Al-Qaeda: In Decline or Preparing for the Next Attack? An Interview with Saad al-Faqih

Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 3 Issue: 5

Dr. Saad al-Faqih heads the Saudi opposition group, Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), and is a widely acknowledged expert on al-Qaeda. Terrorism Monitor Editor Mahan Abedin conducted this interview on June 2, 2005 in London.

Mahan Abedin: The United Nations Security Council’s 1267 Committee (that reports on al-Qaeda and the Taliban) put you on its terrorist list in December 2004. Nearly 6 months later, what is your explanation for that designation?

Saad al-Faqih: My position on this is the same as it was six months ago; namely that the designation has no factual basis and was an attempt to arrest the pace of our political successes inside Saudi Arabia. The Saudi and American governments have found it very difficult to curtail our activities here in London and inside the Kingdom; therefore the only option available to them was to put us on the UN terrorism list. These accusations are more than seven years old, and one has to question why they have been suddenly revived. Of course from our point of view, these accusations were revived for the purpose that I have just outlined.

MA: How has the designation affected you and your organization?

SF: Fortunately it has not limited the scope of our activities. The British government has taken no actions, apart from freezing our assets, which are in any case limited to my personal bank current account.

MA: What have been the more negative effects of the designation?

SF: The designation has had both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, it put us on the international arena and highlighted our importance. Moreover the designation finally dispelled the myth propagated by some people in Saudi Arabia that I am an American lackey. The regime had tried hard to depict us through its intelligence network as British and American agents, and the designation finally put an end to these conspiracy theories. On the negative side, the designation has deterred some people from cooperating with our organization not because they believe the accusations but because they were worried of the potential repercussions of dealing with me.

MA: The Saudi government is claiming that it has virtually destroyed the organization of “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”. How accurate are these claims?

SF: As far as the local cadres of al-Qaeda are concerned they have some credibility. But of course al-Qaeda is an ideology and its potency can not be reduced to the number of men in its ranks. Moreover the invasion and occupation of Iraq gave al-Qaeda a huge boost and the Saudi government has indirectly admitted (in a research paper highlighted by the al-Arabiya channel) that at least 2,500 Saudis are fighting in Iraq. Of course some of these people will in due course return to Saudi Arabia, possibly with a more radical agenda.

MA: We will discuss Iraq later, but just to be clear, you agree that al-Qaeda’s organization in the Kingdom has been seriously compromised?

SF: Very broadly speaking, this is true. The jihadis made the strategic mistake of targeting security forces and Western civilians. This enabled the government to mobilize the security forces against them in a very effective manner.

MA: Do you have any fresh information on the gun battle in Al-Ras in early April, which reportedly resulted in the deaths of 15 al-Qaeda militants?

SF: Yes, we get fresh information on these developments on a daily basis. In summary, although the incidents resulted in the killing and capture of all al-Qaeda militants who were on the scene, they still reflected huge shortcomings on the part of the security forces. In fact the security forces were not even aware of the gathering of the militants; they were just lucky to have been tipped off by a local resident who had observed suspicious activities. Subsequently they sent a small number of security forces on a reconnaissance mission and they were unpleasantly surprised by the amount of ammunition at the disposal of the militants. Consequently they mobilized security forces not just from the al-Qassim province, but from places like Riyadh and Medina as well. According to our information the security forces had mobilized around 30,000 personnel in order to defeat something like 15-18 militants. Moreover they needed a whole week to defeat this relatively small group of militants. Given the fact that the militants had no hostages, any well trained security force would have dealt with the problem in less than 24 hours. This whole incident highlighted the sheer incompetence of the regime’s security forces.

MA: Where there any high-ranking militants among the dead?

SF: There were 3 high-ranking jihadis present on the scene and all were either killed or captured. The regime is correct in claiming that Saud al-Utaibi was among the dead. Contrary to Western reports Saud al-Utaibi (and not Saleh al-Oufi) is the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Also Saleh al-Shamsan, who was a senior leader of the jihadis, in fact surrendered to the regime. This is a big coup for the regime, since he can provide them with valuable information. Moreover al-Homeidi, a Sheikh who provided ideological and spiritual guidance for the mujahideen, was captured. The security forces also captured a senior militant in Riyadh two weeks later. His pseudonym is Akhumin Ta’allah, and he also had an ideological and spiritual role inside the al-Qaeda organization. In fact he was not only an ideologue, but a learned Alim as well.

MA: So this was a big blow to the jihadis.

SF: Yes, it was.

MA: How many more of these religious instructors and ideologues remain in al-Qaeda’s ranks?

SF: We know that Abdullah al-Rashoud is still on the run. There are at least another 2-3 ideologues whose names are unknown but who are also believed to be on the run.

MA: How extensive are al-Qaeda’s reserves of actual or potential religious instructors? Are they beginning to reach a crisis point in terms of depletion of ideological resources?

SF: They are facing problems. The slaying of Yousef al-Ayyiri was a big loss to the jihadis. Ayyiri was one of their most talented thinkers and strategists. There was also the capture of Ali Faris al-Zahrani in August last year. They also lost al-Shami, who was a close adviser of Zarqawi in Iraq. The loss of such important people is clearly problematic for the militants, but we don’t really know how many Ulama are in their ranks. Moreover al-Qaeda has no problem in recruiting sympathizers from the ranks of the Ulama. Furthermore there is a substantial reserve of Ulama, who while wary of joining al-Qaeda, have nevertheless given them their blessings and perform certain services from time to time.

MA: What role does Saleh al-Oufi play in the al-Qaeda organization in the Kingdom?

SF: After the slaying of al-Utaybi, al-Oufi is now probably the overall leader of the mujahideen. We initially thought that he had been killed in the battle at al-Ras, but reports now indicate that he was not.

MA: What is the total number of active jihadis in the country today?

SF: This is very difficult to say, as there are Saudis who return from the conflict in Iraq on a daily basis. The Saudi regime, for the first time ever, has begun to talk about the problem of “returnees” from Iraq. A classified interior ministry report claims that at least 200 have returned and are currently plotting attacks inside the Kingdom. But going back to your question I would estimate that the number of active jihadis is probably in the low hundreds, but the potential number is much greater.

MA: Exactly 2 years after the slaying of Yousef al-Ayyiri, where does al-Qaeda stand in relation to political and social developments in Saudi Arabia?

SF: Al-Qaeda has lost ground militarily, politically and ideologically. Attacking civilians proved to be a major blunder and it remains to be seen whether they can fully recover from it. Also by attacking the security forces they lost a lot of sympathy inside these organizations. The momentum in Saudi society today is not particularly sympathetic toward al-Qaeda. The situation was very different 2-3 years ago, when ordinary people were willing to give the jihadis shelter and other forms of support.

MA: Can al-Qaeda recover some of this lost ground?

SF: Yes, they can. The solution lies in what is happening in Iraq, since many ordinary people and the security forces are supportive of jihad in Iraq. And of course the jihad in Iraq is strongly linked to al-Qaeda. But the one single factor which will reverse their misfortunes is if they decided to change their targets. There is now a growing consensus inside the jihadi circles that they need to start targeting members of the royal family. If they targeted the royal family which is now almost universally despised in the country, their popularity will increase. Even back in 1979, when the regime was far more popular than it is today, there was widespread disappointment that Juhaiman al-Utaibi (the leader of the group that seized the grand mosque of Mecca) had not attacked the palaces.

MA: How likely is an attack on the royals?

SF: According to intelligence information it is very likely, since there has always been a faction in al-Qaeda that has believed in striking blows at the very heart of the regime.

MA: You have said this before in previous interviews; is an attack now imminent?

SF: The Saudi government has foiled 3-4 attacks in the last three years, most of which were directed at Prince Nayef.

MA: Who are they likely to target?

SF: Nayef and his son are probably on the top of the list. Also Salman and Sultan are likely targets. Given the nature of the Saudi regime, the elimination of any of these people, or any other direct blow to the core of the regime, will seriously weaken it. An attack on the royals will likely be carried out by returnees from Iraq.

MA: Let us now discuss al-Qaeda outside Saudi Arabia. How do you interpret bin Laden’s last video appearance in November 2004? What was he trying to convey to his audience?

SF: It was clearly addressed to the American people. Bin Laden was irritating the American people in a manner that would lead them to vote for Bush.

MA: Is it possible to analyze bin Laden’s last video message in the context of debates on the permissibility of using weapons of mass destruction against the United States? In other words was bin Laden trying to complete the warning cycle?

SF: Yes, he was trying to complete the warning cycle. In fact I would go further by saying that Bin Laden was issuing the warning in such a manner that would have a strong resonance in the American consciousness following a major attack. In other words after a major attack people would look back at his warning and thereafter interpret his words in a different and hopefully more correct manner.

MA: When is this WMD attack likely to take place?

SF: That is very difficult to say; it could happen at any time.

MA: Looking at this issue from a completely different perspective, some analysts are beginning to talk of al-Qaeda’s operational demise; is there any credence to such suggestions?

SF: Nobody knows how al-Qaeda really works. Consider, for instance, that the time lapse between the Africa embassy bombings and 9/11 was more than 3 years. Therefore the fact that no major attack has taken place since 9/11 is not altogether very surprising. Al-Qaeda is an extremely resilient organization and it will most likely surprise everybody by how, when and where it executes its next catastrophic attack.

MA: What is the significance of Abu Faraj al-Liby’s capture?

SF: I think it has been grossly over-rated. According to most accounts Liby was an ordinary militant and certainly not a leader as the Americans have been suggesting. I understand that European intelligence services agree with this assessment.

MA: Let us discuss Zarqawi now. The Zarqawi network formally pledged allegiance to bin Laden and al-Qaeda late last year, but what exactly is the nature of the relationship between the two?

SF: I think the relationship, based on Zarqawi’s loyalty to bin Laden, has always been there. Moreover, the relationship between the Zarqawi network and the core of al-Qaeda has two dimensions: formality and propaganda. The pledge of allegiance last year was simply a case of formalizing the status quo. And since it is important for the jihadis in Iraq to boast of an international front, the formal pledge of allegiance ensures that the wider world perceives the struggle in Iraq as closely linked to al-Qaeda’s broader global strategy.

MA: Does al-Qaeda have a separate organization in Iraq, distinct from the Zarqawi network?

SF: I believe that Zarqawi is al-Qaeda in Iraq. Most observers and analysts agree with me on this point. More broadly, there are two schools of thought on this matter: one which believes that Zarqawi was a less than perfect but yet unavoidable choice for bin Laden as his representative in Iraq, the other school believes that Zarqawi is not simply a man of pure action, but a good strategist who has studied the situation in Iraq closely and concluded that the best way to defeat the Americans is to provoke a sectarian war in the country. It is now widely believed that al-Qaeda was behind the killing of Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim (the founding leader of SCIRI) in August 2003, and it was probably behind the attacks in Karbala last year. In order to fully appreciate the connection between these events and al-Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq you have to go back to the original Zarqawi letter and study it purely in the context of strategy and not sectarian hatred.

MA: You think the Zarqawi letter is genuine?

SF: I used to doubt its authenticity but now I think it is genuine. It fits very well with the attacks that have been attributed to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

MA: But how does this square with al-Qaeda’s avoidance of sectarian schisms in Islam?

SF: This is an Iraq-specific strategy and it actually makes a lot of sense. It is important to note that it is easy to mobilize Iraq’s Sunni Arabs into a coherent mass, since historically and culturally they are very powerful, much more powerful, in fact, than the Shi’as.

MA: Does this strategy of targeting the Shi’as have the blessings of bin Laden?

SF: I can not say for sure, but I am inclined to think that it does have the blessings of bin Laden.

MA: Does this strategy look beyond the current occupation of Iraq?

SF: Yes it does. One of the ultimate goals of this strategy is to sweep the Shi’as from power once the Americans depart the arena.

MA: How realistic is this scenario?

SF: I think there is some scope for its success, especially if bin Laden manages to fully overcome his aversion of sectarian conflicts in Islam.

MA: Can Zarqawi’s “al-Qaeda in Iraq” organization ever hope to perform the same ideological and operational role as the “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” organization, founded by Yousef al-Ayyiri and currently led by Saleh al-Oufi?

SF: I think the best way I can answer this question is to say that I don’t think there are any differences –save those related to specific circumstances—between the jihadis in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan. They all represent the same movement and the same ideology. I am not saying that all jihadi groups in Iraq are connected to al-Qaeda, but that their agenda and methodology does not conflict with al-Qaeda’s.

MA: How important is Zarqawi to the jihad in Iraq?

SF: In terms of the quantity of attacks, Zarqawi and al-Qaeda can take credit for roughly 20% of the attacks in Iraq, but in terms of quality their impact and influence is far greater.

MA: What if Zarqawi is killed tomorrow?

SF: A new leader will quickly take his place. Zarqawi’s death will be a big blow psychologically but the jihadis will likely recover from it. Also Zarqawi’s death could even work in al-Qaeda’s favor, since Zarqawi is associated with mass-killings and carnage. The new leader will be able to make a fresh start.

MA: How likely is Zarqawi’s death in the near term?

SF: It is very likely. The Iraqi landscape is very dangerous, much more dangerous than Afghanistan used to be.

MA: Going back to the involvement of Saudis in the Iraqi conflict, two months ago you disclosed that 500 members of the National Guard had gone to Iraq. What is the situation today?

SF: We have received reports that in their internal communications, the National Guard admit that about 100 of their men leave for Iraq on a monthly basis. They apparently go on leave and then never come back. More broadly there are at least 3,000 Saudis fighting in Iraq. The real figure is probably somewhere between 5,000-6,000 militants.

MA: How are they going to Iraq?

SF: They use a variety of routes, but the preferred route is through Syria.

MA: Why don’t they cross the long Saudi border with Iraq?

SF: The Iraqi-Saudi border is plain desert and offers no protection against detection. The Iraqi-Jordanian border is the same. However the Iraqi-Syrian border is dotted with a network of villages and small communities and makes it easy for the jihadis to escape detection. The Iraqi-Iranian border also has this feature, and it is used as an infiltration point by the jihadis, but not as much as the Syrian border.

MA: How is the Iraq conflict impacting on Saudi society?

SF: The official religious establishment has not uttered a single word condemning the occupation of Iraq. The official religious establishment was quick to condemn the 9/11 attacks but they have said nothing about the occupation of Iraq and the atrocities that are associated with it, particularly the Abu Ghraib scandal. The semi-official establishment issued a statement a few months ago supporting the jihad, but they counseled against Saudis going to Iraq and criticized the killing of civilians. This statement was a blow to both the Saudis and the Americans. And then there is the third group who are the clerical dissenters and their sympathy obviously lies with al-Qaeda.

MA: What you have just described is the division of Saudi religious leaders and scholars along very familiar lines, but I was enquiring into whether the Iraq conflict was having a meaningful and consequential impact on the relationship between the Saudi people and the regime?

SF: Yes and no. Yes, insofar as the Saudi government’s support for the occupation of Iraq is seen as treason by ordinary people. But ordinary people in the country are now primarily concerned with their own economic woes, and blame the incompetence of the government—as opposed to American intervention in the region—for their misfortunes.

MA: The Saudi government rejects any parallels between the Afghan jihad of the 1980s and the current Iraqi conflict. Do you disagree with this assessment, and if so, what effect will jihadis who survive the Iraq conflict have on Saudi society?

SF: Of course the two conflicts are very different. The Afghan vets needed 10 years to turn against the Saudi regime. The Iraq conflict is happening in very different circumstances. The jihadis in Iraq are completely alone and no external power is giving them any support whatsoever, whereas the Afghan jihadis were receiving support from many quarters. However the danger of Iraq returnees is far greater than the former Afghan returnees, as the former are already highly radicalized and do not need to undergo a 10 year estrangement process from the Saudis. In fact the returnees are getting their instructions from people in Iraq and Saudi intelligence is correct to conclude that the 200 jihadis who have just returned from Iraq are planning to attack members of the royal family.

MA: So the impact of the Iraqi returnees is being felt even now?

SF: Yes.

MA: Do the Iraqi returnees pose an existential threat to the Saudi regime?

SF: Yes, they do. Our sources have seen a confidential circular (distributed to only a few high offices in the country) depicting the fear of the senior officials of the Saudi regime. The circular outlines the threat from the Iraqi returnees and discusses ways of dealing with the threat.

MA: What is the situation with the ailing King Fahd?

SF: King Fahd has pneumonia and initially they wanted to treat him in the palace but his condition deteriorated and they were forced to take him to the King Faisal hospital. His condition deteriorated even further and he went into ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome), a condition from which few people recover. Even though King Fahd has partially recovered, he will soon succumb to the condition. He is likely to die in the next 2-3 months.

MA: How will bin Laden exploit the vacuum?

SF: Bin Laden can not exploit the situation politically as he has neither the media nor the political tools to mobilize the people. But in the event of the regime’s collapse bin Laden will be in a good position to influence events in the country. He is unlikely to ever return to the country until he has achieved his aim of pacifying America. In any case as far as bin Laden and Zawahiri are concerned, real and meaningful change in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries will only take place after America retreats from the Muslim world.