the near future, and that “work is in full swing to complete construction as soon as possible.”
However, in the meantime, and whilst some sections of the security fence are still incomplete or have yet to be built, the infiltrators and smugglers are attempting to exploit this to infiltrate Saudi territory.
Border guards revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that some infiltrators [from Iraq] take taxis to the edge of the Iraqi border, and then use metal wire-cutters to breach the fence and infiltrate Saudi territory.
The Saudi border guards conduct daily patrols across the entirety of the Saudi – Iraqi border, searching for any evidence of a successful border infiltration before pursuing the infiltrator. Lieutenant Colonel Naif al-Subaie, the commander of the al-Shaba sector of the Saudi – Iraqi border, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that pursuit does not end once an infiltrator has successfully [illegally] crossed into Saudi territory, and he confirmed that the border guards have arrested infiltrators up to 2 days following their entry into Saudi Arabia.
As for how smugglers and infiltrators are dealt with after their arrest, border guard media spokesman Major Fahd al-Shahlan told Asharq Al-Awsat that suspects are questioned before being surrendered to the relevant authorities where legal procedures against them are completed. Goods seized by the Saudi border guard include hashish, alcohol, illegal narcotics, weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and communication devices, in addition to currency that ranges from Saudi riyals to US dollars to Iraqi dinars.
The border guards along the Saudi – Iraqi border in the Al Hudud Ash Shamaliyah region of Saudi Arabia are responsible for monitoring 5 sectors of the border, designated al-Shaba sector, Rafhah sector, al-Awaikaliyah sector, al-Jadidah sector, and Turaif sector. These border sectors are monitored by 24-hour surveillance.
Asharq Al-Awsat visited the Al-Shaba sector of the Saudi – Iraqi border; this represents one of the most important sections of the border with regards to security and surveillance due to its popularity amongst smugglers and infiltrators. This is because the al-Shaba sector is located close to a number of cities on both the Saudi Arabian and Iraqi sides. The Al-Shaba sector is made up of 121 km, and the border surveillance here includes thermal cameras and radar. The al-Shaba sector command center is equipped with a special control room that is directly linked to all of the surveillance towers within the sector, and it is able to implement an early warning system in the event of any attempted infiltration.
Asharq Al-Awsat observed an attempted border crossing during its visit to the al-Shaba command center. The attempted infiltrator was arrested after being detected by the radar system and after the command center was able to immediately dispatch a border guard patrol to apprehend him. The border guard command centers are also directly lined to the Border Guard Directorate in Riyadh at the Saudi Interior Ministry.
Saudi Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs, Prince Mohammed Bin Naif, conducted a live video conference call with the al-Shaba command center, where he was briefed about all the surveillance and security operations that are being conducted to secure Saudi Arabia’s border with Iraq.
Major General Ali al-Anzi also confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat the importance of “optimizing our advantage from this technology…to tighten security.” He added that the border guard personnel are also being developed with regards to undergoing training courses, so that all border guards will have specific training and skills with regards to dealing with cases of smuggling and infiltration.
Major General al-Anzi also commended the interest being shown in the security fence project by the political leaders in Riyadh, particularly the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, the Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, and Second Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz. He also commended Saudi Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Prince Mohammed Bin Naif, saying that he “is exerting strenuous effort in monitoring the most precise details of the project.”
The Al Hudud Ash Shamaliyah region is also home to harsh natural conditions, and Major General al-Anzi told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the border guards continue to overcome a lot of harsh conditions in performing their work, and I am talking about the harsh natural conditions, such as the climactic conditions, the topography of the land of some areas of operation. In the past – and until now – we relied upon tracking in our pursuit of infiltrators, and there is an ongoing race between the border guards and the infiltrators and smugglers, with the infiltrators and smugglers trying to uncover new ways to reduce their chances of discovery.”
However al-Anzi stressed that the security fence will contribute to “tightening security along the border, which will help in eliminating smuggling and infiltration attempts.”
Speaking about the importance of this project, Major General al-Anzi also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “we expect that there will be a quantum leap forward in all operations of the border guard, benefiting from cutting edge technology. This will also result in an increase in job satisfaction amongst the border guards, as they will be working under a more favorable climate. There are residential units in each sector that provide all necessary services [for the border guards] and this is in the interests of their operations to motivate border guards to work with enthusiasm and zeal.”
Al-Anzi added that “there is a genuine and serious desire to establish a security cordon along Saudi Arabia’s borders, for as you know, Saudi Arabia is being targeted, and the evidence of this is the interception of infiltrators and arms and drug smugglers. All of this represents an immediate danger that must be confronted and dealt with forcefully, which is something that has prompted increased operation in order to secure the border.”
Speaking about the future plans of the border guards to keep pace with the smugglers and infiltrator to protect the border, Major General al-Anzi told Asharq Al-Awsat that “this is continually being assessed and reviewed, through studying plans and developing knowledge and understanding the impact of technology on the situation in the field, with plans changing according to requirements.”
The Al Hudud Ash Shamaliyah region where this security fence is being built is located in the northernmost part of Saudi Arabia, along the Saudi border with Iraq and Jordan. The Al Hudud Ash Shamaliyah region is made up of two major areas; Rafhah and Turaif, in addition to its capital Arar. Al Hudud Ash Shamaliyah has a population of around 271,000.
The strategic location of this region makes it one of the most important international gateways in the region, as this is located between the Arab Gulf states, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as the location of the oil pipeline that represents the Al Hudud Ash Shamaliyah’s lifeline.
The Saudi Interior Ministry’s project to build a security fence along the Saudi – Iraqi border is the first step in the operation to develop the Saudi border guards, along with providing the border guards with advanced surveillance technology to aid their attempts to detect any attempted infiltration.
Saudi officials have assured that the development process includes all border guards in Saudi Arabia, with regards to updating their equipment as well as plans to use aircraft to monitor Saudi Arabia’s borders from the air.