This article is based upon extensive research with knowledgeable sources that dealt with the author only on the strict condition of anonymity and non-attribution.
It is widely recognized that Saudi nationals are currently participating in the Iraqi insurgency and have been involved in operations that have targeted the U.S.-led coalition force, aspects of the nascent Iraqi security forces, and segments of Iraq’s majority Shiite population. The presence of Saudis in Iraq is deeply troubling not just for the future viability of Iraq, but also for the future security of Saudi Arabia and the smaller Persian Gulf monarchies.
Iraq today is the primary jihadi venue. For the first time in recent history, the jihadi movement is centered in the Arab heartland, engaged in what many in the movement interpret as a struggle for a pivotal Arab country. Moreover, Iraq is a target-rich country for those inclined to stage attacks against the U.S.-led coalition military presence. Attackers in Iraq stand a better chance of escaping to fight again due to the severely poor security situation; they also need not fear the ubiquitous security services that exist elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. Iraq is also emblematic of a larger jihadi project, the successes of which many in the movement seek to export back to their home countries. Iraq, therefore, is unlike Afghanistan, which as a non-Arab country never quite carried the urgency and fervor of those presently active in Iraq.
The Saudi government is extremely concerned by the presence of jihadi Saudi nationals in Iraq. It is feared that the return of Saudi jihadis to Saudi Arabia will revitalize what has become a waning domestic insurgency. These fighters not only have learned new techniques, but may also alter the insurgent landscape in Saudi Arabia by introducing techniques, methods, and operations that heretofore have not existed in the Kingdom.
To their credit, Saudi authorities have taken significant measures to combat this trend. The Saudi government has launched a multi-pronged strategy comprised of improvement of border security along the Saudi-Iraqi frontier, an uncompromising and thorough investigative monitoring program of people who have spent time in Iraq, a concerted assault on Saudi Arabia’s homegrown indigenous terrorists and significant cooperation with foreign intelligence organizations (including a major joint program with their U.S. counterparts).
A major issue for Iraqi security forces and their Saudi counterparts is that nomadic Bedouin tribes (that have previously been suspected of supporting the insurgency) exist on both sides of the Iraq-Saudi border. These tribes frequently move throughout the vast and unpopulated southern Iraqi desert and maintain clan ties in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, these elements intimately know the area and are well versed in avoiding contact with security forces. As such, it is possible that they are assisting in the movement of fighters into Iraq.
Saudi al-Qaeda leader Saleh al-Oufi wrote in support of Saudi jihadis in Iraq in the July 8, 2004 issue of the Voice of Jihad online magazine, strengthening suspicions that al-Oufi himself had fought in the strife-torn country. Saudi Islamic militants have also claimed operations such as the assassination of U.S. contractor Paul Johnson and the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah in the name of the “Fallujah Brigades,” demonstrating—at the very least—a symbolic linkage between Saudi and Iraqi insurgents. In April 2005, Saudi national Hadi bin Mubarak Qahtani killed himself in a suicide operation near Qaim, Iraq. According to the Washington Post, “Five other Qahtanis have been reported killed in Iraq, including Muhammed bin Aedh Ghadif Qahtani, a captain in the Saudi National Guard who allegedly used his guard identification badge to help gain entry into Iraq when he was stopped for questioning.”
On March 2, an al-Qaeda operative identified as Abdullah Salih al-Harbi was captured by Iraqi border guards attempting to cross the Saudi border near Samawah. Reports at the time indicated that he confessed during his interrogation to participating in the al-Qaeda terrorist assault on the massive Abqaiq Saudi oil facility (Sadoun Jabery, spokesman for the southwestern command of the Iraqi border police, March 3).
Saudi security agencies have taken major steps to monitor possible travel to Iraq and other jihadi locales. It has emerged that some Saudis have sought to hide their travel to Iraq by reporting their passports stolen, thus erasing any consular evidence of either travel to Iraq or Syria, widely seen as the most important way station for those en route to Iraq. In an effort to end this practice, the Saudi government no longer issues replacement travel documents with “no questions asked.” Saudis that have presented themselves at embassies abroad claiming either theft or loss of their passports are now subjected to a rigorous investigation upon their return to the Kingdom (Nawaf Obaid and Anthony Cordesman, Saudi Militants in Iraq: Assessment and Kingdom’s Response, September 19, 2005).
A Saudi intelligence agency interrogation revealed that a number of Yemenis served as facilitators for Saudis going to Iraq. The same report summary noted that Syria was the main point of entry into Iraq, largely due to successful Saudi efforts to increase security on the Iraqi frontier (Nawaf Obaid and Anthony Cordesman, Saudi Militants in Iraq: Assessment and Kingdom’s Response, September 19, 2005). There exists a well-worn route into Iraq, from recruitment and indoctrination in Saudi Arabia to hand-off to facilitators in Syria prior to crossing the Iraqi border. Saudi support for the Iraqi insurgency has also included the issuance of a fatwa in 2004 by over two dozen senior Saudi Ulama, including the influential former dissident Salman al-Awda, endorsing Saudi and Muslim support of the insurgency (https://www.islamtoday.net, November 5, 2004; al-Jazeera, November 6, 2004).
The Saudi National Security Assessment Project (an independent consultancy that works closely with the Saudi government on security and oil issues) has produced some original analysis on the subject of Saudi nationals fighting in Iraq (Nawaf Obaid and Anthony Cordesman, Saudi Militants in Iraq: Assessment and Kingdom’s Response, September 19, 2005). Among the findings, the Project has noted that Saudis—and other Persian Gulf nationals—often travel with large sums of cash. This fact makes them especially sought after and recruiting affluent Saudis has been perceived by Iraqi insurgent leaders as a quick method to finance terrorist operations. Furthermore, private intelligence reports have intimated that the Saudis are so valued by insurgents that they have been sold and traded by insurgent “brokers” in Iraq.
While the true number of Saudis fighting in Iraq may never be known, there have been unsubstantiated reports that the number of Saudis that have perished in the insurgency have been exaggerated in a bid to boost recruitment. A March 2005 Israeli report, “Arab Volunteers Killed in Iraq: An Analysis,” that has been subjected to wide criticism, claims that 94 (or 61 percent of) insurgents killed in a six month period were identified as Saudis, while 70 percent of suicide bombers in Iraq were Saudi (https://www.e-prism.org/images/PRISM_no_1_vol_3_-_Arabs_killed_in_Iraq.pdf ).
A separate confidential U.S. report has identified a Saudi participation rate in excess of 50 percent, while a jihadi internet forum (https://www.qal3ah.net) has stated that Saudis comprise 44 percent of insurgents. According to Nawaf Obaid, however, the Saudi government-controlled press has only acknowledged 47 Saudis that have been identified as participating in the insurgency. These figures, however, have not been independently verified or confirmed (Nawaf Obaid and Anthony Cordesman, Saudi Militants in Iraq: Assessment and Kingdom’s Response, November 6, 2004).
It is extremely worrying that, according to a Saudi national security source, of those Saudis that have been detained and questioned upon their return from Iraq, approximately 80 percent were unknown to the security services (Nawaf Obaid and Anthony Cordesman, Saudi Militants in Iraq: Assessment and Kingdom’s Response, November 6, 2004). This fact—if true—is concerning as it indicates that the Saudi intelligence and security services may not have as good a handle on the issue as they may otherwise attempt to portray.
In the end, this may well be a significant contributor to greater violence and domestic insurgency in Saudi Arabia. Of course, returning jihadis will not simply abandon their worldview and objectives. Moreover, the Iraq war and the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan have polarized a large segment of the Saudi population. Some senior Saudi sources have even sought to blame the domestic terrorist struggle against al-Qaeda on the situation in Iraq. It is unknown what, if any effect, disaffection with the ruling family and anger over the rampant corruption has had on the motivations of Saudi nationals to travel to Iraq, to engage in terrorism, and learn skills and gain experiences that they can eventually bring back to the Kingdom.
In large part, the problem is greater for the Saudi government than the U.S. military and its Iraqi partners. The overarching question is what the Saudi government will do to neutralize Saudi fighters in Iraq once they have returned as technically-adept jihadis and battle-hardened fighters. At that point, with potentially the fate of the Kingdom in the balance, many analysts fear that the problem of returning Saudi jihadis may have moved well past any comfortable or easily-achievable solutions.