The deaths of two suspected al-Qaida militants who blew themselves up in Mecca to avoid arrest has highlighted what the Saudis for years have denied; that al-Qaida has a significant presence in-country, and has even penetrated Islam’s holiest city. As the legitimacy of Saudi rulers rests mostly on their self-proclaimed role as “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” an attack on Mecca could be seen as a strike on the legitimacy of King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz. A third suspect was killed in a shootout with security forces in the capital Riyadh. Police originally tried to negotiate with the men, but after they opened fire on the security forces the police returned fire. The two dead men were subsequently identified as Muteb al-Mihyani and Sami al-Luhaibi, both in their late twenties. Interior Minister Prince Nayaf said that the pair was part of an eight-member al-Qaida cell, and that two others surrendered while four more were captured. Four Saudis, a Nigerian and a Pakistani were taken into custody, along with a significant quantity of arms, including Kalashnikovs, assault rifles, pistols, hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives. A number of passports, ID cards and pamphlets were also seized.
The security forces subsequently clamped a three-kilometer security perimeter in the al-Sharie district while continuing to search for possible weapons caches. When asked during a press conference if the militants had intended to attack building and pilgrims Nayaf answered, “That is exactly what I mean. In Mecca there are only Muslims from the Kingdom and abroad. There are no other people except Muslims…Certainly buildings, installations and people. All the seized weapons indicate such a plan.”
It was the latest clash between militants and police in a nationwide security crackdown set off by the 12 May 2003 suicide car bombings on Western compounds in Riyadh. Thirty-five people died in the bombings, including nine attackers. About 600 al-Qaida suspects have been arrested since the May attacks.
The Mecca attack follows an earlier incident on 14 June in Mecca, when police attempted to stop a vehicle at a roadblock and gave chase into a Khaldiya district. The occupants of the vehicle then engaged security forces in a gun battle; police eventually stormed the apartment where fugitives took refuge. The London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) reported that eight security officers and three civilians died in the operation. Most ominously for the security forces, one of the arrested men was wearing a suicide bomber’s belt when captured. Prince Nayaf was under no illusions about who was behind the incident, saying, “we have no doubt about this. It’s very clear and all (attacks) came from al-Qaida.”
The Islamic world has certainly taken note of the al-Qaida Meccan operations. It is a city very familiar to Osama bin Laden; in a supreme touch of irony, it was Osama’s father, Muhammad bin Oud bin Laden, who in 1973 won the contract from the Saudi royal family to rebuild both the Great Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. The ongoing renovation is estimated to have cost $17 billion to date. The al-Qaida attacks are shedding a very bright light into some corners that the Saudi royal family would prefer, most notably their ambiguous relationship to bin Laden’s activities. A $1.7 billion lawsuit recently filed in Washington for the families of victims of 9-11 alleges that the Saudi government made millions of dollars of “donations” to al-Qaida in return for a pledge not to attack inside the Kingdom. The relationship was managed by former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal. Turki was in charge of the “Afghanistan file,” and had long-standing ties both to bin Laden and the Taliban. Former CIA officer Vince Cannistraro believes that Prince Turki made two trips to meet with bin Laden. Cannistraro said that he had been able to verify independently that on one of the trips the Saudis made “a large monetary offer” of tens of millions of dollars to bin Laden if he would cease his attacks on the Royal Family.
The Great Mosque is no stranger to symbolic political violence. On 20 November 1979, several hundred Sunni radicals under Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Utaiba captured the Great Mosque complex. Juhaiman came from one of the leading Najdi families. Hundreds of pilgrims were taken hostage, and the Saudi security forces were initially unable to cope. The political agenda of the rebels was to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and sever all ties to the West. As French paratroopers finally recovered the complex after a nearly two-week siege, 250 people lay dead, among them 127 Saudi troops. Sixty-seven captured militants were eventually beheaded for the uprising in four Saudi cities. Bin Laden was deeply impressed by the takeover and tells friends that the rebels were “true Muslims.” It has been reported that one of Osama’s half brothers was arrested as a sympathizer of the takeover but was later exonerated. Juhaiman’s charges against the Saudi royal family closely parallel those made by Ayatollah Khomeini against the Shah. Thoroughly alarmed and humiliated by the incident, the Saudi regime began to tighten up and closely monitor all pilgrims, particularly Iranians.
Ten years later a bomb exploded near the Great Mosque, killing a worshipper and wounding sixteen others. Saudi Arabia would eventually execute sixteen Kuwaiti Shi’ias, including ten of Iranian background, for the attack. It is among the repressed minority Shi’ias of eastern Saudi Arabia that al-Qaida has the greatest potential for work. The question is how well Saudi security forces can cope among a minority that they have traditionally suppressed as heretics.
Mecca was never far from bin Laden’s thoughts. During a 1998 interview he said, “To kill Americans and their allies – civilian and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in order to liberate the al-Aqsa (Jerusalem) mosque and the Holy Mosque (Mecca.)” Some of his recruiters found their top candidates there; in November 2002 Saudi officials admitted privately that al-Qaida had recruiters active in Mecca, and that some of the 9-11 hijackers had been recruited there.
Certainly Washington is refocusing its efforts on locating bin Laden, with CENTCOM General John P. Abizaid assigning to Task Force 121 the mission to track down both bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The new military grouping is a combination of Task Force 5 from Afghanistan and Task Force 20 in Iraq under one command. The question now is with the growing boldness of al-Qaida operations within Saudi Arabia itself how willing the regime is to work with the West to uncover the terrorists within their midst. Much of the cooperation will be painful for Riyadh, especially the uncovering of its cozy financial ties to those that now seem to be determined to weaken the Kingdom from within. The biggest uncertainty is whether the Saudi royal family will have the strength of purpose to face squarely its deadliest threat and its responsibility in creating it.
Dr. Daly is an adjunct scholar at Washington’s Middle East Institute, and author for Jane’s Intelligence Review.