Dr. 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 August 30 at Dr. Faqih’s private residence in London.
Mahan Abedin: How would you characterize the terror situation in Saudi Arabia today?
Saad al-Faqih: The problem facing the Saudis is strategic for two reasons: firstly the persistence of the factors driving violence and the proximity of Iraq and Yemen to Saudi Arabia. These are two factors that are known to all; however what we don’t know is just how extensive, resourceful and resilient these Jihadi networks are. Also it seems that they have decreased their activities intentionally.
MA: You are saying that the relative quiet of the past few months has been intentional and it has not been forced on them?
SF: No, it has been forced on them but that does not mean they have been silenced or eradicated. The Jihadis probably concluded that their activities were making them more vulnerable and hence they have temporarily scaled down their activities. There are reports by the Ministry of Interior that their agents had detected a sudden decrease in the “chatter” or communications of the Jihadi groups. They are worried that this sudden scaling down of activities signifies a new tactic by the Jihadis and could be the harbinger of more ominous things to come. Also, another indication that the Jihadi groups are active is that their two fortnightly publications—Sawt al-Jihad and Mu`askar al-Battar—are still operational.
MA: But the content of these publications has reportedly diminished recently.
SF: Apparently two locations hosting their internet and audio-visual facilities were discovered recently and some people were captured. But the really important point is that many of the Jihadists on the run do not feel free or safe enough to engage in media, doctrinal and propaganda work.
MA: The picture that is painted by the Saudi government is of a desperate group of people who are on the run and have to contend with an increasingly constrained operational environment. Is this an accurate assessment?
SF: But the Jihadists have lived with these conditions for many years. In fact these conditions are an inherent feature of a Jihadist life and struggle, therefore this is not going to worry them too much. Also you must remember that the Jihadists have the Iraqi refuge these days. Therefore whenever the pressures become too great in Saudi Arabia they can withdraw to Iraq, rest for a while and then return to the country to attack again.
MA: How do you assess the amnesty recently introduced by the Saudi government?
SF: It was a useless and pointless exercise! The three or four surrenders were just theatrical exercises. In particular there was a paralyzed man living in Iran who had been in contact with the Saudis for some time and there was a person in Syria who had nothing to do with al-Qaeda and was in fact going to Jihad in Iraq. Also al-Shihri was just a weapons trader who had dealt with the Jihadists and was not engaged in Jihad himself. In fact, the government itself privately concedes that the amnesty was a failure; for instance Prince Abdullah last night addressed a closed gathering and said that “we declared this amnesty but got nothing from it”. Now this is clearly an admission of defeat.
MA: Do you think there could possibly be more to this than meets the eye—namely that many other people have surrendered but the government for whatever reason is keeping the news to itself?
SF: No, because the government is desperate to show that people are defecting.
MA: So you are adamant that this amnesty has been a complete failure as a security and propaganda tool?
SF: There is no doubt about it. The propaganda has backfired on them. When they brought this paralyzed man back from Iran, people were just laughing at them.
MA: Ok, let us discuss the nature and capabilities of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Do you think every attack since May 2003 can be attributed to al-Qaeda?
SF: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that all these groups operate under the umbrella of al-Qaeda. And no if by al-Qaeda you mean the hardcore of the organization. Probably the major incidents (in particular the bombing at al-Muhayya) are attributable to the core of the organization, but the minor attacks are the works of peripheral elements. Also I was told that some detainees have confessed that bin Laden was consulted about the first bombing which occurred in Riyadh in May 2003 and apparently gave its organizers the go-ahead. Also the recent attack at al-Khobar was probably cleared by the al-Qaeda leadership.
MA: How is al-Qaeda’s structure in the Peninsula configured? Is there any coherent leadership?
SF: There is nothing in al-Qaeda literature that points towards any fixed or coherent leadership. For instance Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin was never introduced as the leader. He was presented as a senior person but not as a leader of any sort. Similarly there has been no statement that says al-Awfi is the leader. Actually rumors regarding al-Awfi and his supposed leadership originate from one of these discussion boards, when somebody posted something to the effect that “could al-Awfi be the leader?” This was apparently picked up by the al-Arabiyya TV channel and subsequently it spread everywhere. But in actual fact there is no authentic statement confirming al-Awfi as the leader.
MA: How does al-Qaeda’s organizational structure in the Peninsula interconnect with the wider al-Qaeda?
SF: Nobody knows the full picture. The main core of al-Qaeda in the Peninsula which was previously headed by al-Ayyiri and was taken over by al-Muqrin probably consisted of several hundred people. There are smaller groups who have connections with this hardcore and they are the ones who are mainly responsible for recruitment and indoctrination. And bear in mind that these activities—namely recruitment and indoctrination—are more important to al-Qaeda than military operations.
MA: The Saudi government contends that the full strength of al-Qaeda in the Kingdom—and this includes both the hardcore and the peripheral elements—does not exceed a few hundred men. How accurate is this estimate?
SF: There are three circles of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. The first circle which constitutes al-Qaeda proper and active elements connected to it is composed of several hundred people. The second circle which consists of “reservists”, namely those who have had classic Jihadi training and who strongly sympathize with al-Qaeda ideology and methods but who are currently inactive, are several thousand strong. The third circle is composed of much wider networks of people who were chiefly motivated after the events of 9/11 and its aftermath. These people may have some tentative contacts with al-Qaeda and in any case they are a potential pool of recruitment for the organization. Their numbers is quite possibly in the tens of thousands.
MA: Therefore the stock of potential recruits for al-Qaeda is unlikely to be depleted?
SF: Indeed, because the factors driving its existence are so potent, al-Qaeda will simply replenish itself.
MA: Do you think May 2003 signifies a watershed for al-Qaeda’s activities inside the Peninsula?
SF: Al-Qaeda does not believe in anniversaries or historical moments. Their decisions are driven by timing and circumstances.
MA: So the events since May 2003 can be subsumed into a broader chronology that began in November 1995 with the first bombing in the Kingdom?
SF: After the 1996 Khobar bombing, there were no operations inside the country since al-Qaeda determined to fight America outside Saudi Arabia. In May 2003 al-Qaeda reversed its decision and determined to fight the Americans in Saudi Arabia again. Therefore in this respect you maybe right and this date may mark some kind of watershed.
MA: Is bin Laden’s primary aim still the overthrow of the Saudi royals?
SF: This has never been bin Laden’s primary aim. In fact bin Laden lost some of his followers because he resisted the idea of attacking the regime directly. Some people thought this was indicative of some kind of relationship with the Saudis. Bin Laden’s philosophy was that the Saudis are indeed oppressors and quite possibly even enemies of Islam but the fact remains that the ordinary people still consider them as Muslims. Therefore targeting them might not go down well with the ordinary people. Even now al-Qaeda is reluctant to attack the Saudis directly for both local and global reasons. From a local perspective al-Qaeda takes the view that the royal family is very fragile and is thus likely to collapse after a few serious attacks. And since the Americans don’t trust anybody in the country apart from the al-Sauds, they are then likely to intervene directly in the country. Al-Qaeda believes it is not yet ready to resist an American occupation of Saudi Arabia. The global perspective blends in with the local one insofar as al-Qaeda, intent as it is on attacking the American homeland, believes that the U.S. will be so enraged by a second 9/11 style attack that it will vent its fury on Saudi Arabia with a nuclear response in the event of its regime not being totally loyal to America. Therefore al-Qaeda looks upon the royal family as some kind of insurance in the event of a second 9/11 style assault on America.
MA: So why is al-Qaeda bombing the Saudi regime?
SF: They are not fighting the regime. This is the irony of the situation and a reason why some people are becoming disillusioned with al-Qaeda. Ordinary people are asking why they are going after innocent foreigners instead of targeting the criminal royal family.
MA: What is the ultimate purpose of this terrorist campaign, is it merely to drive foreigners out of the country?
SF: The targeting of foreigners has two possible explanations: firstly that al-Qaeda is so obsessed with Islamic injunctions that it feels compelled to expel foreigners from the holiest lands in Islam, irrespective of the strategic costs. The second explanation is that they are trying to bolster their position and reputation in the wider Muslim world by being seen to be driving infidels out of the Arabian Peninsula.
MA: And you really don’t believe they are trying to overthrow the regime?
SF: No, I don’t think they are keen on removing the regime right now.
MA: Is it possible that they are hoping to weaken the regime at this stage and lay the foundations for its demise at some future point?
SF: Yes, this is like an example or an exercise for the whole nation to get used to the idea of fighting the regime so that when the time comes the task will be made that much simpler.
MA: But do you think this plan has any chance of success, given the complex forces at play in Saudi Arabia?
SF: No, in fact this plan is backfiring. Indeed many people even within their own circles are accusing them of making serious mistakes by leaving intact the regime’s security structures. They contend that this is a strategic mistake because the Saudi regime, being very capable in terms of financial resources and media can use these levers to discredit the Jihadists. On the other hand, al-Qaeda’s critics quip, by taking out even one important royal the regime will sink into chaos. Having said that, apparently there have been small groups who have tried to strike at the royals but their operations were foiled.
MA: What groups are you talking about?
SF: They are small cells. Apparently there were four or five assassination attempts on the King, on Prince Abdullah and Prince Nayef.
MA: When did these attempted assassinations take place?
SF: They have all taken place in the past 5 years, before and after 9/11. As far as I know these plans were not licensed or approved by bin Laden or anyone else in al-Qaeda.
MA: What do you make of the assessment that the slayings of Khaled Ali bin Ali Haj, Faisal al-Dakheel and Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin constitute a catastrophic loss of competent leadership for al-Qaeda?
SF: Most of these assessments are influenced by the fact that people only know these names and are thus tempted to read far too much into them. Al-Qaeda is not in the business of revealing the identity of its people.
MA: Are you saying that these people were not important?
SF: Muqrin was important as an operational and military leader, but not as a strategist or thinker. Al-Ayyiri’s slaying was a big loss. People are not aware of how influential and capable he was. Al-Ayyiri had both the religious and military authority. On top of this he was also a great strategic thinker. But the fact that al-Qaeda was able to pick itself up very quickly after Ayyiri’s killing and step up its activities inside the Peninsula indicates that the organization has the ability to sustain losses.
MA: But the central question is whether permanent damage is being inflicted on al-Qaeda incrementally?
SF: That is not very clear at this stage.
MA: What about Salih al-Awfi, what do you make about him?
SF: As I said earlier there is no evidence that he has any leadership position. As far as I know he was a non-commissioned officer in the security forces.
MA: But this is what the Saudis say about him!
SF: Then they are right about this one.
MA: How credible are reports and suggestions that al-Qaeda has penetrated the Saudi security apparatus?
SF: They have certainly done this in the past. In fact, in one of the raids on an al-Qaeda safe house the security forces found extensive list of names of agents of the Mukhabarat and the Mabahess. They even discovered an on call rota of the security forces and detailed maps and sketches of Mabahess safe houses. Moreover by tapping al-Qaeda communications the security forces discovered that they had prior information on their movements and operations. The regime fought aggressively against this kind of infiltration and we have credible reports that al-Qaeda no longer has the levels of penetration that it had before.
MA: And I suppose the levels of penetration you are referring to were limited to low-ranking personnel of the security forces.
SF: Yes, it is very difficult for them to penetrate the top echelons, because people at the top are far removed from the spirit of Jihad. But there have been cases of al-Qaeda recruiting junior members who had access to very sensitive information.
MA: There are suggestions that the recent slaying of Muqrin and the near capture of al-Awfi suggests the opposite, namely that al-Qaeda has been penetrated by Saudi security.
SF: The regime, by accessing advanced American surveillance technology, has significantly improved its eavesdropping and electronic espionage capability. They also make maximum use of captured Jihadists. They torture them extensively and use them for entrapment operations. However they have not yet managed to plant one of their own agents inside the Jihadi circles.
MA: Some people say that Saudi security has been very clever throughout this whole campaign insofar as it has not overreacted and has even managed to turn some Jihadists against their comrades.
SF: This is not true. The only way they can manipulate them is through torture and blackmail. For instance they bring their wives and sisters into the prisons and threaten to rape them if they don’t cooperate.
MA: But don’t you think they can manipulate some people through more subtle means, especially those who are not as strongly committed to the struggle as the hardcore of al-Qaeda?
SF: This is certainly a possibility especially since they have detained more than 3,000 people. These people are not all al-Qaeda because the regime arrests anyone who appears suspicious. The only success the Saudis have had is in exploiting the killing of Muslims by al-Qaeda in the recent bombings.
MA: Why do you say Saudi security has been unable to plant an agent inside the Jihadi circles?
SF: I know from our security sources in the Interior Ministry that they have not succeeded in penetrating al-Qaeda. You see the Jihadi life is very harsh and you have to be extremely devout to be able to endure those extreme conditions. Anybody who does not believe resolutely in their cause would find it impossible to tolerate those conditions for long.
MA: What about recruiting people who are already ensconced in those networks?
SF: The only way they can do that is through torture and blackmail.
MA: Is the Interior Ministry the primary organization entrusted with tracking the Jihadi threat?
SF: Yes, they control the Mabahess who are responsible for gathering secret information on the Jihadi circles.
MA: Ok, let us discuss broader issues. How do you assess the role of Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, is he a mediating link between Saudi security and disaffected al-Qaeda members?
SF: Well, he has tried to be. But his credibility in the Jihadi circles is now zero.
MA: But surely he must be having some successes if the Saudis are still employing him.
SF: Safar al-Hawali was an important figure in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When he was imprisoned in 1994, he alongside a few others concluded that they were too weak to confront the regime. Therefore they made a deal with the regime and after leaving prison in 1999 they gave undertakings to the authorities that they would observe certain limits in their criticisms of the regime. But by doing this they destroyed their reputation and standing amongst radical circles and the wider society. The events of 9/11 were a big test for them to prove that they could be useful for the authorities. Immediately after the assault on the U.S. they issued some statements which were dismissed by the Jihadists as a pro-American text. Since that date the individuals involved departed company and Safar Hawali has been the only one keen on cultivating an ambiguous relationship with the authorities. He had ties with people who, despite having Jihadist tendencies, lack any tangible connection with al-Qaeda. Some of these people were on the lists that the Americans presented to the Saudis. Safar Hawali convinced many of these people to hand themselves over to the authorities. Hawali thought he could expand this service to include members of al-Qaeda and committed Jihadists, but he has had no success simply because for these people Hawali is a non-entity.
MA: Would you say Hawali is a Saudi agent?
SF: No, I don’t think you can say he is an agent.
MA: But if he is delivering people to them, then surely he is their agent.
SF: I am reluctant to call him an agent. The bottom line is that is he is an ambitious person who wants to assume a role similar to the kind of roles he enjoyed in the early 1990s. But of course the situation in the country is now radically different.
MA: Do you think the Saudis are becoming increasingly disillusioned with his ability to deliver Jihadis?
SF: I have information from a reliable source that not only are they disappointed with him but in fact they do not even trust him. Mohammad bin Nayef has apparently said that at the end of the day Hawali is an al-Qaeda theorizer and just can’t be trusted.
MA: Do you think he could in fact be working for al-Qaeda as part of an elaborate disinformation and deception strategy?
SF: No I don’t. But the al-Saud regime does not believe in half-measures. They want people to accept them as the absolute rulers with no arguments. Hawali has not reached that stage yet! Moreover Hawali is being blamed by many liberals and pro-regime religious scholars for having promoted the Jihadist campaign in the first place. They say the roots of the current problems can be traced to him and people like him.
MA: He seems to be taking fire from all sides.
SF: Yes, he is having a very hard time.
MA: Apart from Hawali have there been other high profile defections among former al-Qaeda theorizers?
SF: I am not aware of a single person with a well developed and sincere Jihadi mentality who has defected to the other side in an atmosphere free from coercion.
MA: Whether it is free or not is perhaps irrelevant. The point I am trying to make is whether the Saudis are hoping to inflict permanent damage on the doctrinal and ideological apparatus of al-Qaeda through people like Hawali.
SF: But even the liberals in the country are not taking these forced and fake defections very seriously. People realize this is all a farce.
MA: What do you make of the detentions of Sheikhs Ali al-Khudayr, Nasser al-Fahd and Ahmad al-Khalidi?
SF: All three of them used to be very important in the immediate period after 9/11. When Sheikh Oghla died they quickly filled the vacuum. But they made two strategic mistakes. Firstly, they concentrated most of their fire on America and only criticized the regime indirectly. Secondly, they never spoke about peoples’ sufferings in the country, for instance their financial and social grievances against the regime. Their position was that we should live the global problem and forget about the local problem. They were elitists who did not want to involve themselves with the real issues and problems facing the ordinary people in the country.
MA: What has happened to them in the meantime? Which one of them has well and truly cracked?
SF: Well, they have all cracked if you want to put it in those terms. They have all appeared on TV and renounced some of their past positions. But again the point is that the Jihadists are not taking these theatrical exercises seriously. In fact this boosts their position because they can accuse the regime of coercing people to say things which they do not really believe in.
MA: Are you saying that none of this is affecting the morale of the Jihadists?
SF: Well, there have been massive operations since their arrest and detention; therefore I am not aware of any adverse affect on morale.
MA: But one development that has surely had an effect on their morale is the recent capture of Ali Faris al-Zahrani; don’t you agree?
SF: Of course from the regime’s perspective, arresting these people is better than killing them.
MA: But what effect will his capture have on the Jihadists?
SF: Zahrani was one of their remaining theorizers. But according to Saudi security sources there are still two more prominent theorizers with al-Qaeda.
MA: Do you have any information on the exact circumstances of Zahrani’s capture?
SF: Yes, there are basically two versions of events. The one I believe to be correct revolves around Zahrani being betrayed by one of his acquaintances. This acquaintance had been arrested earlier and was blackmailed. Subsequently he lured Zahrani into a trap. Zahrani was surprised and jumped on by the security forces and had no opportunity to access his weapons. Otherwise he would have fought to the death.
MA: What kind of patterns of terrorist activity can we expect in Saudi Arabia in the near future?
SF: I think they are going to change their tactics. There was one incident recently of the Jihadists killing a lone Irish national.
MA: Is that what we can expect in the future; isolated attacks on lone westerners?
SF: According to Interior Ministry experts, they are likely to engage in these kinds of attacks more often because it minimizes the risk of exposure and maximizes the psychological effects on the expatriate community.
MA: Any other new tactics?
SF: They might attack the oil installations for double effect. Firstly it reduces international confidence in the Saudi regime and secondly it has a significant global impact. This fulfils bin Laden’s ambitions of sabotaging the American economy. Furthermore it is possible that they could change their mind and start targeting regime figures.
MA: You think an attack on a royal is now possible?
SF: We have reports that the regime is taking this possibility very seriously. Also al-Qaeda has reached the conclusion that by hitherto avoiding the royals it has damaged its own credibility in the country.
MA: Who do you think they are likely to target?
SF: They might attack Mohammad bin Nayef. Also they may decide to assassinate one of the governors in order to cause maximum psychological effect. For instance if they target Khaled al-Faisal, governor of al-Asir province, they will fulfill a strong desire among hundreds of thousands of the locals for revenge against this corrupt and incompetent local ruler.
MA: Do they have the capability to assassinate these officials?
SF: Yes, they have. The only thing that has been lacking so far has been the requisite will. Anyway, the Ministry of Interior is taking these developments seriously and has set in train two counter-measures. Firstly they have increased security around senior officials and secondly they are sending selected people to special courses on VIP protection.
MA: What about attacking the American homeland?
SF: I think they will not attack before Bush is re-elected in November. Al-Qaeda is praying for a Bush victory, because Bush is facilitating the polarization between the Muslim and Western worlds and he is causing more and more Muslims to hate America.
MA: You are saying that an attack on the U.S. before the elections might yield similar political results as the ones witnessed in Spain back in March?
SF: Yes, absolutely. Al-Qaeda is keen to secure another four years of war with America and this is best achieved with a Bush victory.
MA: What about the threat to other parts of the world, in particular Europe?
SF: I think the threat to Europe is extremely serious.
MA: Are they likely to strike Italy next?
SF: I don’t know. But al-Qaeda is keen to convince the Europeans to distance themselves from America. And al-Qaeda will go on and on until it achieves its aims. You see al-Qaeda is not interested in protecting its people. Its members and recruits are there to die and there will always be others who take their place.