On August 3 one or two gunmen forced their way into the offices of the Rocky Trade and Construction firm in Riyadh and shot Anthony Higgins, a 63 year-old Irish engineer, four times in the head and chest, killing him immediately. Al-Qaeda did not claim responsibility for this latest killing, but an Islamic website posted a message from an al-Qaeda-inspired group, Islamic Unity, that warned Saudi Arabia against deploying troops in Iraq.
At a stroke, the killing discredited official claims that the terrorist threat in the country was on its way out. However, irrespective of these official claims, Riyadh had in any case been quietly preparing during the period following Paul Johnson’s death for another round of al-Qaeda attacks against Westerners. Security forces had observed signs of renewed surveillance by militants of Saudi companies of the movements of western employees. On July 7, in what appears to be an attempt at an identical targeting to the killing of the Irishman, three Saudis held a guard at gunpoint at the al-Zamil Group’s construction facility in Dammam and demanded that he take them to Western employees. The gunmen drove off after the guard convinced them that there were no Westerners there. Later, a German national who served as a consultant to al-Zamil fled Saudi Arabia.
The targeting of Anthony Higgins poses a number of questions. Al-Qaeda’s victims in the past have included employees of major Western firms, including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and the Vinnell Corporation. But this latest victim does not appear to have been working on a defense-related project, which up to now to have been al-Qaeda’s focus. Why the interest in attacks on single individuals? The kudos and profile for such attacks surely must be small compared to large-scale operations. The answer most probably lies in al-Qaeda’s need, and ability, to adapt their tactics to the changing security environment. Firstly, earlier in the year it was observed that al-Qaeda had to make strenuous attempts to repair the public relations damage caused by the deaths of Muslims in their large-scale attacks, such as that on al-Khobar on May 30. Part of this corrective was the transfer of operational direction to small, more focused attacks where the possibility of Muslim collateral damage was minimized. In addition, the following factors have become evident:
• Tightened security in the kingdom has made it harder to carry out elaborate attacks such as the May 12 2003 bombings;
• Larger bomb attacks appear to be beyond the capability of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia at the moment;
• Outside an environment such as Iraq, where the influence of national security organizations is weak, al-Qaeda may be viewing the risk of hostage-taking as increasingly unacceptable. It requires numbers to guard the hostage — something which al-Qaeda may no longer have — and also requires dialogue with the authorities, thus increasing exposure.
The Saudi security failures are well-known, as are the doubts over collusion (the killers of Anthony Higgins were not stopped by the guard, which may or may not have been a mere security issue). But the more pressing issue the Saudis are grappling with now is a potentially new phenomenon – the random killing of outsiders. Random killings and abductions are no less effective than major confrontations and bombing attacks. Indeed, they may be much more psychologically powerful due to the greater individualization of the victim in the western media.
The threat is further compounded if developments continue in this direction. Saudi security organizations are finding it difficult to predict events and gather profiles on perpetrators. This was demonstrated at the May 1 Yanbu attack when what can only be described as opportunistic amateurs scored a major success — five westerners died in what became a very high profile coup for militancy in Saudi Arabia. More significant was the fact that three of the four gunmen had no previous record of militancy.
The killing of Anthony Higgins, therefore, may have set the pattern for al-Qaeda’s operations in the coming weeks. In this pattern, small numbers or individual Westerners may be targeted at home or on the street or at work. Their sector of employment will probably become irrelevant. Saudi authorities are, however, still wary of the possible big strike, which is necessary to al-Qaeda, more as a public relations success with ‘the floating vote’ than as a tactical operation. Officials have stated that security forces have been pursuing an al-Qaeda cell in Mecca that hijacked vehicles in what could mark a plot to renew suicide car bombings.