Late on July 20 Saudi security forces followed up on a tip that led them to the house of al-Qaeda’s leader Salih al-Awfi in the King Fahad district of Riyadh. Militants inside the house then opened fire and a gun-battle ensued, resulting in the killing of two terrorists, Isa bin Sa’adah and al-Awshan, Ma’jib al-Dusari, the arrest of two more, and the capture of Salih al-Awfi’s wife and three children. Details of this attack were subsequently confirmed by a Statement (Press Report no. 17, Concerning the Martyrdom of Shaykh Isa al-Awshan and Brother Mu’jib al-Dusari, 27 July 2004) published on al-Qaeda’s Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad) website, naming the wounded as Hamad ibn Shadid al-Harbi, Mush’il ibn al-Shaykh Hamud al-Farraj, and Salih al-Ghayth. It was originally rumoured that Salih al-Awfi himself had been one of the two fatalities, but this later proved untrue. In the house police found a large amount of explosives, RPG rockets, some 30,000 rounds of ammunition, a range of automatic firearms, a SAM-7 shoulder-held anti-aircraft missile, large amounts of cash and the severed head of the American hostage Paul Johnson stored in a freezer. At least two of the terrorists escaped in an SUV by crashing through the cordon and wounding a number of policemen. This was made easier by the difficulty the Saudi authorities had in maintaining the encirclement: at one stage a second group of militants approached the scene and engaged the security forces with fire, giving the others the opportunity to escape.
By any standard, this was a perilous near-miss for al-Qaeda – they almost lost their leader al-Awfi, number 5 on the list of the 26 most-wanted suspects in the Kingdom. This comes only one month after the death of his predecessor, described as the head of “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”, Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, who himself replaced the Yemeni Khaled Ali bin Ali Haj, shot dead by police in Riyadh on 15 March. For all the bluster put out by the Mujahideen, this turnover of leadership must be worrying. al-Muqrin himself had been an emergency appointment. Before he took over Faisal al-Dakheel was being groomed for the role. But al-Dakheel was killed in a shootout in Riyadh hours after al-Qaeda had announced the execution of abducted Lockheed Martin engineer Paul Johnson. However, al-Awfi’s experience and background make him a more valued and effective leader than al-Muqrin. He is not only older than al-Muqrin was, but is considerably more familiar with al-Qaeda’s network in Saudi Arabia, since he was one of those who initially put it together. He was responsible for training, recruitment and logistics, and for running secret al-Qaeda camps in the kingdom.
Al-Awfi, who left Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s to join fighters in Afghanistan and Bosnia, was said to be among the numerous former Saudi security officers who joined al-Qaeda over the last decade. This observation focused media interest on possible al-Qaeda penetration of Saudi forces. Western intelligence sources paint a gloomy picture of sizeable numbers of al-Qaeda agents and informers in the kingdom with connections to the Saudi police and security forces. Al-Qaeda, at least for propaganda purposes, is eager to support this impression. In its statement on the June 12 abduction of Paul Johnson, al-Qaeda maintained that they were assisted by Saudi security forces. They claimed that “a number of the collaborators in the security agencies sincere to their religion, donated their clothes and police cars” for the purposes of setting up a fake checkpoint that stopped the car in which Johnson was driving.
However, the incident at al-Awfi’s home paints the opposite picture. To have gotten so close the police must have been acting on high quality, up to the minute intelligence. There are increasing signs of deepening Saudi security penetration of al-Qaeda. To date, ten leading members of al-Qaeda have been killed or arrested, in addition to as many as 50 lower-ranking operatives. Four domestic al-Qaeda cells have been infiltrated, and two more overseas, one in Pakistan and one in the United Arab Emirates.
The July 20 operation, more than many confrontations, carries with it a number of implications for the war between Riyadh and al-Qaeda. Aside from the evidence of good Saudi penetration into the group, the presence in one house of Paul Johnson’s severed head, and a sizeable arsenal, indicates that all of the recent attacks (probably with the sole exception of Yanbu), were carried out by the same very small group of terrorists. This may add fuel to the argument that the estimates of al-Qaeda operatives in Saudi have been too high, and should be scaled back. Some officials are now saying that the al-Qaeda network in Saudi Arabia numbers at most 250 people, including non-active supporters. Of these no more than a core unit of about 60 people are carrying out the attacks. The death of Isa bin Sa’adah al-Awshan is another significant blow. Number 13 on the Kingdom’s wanted list, al-Awshan — in the words of the July 27 Press Report — “gave us a practical lesson in his sacrifice, after having taught us these in his writings and essays”. His crucial role as jihadist ideologue, now that many high profile radical Shaykhs are defecting to Riyadh, will be difficult to fill. His fellow ideologue, Abdullah Mohammed Rashid al-Roshoud, was killed earlier in the month as a result of a shoot-out with Saudi forces.
However, the July 20 raid also teaches us something of the operational flexibility of al-Qaeda. What was significant in the armed standoff was the arrival in mid-siege of a group of armed men from another area, who attacked the security forces in a diversionary capacity. This is not the first example of this tactic. When former leader Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin was closed in upon at a petrol filling station on 18 June, the terrorists were quickly joined from outside by another group. They therefore appear to have an effective means of communicating and can react with surprising speed when one of their sub-cells gets into difficulty. Such operational flexibility will delay their demise for some time. Given the level of firepower launched at security forces, and the escapes that have been affected, there is still ample evidence that small al-Qaeda units can defeat a police unit on the ground.