Saudi Security and the Islamist Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 2

For over a decade, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has fought an ongoing battle against homegrown Islamist insurgents. These forces have sought to overthrow the ruling monarchy and replace it with what they have described as an “authentic” Islamic regime. Throughout the Saudi government’s battle with these extremists, observers of the Kingdom have charged that security forces have been compromised and penetrated by al-Qaeda connected Islamists. The natural progression of this argument is that Saudi counter-terrorism forces are ineffective and untrustworthy. This article seeks to address this point, and challenge some of the allegations that have been taken at face value [1].

Perhaps the most disturbing development to come out of the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque was the eventual revelation of prime organizer al-Utaibi’s connection to the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). The SANG has historically been charged with some of the most sensitive security duties in the Kingdom, and has widely been described as the ruling family’s “praetorian guard.”

During the past decade, Saudi Arabia has suffered from a terrorist insurgency that intensified in May 2003. Many sources within the Saudi security and intelligence establishment attribute this development to the American-led intervention in Iraq and the associated rise in militancy, the participation of Saudi nationals in the insurgency in Iraq, and their subsequent return home to Saudi Arabia [2].

The pace of violence within the Kingdom is greater than reported in the Western media. According to knowledgeable sources in Saudi Arabia, many gun battles between terrorists and security forces go unreported. The same underreporting is true for the discovery of foiled terrorist plots and materiel seizures. One of the greatest such plots was an operation reported to have targeted the massive Saudi oil facility at Ras Tanura, the existence of which was only revealed by CBS’ 60 Minutes television newsmagazine. Likewise, the existence of a number of plots against the royal family continue to circulate among Saudi watchers, but these attempted strikes against the regime have never been confirmed by either official Saudi or American sources.

One of these stories involved a disrupted plot to smuggle Soviet-designed Sagger anti-tank missiles into Saudi Arabia to allegedly be used in an ambush on vehicles carrying senior members of the royal family. The fact that these reports continue to be repeated both within the Kingdom and among Western counter-terrorism officials demonstrates the plausibility of these rumors, and on some level is measure of the belief within Saudi Arabia that the ruling order is both a primary target of domestic terrorists and one which has until now narrowly escaped catastrophe.

Terrorist violence in Saudi Arabia saw a large upswing beginning with the devastating coordinated suicide attacks on May 12, 2003, in which three Riyadh housing compounds were assaulted. Since then, terrorists have targeted critical infrastructure, international businesses, foreign residents, Saudi authorities, and the U.S. government. A similar attack to the May Riyadh bombings—also directed against a Riyadh housing compound—occurred several months later in November 2003. More than 50 people were killed in the May and November bombings.

Following the May 2003 compound assault, rumors circulated alleging SANG complicity in the attack. These charges have not been substantiated and appear to be connected to possible legal action by Westerners claiming the Saudi government is not doing enough to fight terrorism [3]. Other allegations include claims that SANG weapons have been diverted to terrorists. This seems unlikely since SANG uses only American weapons, and those in question have been of Soviet design.

Knowledgeable sources have confirmed, however, that the war and chaos in neighboring Iraq has had a direct impact on the types and quantities of weapons seized by Saudi authorities. The corresponding advancements in IED and car bomb technologies first witnessed in Iraq—and now seen in Saudi Arabia—further demonstrate the flow of skills and experience from strife-torn Iraq.

After the deadly spate of attacks on expatriate housing designed to drive Westerners out of the Kingdom, terrorists again turned their attention on the security forces defending the royal court. On April 21, 2004, the former headquarters of General Security was car-bombed in Riyadh. Some sources indicated that this facility had previously housed security elements responsible in part for the protection of the royal family. Throughout the last several years, numerous shootouts and gun battles have occurred between militants and the security forces. According to Ministry of Interior spokesman Lt. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, more than 40 security officers have died in the line of duty and over 350 have been wounded (including more than 150 serious injuries) [4].

The trend of targeting the support and income of the royal family continued in May 2004 with two devastating attacks. The first occurred at the beginning of the month when gunmen attacked a petrochemical complex in Yanbu on the Red Sea coast. The second attack involved a 25-hour siege, during which terrorists rampaged through the Oasis residential community in al-Khobar, leaving over 22 people—mostly foreigners—dead. Several firms involved in the oil sector, including Royal Dutch Shell, Total SA, Saudi Aramco, Lukoil, and Sinopec had offices in the Oasis at the time of the attack.

In December 2004, the U.S. consulate in Jeddah was attacked, and toward the end of the month two car bombs exploded in Riyadh. One exploded outside the Ministry of Interior, and another was detonated outside a training facility for the Special Emergency Forces, the Kingdom’s counter-terrorist SWAT force. The Emergency Forces operate under the Ministry of Interior.

By early 2005, the pace and intensity of terrorist attacks began to recede. Had the level of attacks continued, it is a near certainty that Western expatriate residents and businesses would have begun to evacuate. It is unknown why exactly the pace of terrorist incidents did not continue. The inability to properly answer this question is in part due to the opaque nature of such information in the Kingdom, and it has further added to feelings by some analysts that such attacks will again occur in the future.

Some critics have charged that the security forces are either unwilling to act or are simply incompetent. Most often these allegations are made when suspects escape security dragnets. Yet, in Saudi Arabia, the security forces must act in recognition of conservative societal norms. In the Saudi case, security officers will allow women and children to leave once they have been cleared [5]. The Western media, however, reports only that suspects were able to evade capture. Oftentimes, the security forces have been criticized for waiting days before ending a standoff. Again, in Saudi Arabia it proves more effective to wait out suspects, limit exchanges of gunfire, and to try to negotiate surrender [6].

Perhaps some of the most important questions regarding Saudi Arabia’s fight against terrorism arise from what is unknown about the security situation in the Kingdom. For instance, how reliable are the security forces in responding to attacks not on the royal family or the vast hydrocarbon infrastructure, but on Western interests in the Kingdom? Similar unknowns exist regarding the veracity with which certain elements of the security forces would act to defend a Western as opposed to a Saudi target. Will Saudi security forces always act to defend Western businesses, expatriates and diplomatic facilities with the same determination with which they defend the ruling order? Until greater data is available to properly address these questions, a central aspect of the security situation will remain unknown.

Saudi society is beginning to show the changes ushered by recent security measures. Huge banners and signs hang in Riyadh with pictures of destroyed buildings and blown apart vehicles asking questions such as how these incidents could happen in Saudi Arabia. The counter-terrorism message is delivered to people several times a day on television with the message “together against terrorism.” The same message is displayed at automated teller machines each time a withdrawal is made. Even satellite television programs like “Circle of Darkness” are raising awareness of the terrorism problem.

It is also important to note that support for jihadi terrorism among the clergy and business and community leaders is declining. This is in no small part due to recent regime efforts to end societal acceptance of jihad [7]. Yet to interpret the recent failure of terrorists to mount a large-scale operation as the demise of terrorism in the Kingdom would be foolhardy. Terrorists in Saudi Arabia may be on the run today, but they are far from defeated.


1. Much of the material in this article is based upon first hand research and detailed interviews with both high-level Saudi and Western sources in Saudi Arabia in 2005.

2. Based upon interviews and discussions with officials from the Ministry of Interior, General Intelligence Presidency, and private analysts in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 2005, as well as discussions held abroad.

3. Based on interviews with security personnel, Riyadh, May 2005.

4. Interview with Lt. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 8, 2005.

5. Based on interviews with security personnel in Riyadh and abroad.

6. Ibid.

7. Beginning in November 2005 Saudi newspapers such as al-Watan and Okaz ran stories detailing these societal changes.