Al-Qaeda’s Diminishing Returns in the Peninsula
Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 1
The latest attempted bombing of the Interior Ministry building and the Special Emergency Forces headquarters training unit at Riyadh on December 29, appears to spell out more evidence of al-Qaeda’s decline in the Peninsula. The bombings and related clashes with Islamist militants accounted for a total of 90 injuries and the death of one bystander. The cost to the mujahideen were five killed during the bombings (three of whom from suicide detonations) and a further 10 hunted down in gunfights which preceded and followed them. Three of the assailants were on the list of the 26 ‘most wanted’ Saudi insurgents. One of those killed was a Yemeni by the name of Ibrahim Ahmad Abdel Majeed al-Reemy, who is considered by some to have been the actual leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and the link between the terrorist network in the Kingdom and bin Laden. By all accounts, this appears to be one of al-Qaeda’s least successful attacks in the Kingdom to date.
A statement from al-Qaeda posted on the al-Ma’sada jihadist website (www.alm2sda.net) named the target of the attacks as the Kingdom’s Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz, who was away at the time. The statement also laid emphasis on the killing of ‘a number [unspecified] of Crusader trainers killed in the Emergency Forces’ headquarters and the wounding of several of those forces,’ which contradicts the figures given out by the authorities. The statement ended with what may be a revealing phrase: ‘We are determined to re-organize ourselves and prepare for new exemplary operations’. While participants on jihadist forums attempted to put a brave face on the lackluster results on the grounds that ‘bullets that miss their mark still terrify’, and praised the premature detonations as tactical moves “to protect secrets that would come out at interrogation”, Deputy Interior Minister Ahmad bin Abd al-Aziz (also an intended target of the bombings) described the attackers as having taken “a great risk because they know that their end is imminent.”
This theme of ‘reactive’ or ‘go for broke’ strategy has been gaining currency. Saudi analysts have looked at the changing pattern of attacks, and traced a more or less straight line from operations carried out in 2003 under the al-Qaeda leaders Yusuf al-Ayyiri and Khalid al-Hajj on western institutions or personnel associated with the US military, to attacks on western individuals without distinction under Ibn al-Muqrin. After al-Muqrin’s death, and conscious of weakening popular support, operations focused more precisely on government installations of a military-security type such as the bombing of the Public Security HQ on April 21 last year, and these two most recent attempts — which may have been made less productive for al-Qaeda from their selection of a late hour to avoid civilian casualties. But increasingly, as Munif al-Sufuqi explains in the Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the attacks have been triggered by security forces closing in: “Those who are fleeing realize that their arrest is a matter of time. This drives them to carry out terrorist acts that do not have great impact.” (www.aawsat.com)
However, as any reading of jihadist forums or of al-Qaeda-related literature will elucidate, the effect of military defeat is not necessarily the decisive factor. The Jordanian political analyst Murad Batal al-Shishani, writing in the Arabic periodical Al-Ghad (www.alghad.jo), notes that the operating motivation of the ‘Afghan Arabs’, that make up the core of the mujahideen in the Peninsula comes not so much from the era of anti-Soviet struggle (they are too young to have participated) but from the more ideologically charged era of the Taliban. While their transfer of activity from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia was forced on them by crushing military defeat, the influence of their Taliban phase has given them thicker skins. Purist and absolutist mental habits dismiss the idea of failure in a political, economic and cultural project that takes its credentials from the Creator. Therefore, the move to the Peninsula is rationalized as the ongoing development of a strategy from confronting the ‘far enemy’ (the USA and the West) to battling with the ‘near enemy’ (the Saudi government). Success here would provide a more promising springboard for the cause than Afghanistan ever could. But an indication of the detachment of the mujahideen from tactical facts on the ground is their slogan of “expelling the polytheists from the Peninsula”. Never mind that the U.S. military has removed itself from Saudi Arabia, the mujahideen continue to use the slogan as an ideological banner, rather than as a practical demand. This is because it is a struggle whose dimensions simply dwarf the banalities of temporary reverses on the ground.
Which is why mujahid vigor in the Peninsula is perhaps better gauged from the state of the ideological output. The statement on the December bombings posted by al-Qaeda carried the customary Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad) logo. It is a symbol which is less in evidence lately. Since mid-November — much to the consternation of participants in the jihadi web forums — the flagship web magazines Sawt al-Jihad and Mu’askar al-Battar have failed to appear. These slickly produced publications gave solid expression to the confidence of the Arabian mujahideen. If their absence persists, it may be time, as al-Shishani suggests, for their absolutist mental habit to rationalize a re-orientation of the struggle back onto the ‘far enemy.’