Saudi Mujahideen: Down but not Out?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 1 Issue: 10

The attack on Monday December 6 on the U.S. consulate in Jedda, coming after a lull in high profile attacks, cast a different light from the image put out by the Saudi Arabian government on the progress against the Islamist Mujahideen in the country. The level of preparation and the boldness of the enterprise against one of the most heavily protected buildings in Saudi Arabia, spelt a security failure for the government and a military victory for the Mujahideen. This despite the failure to penetrate into the interior of the consulate’s buildings and inflict fatalities on Americans.

The statistical evidence and the nature of the attacks since the last major strike in May this year – when gunmen killed 22 foreigners and seven security men in an attack on oil companies and a housing compound in the eastern city of Khobar – pointed to a steady erosion of militant capability. Since then the violence – a steady succession of shootings and ambushes – has been countered by a concerted pro-active approach to combating the cells, four of which the Saudi government claims to have destroyed. Security forces have claimed the sequestration of large quantities of arms and explosives, the arrest of up to 600 militants and the killing or capture of most of the 29 figures on the ‘wanted list’. With a claimed reduction to a hard-core of 150 Mujahideen, the era of large-scale assaults was considered over.

The sense of decline was reflected by Shaikh al-Utaybi’s exasperated tone against the ‘shirkers of jihad’ in a tape posted on an Islamist website, Sawt al-Jihad, on November 17. In his declamation he urged Muslim youth to “join the Jihad bandwagon” along with the brothers in the Arabian Peninsula and “kill a Kafir”. The purpose of this last attack, to effect a recovery of Mujahid morale, was outlined in al-Qaeda’s statement claiming responsibility, where the militants “are not enfeebled by what they suffer … they remain patient, and with God’s aid to victory they are not harmed by those who abandon them or oppose them.” Certainly, from the comments on jihadi internet forums, the event was a welcome demonstration of continuing capability, despite the Saudi claims: “The peninsula now wears a crown of glory” ran one contribution, “as the lions of the peninsula … demonstrate to all and sundry that we are still here, and advancing … they astonished the entire world with an exemplary operation after the enemies of God have come to believe that they had extinguished the firebrands of resistance … and killed the spirit of jihad. See now how they rise up from the dust” [].

The prognosis now falls into two camps: either that this incident is something akin to a swan song of a movement that has been unable to gather its strength, and which may have been forced into one last splash out of fear of the Saudi authorities moving in on a cell, given that in the month of November two militants were killed in Jedda; or that the government in Riyadh, for economic, political and cultural reasons, is unable to stem the groundswell of anger and hatred towards itself and its Western supporters.

If Saudi claims of a war being won are accurately shown by this attack to be out of kilter with reality on the ground, it would not be the only indication. A statement by leading Saudi opposition figure, Saad al-Faqih, posted on the al-Ma’sada jihadist website on December 2, claimed that the Saudi authorities had sought help from Jordan in order to quell anticipated demonstrations in Jedda and Riyadh. Jordan, he said, had agreed to the proposal to send ‘3,000 intelligence operatives and anti-riot forces’, and that by Dec 2 they had already crossed the border. A further confirmation [] upped the number of operatives to 7,000 and relayed the opinion by the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), headed by al-Faqih, that this was “an indication of the [Saudi government’s] lack of trust in its own security forces and military guard in the kingdom”.

Even under a more optimistic prognosis, westerners in the Kingdom have had experience of al-Qaeda re-grouping after setbacks, sometimes after months of deceptive calm. There is also the pool of what Kuwaiti commentator Ahmad Rab’I, writing on November 3 in the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, calls the ‘new Afghan Arabs’, or those who, as in the earlier conflict with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, return home — this time from Iraq — with few other skills to offer than guerrilla warfare []. As Saudi analyst Faris bin Hizam noted on December 4 in the Saudi daily al-Watan, the so-called ‘collapse’ of al-Qaeda in the Kingdom “is limited to the organizational committee of the organization founded by Yusuf al-Ayyiri five years ago.” But this collapse, he states, “could be cured by the ‘mother organization’ … repairing the structure outside the country … not least by Iraq as a source, and [Mujahideen from] Fallujah in particular … under pressure from the narrowing situation for them [in Iraq]” []. The vocabulary of al-Qaeda’s statement, the “brothers in the Martyr Abu Anas al-Shami Squadron” who undertook “the blessed Fallujah Raid” may well be a corroboration of this.

As to the potential numbers of these reinforcements, the almost daily news of Saudi fatalities in Iraq gives some indication. But no one can do more than hazard a guess, Faris bin Hizam observes, since fatality figures “may be a decoy technique … as happened in Chechnya” where after two Saudi deaths were announced in that conflict “they appeared among the suicide fatalities at the May 12 Riyadh attack.” The danger, he concludes “is that they can [thus] re-enter the country and form new cells undetected and unsuspected.” On this last point, a commentator to a Saudi opposition internet forum [] noted laconically: “Praise be to God who has furnished us, through the tongue of our enemy, some useful advice”.