Saudi al-Qaeda Leader al-Awfi Slain in Medina…

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 16

Salih al-Awfi

Among the six al-Qaeda militants killed during police raids in the cities of Medina and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia yesterday was Salih Muhammad al-Awfi, supposed leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Awfi gained some notoriety in the Western media after numerous reports of his death turned out to be untrue.

On August 18 Saudi security forces launched a raid on seven suspected hideouts in the holy city of al-Medina, burial place of the Prophet Muhammad. Security forces located al-Awfi in one of these hideouts along with two accomplices. In the ensuing armed exchange, two militants were killed, one of them later confirmed “through verification processes” to indeed be al-Awfi. This latest security operation was a multi-faceted one. Earlier in the morning Saudi security forces surrounded a villa in the al-Masyaf district in Riyadh where an active al-Qaeda cell was suspected of planning attacks on Western targets in the Kingdom. In the ensuing fire-fight, four militants were reported slain, but the tally of fatalities is likely to grow, given the evidence of scattered human remains from the force of an explosion.

In July of last year there were reports that al-Awfi had been killed in a raid, and later the Saudi authorities claimed that he had died some time later from wounds sustained during that operation. The claim was repeated last November when Shaykh Hammud bin Sa’ud al-Utaybi delivered an address on an audio tape broadcast by al-Jazeera TV. This was read by the Saudi press as tacit admission that al-Awfi had been killed. In each case jihadi commentators on the web forums poured scorn on the idea. So far on this latest incident there has been no official confirmation of al-Awfi’s death from al-Qaeda sources on the forums.

In fact there has been remarkably little comment on the incident so far, indicating that interest appears primarily among Western sources. One posting on the al-Tajdeed forum questioned what all the fuss was about. Deaths in Iraq, he noted, were regular. But when the “Land of the Two Shrines” was mentioned “things seem to change 180 degrees” — a point which he put down to a hypocritical distinction of ‘legal jihad’ being only that which is waged outside the Peninsula. “The method and the ideology remain the same, whether in Iraq or the Peninsula. The enemy is the same: America and the police and National Guard in both cases. Even al-Qaeda is the same. And the emir in both cases is the same: Shaykh Osama Bin Laden.” [].

Salih al-Awfi is thought to have been the major figure in the Peninsular al-Qaeda since the death last summer of commander Abdulaziz al-Muqrin and had been ranked number five on the most-wanted list of 26 militants issued in December 2003. However, it should be said that the concentration by Western media on naming a ‘leader’ for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia risks emphasizing hierarchical structure over the more likely scenario of independent cell-like entities. More accurately, one may refer to senior operatives rather than leaders, since the term is not encountered in al-Qaeda statements themselves for the jihad in the Peninsula. Saudi authorities have used the term ‘leader’ a number of times, the latest being that of the Moroccan Yunis Muhammad Ibrahim al-Hayari, reported killed soon after the publication on June 28 of a new list of 38 most wanted, after the earlier list of 25 had been progressively whittled down to three. The publication of a new list at this stage is revealing enough in itself. For according to Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi dissident residing in the UK, the pool of recruits in Saudi Arabia is unlikely to dry up any time soon, given the number of ‘reservists’ with classic jihadi training, estimated at several thousand strong (see Terrorism Monitor, Spotlight, Volume 2, Issue 9).

As to the present level of mujahid capabilities, however, it should be said that they are facing an improving counter-terror capability from advanced American surveillance technology, which has contributed significantly to the Saudis’ electronic espionage. In addition, each security success brings in the potential of new information from interrogation. Some intimation of the effect of this growing capability came last March with an exchange of messages posted on the jihadi forums [] and []. Al-Awfi issued an audio announcement urging mujahideen throughout the Gulf States to aid the jihad in Iraq through funding, men, equipment and through providing distracting military operations in the Gulf to take the heat off al-Zarqawi. This followed a note of solace from Abu Maysara, saying “our hearts are with you” and urging the brothers in the Peninsula “to stay fast to the jihad” and “not to depart from the battle-field.”