How an Al Qaeda hotbed turned inhospitable
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — First of four parts
When Al Qaeda attacked Saudi Arabia on May 12 - and again on Nov. 8 - it brought home a cold, hard truth for the rulers of Riyadh: the house of Al Saud was now its primary target - even more so than the United States.
That realization is triggering a profound stir in the land where Al Qaeda and other militant groups have long drawn ideological and financial succor. After Sept. 11, Saudi Arabia went through a period of denial (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi). But now there is perhaps no more determined partner for the US war on terror than this Middle Eastern kingdom. The royal family is rounding up suspected terrorists, cracking down on Al Qaeda's financial backers and radical clerics, and moving toward significant educational and gender reforms.
How it will turn out is not at all clear. "There are those who believe in controlled change, and those who say we should rip through the changes," says Khaled al-Maeena, editor of Arab News, in Saudi Arabia. "And there are those who say any change should come under the umbrella of Islam. All three are struggling to come to the forefront." Today, the Monitor begins a four-part series on the Saudi reformation.
The faces are everywhere - on display in restaurants, shop windows, and the opening pages of the main daily newspapers.
They are the 26 most-wanted young men in Saudi Arabia, sought in connection with the May 12 and Nov. 8 suicide bombings here that took the lives of 53 people, mainly Arabs. But nine Americans also perished in the attacks.
The bounty on these men is high: 1 million Saudi rials ($267,000) each. Supply leads on a terror cell, and you receive $1,867,000. Help foil a terrorist attack, and it's worth $1,333,000.
The rewards, along with the public display of the suspects, are part of an unprecedented campaign by the Saudi royal family to enlist everyday Saudis in this battle against Al Qaeda.
After the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, in which 19 US servicemen died, Saudi Arabia was an unwilling partner. It wasn't much more compliant after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But now, with the terror group's wrath striking the royal family's home turf, the small inner circle of princes has united and is going public, reaching out to its own population and to the US. "This is a wholesale change for the Saudis, with the publication of these names and pictures," says a Western diplomat posted in Riyadh. "Saudi hearts and minds are what is important now."
Al Qaeda made a huge mistake by attacking Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's two holiest shrines, says Mohammed al-Hulwah, head of the foreign-relations committee of the king's Majlis Ash Shura (consultative council). "Now, the government has declared a holy war on these terrorists," he says, pumping his fists for emphasis in his typically Saudi living room. The walls, drapes, and furniture are covered in pastels with geometric designs to comply with a religious ban on portrayals of people or animals. "Some people before were sympathetic with them, but now they are really starting to think and question."
Up until this point, say Saudi and US government officials, ordinary Saudis - as well as some members of the royal family - were in denial. They could not accept that 15 of the 19 hijackers came from this country. But with the two bombings in Saudi Arabia, ordinary Saudis have not only come to accept they have a problem with extremists, but are actively helping their government root them out.
One Saudi man, for example, phoned the new government hotline recently to report that Othman al-Amri, No. 11 on the most-wanted list, had stopped at his home while driving through the area. About a week earlier, someone tipped off the authorities to the location of Ibrahim al-Rayes, who was later killed by security forces. From May through the end of 2003, some 300 other terror suspects have been detained or killed, according to officials.
The Saudis have also become much more cooperative with the US. Teams of Treasury, FBI, and CIA officers are now based here, working hand in hand with Saudi officials at the Mahabith, Saudi Arabia's counterpart to the FBI. "We have very good cooperation right now," says a Western law-enforcement officer based here.
These teams are beginning to establish certain patterns. For example, they've been able to trace many of the guns they've captured to both Yemen and Afghanistan. Moreover, with each arrest that is made, the teams gather additional information that leads them to others. "Every time you catch someone, they have something with them that allows [the suspect] to get to the next person [within the terror cell structure]," the law-enforcement official says.
The information developed by the teams has led the Saudis to install heat-sensitive cameras and barbed-wire fences at or near the most frequently used smuggling routes along its border with Yemen. That has already begun to pay off. On Dec. 27, Saudi officials announced they'd arrested a little more than 4,000 "infiltrators" trying to cross that border, and seized a large cache of ammunition.
The cooperation includes the pursuit of financial backing for terrorists, too. Since this past spring, the Saudis have instituted a number of measures to block funding: Collection boxes were removed from mosques, and tighter restrictions were placed on financial transfers and charitable donations.
But preventing personal donations to Arabs perceived to be in need, like Palestinians, will be much more difficult for the Saudi government to control; nearly everyone here bemoans the treatment of Palestinians by Israel.
"We have to support our brothers in Palestine," says Nasser al-Rasheed, a bespectacled conservative Muslim who has the traditional untrimmed white beard. "I would give money to a Palestinian I trust. But I would not give to Hamas [the Palestinian resistance movement placed on the US list of terror organizations]. But how do you know [the difference]?"
On the international front, however, the cooperation has paid off. Last month, the US and Saudi Arabia jointly designated two European organizations as financial backers of terrorists: Bosnia-based Vazir (formerly Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, shut down in Aug. 2003), and the Liechtenstein-based Hochburg AG (formerly BA Taqwa, closed in August 2002).
Still, no one thinks the crackdown will end anytime soon. Officials estimate that between 2,000 and 10,000 mujahideen returned here from fighting wars in Afghanistan. "A subculture exists here, those who fell into what the Saudis refer to as jihadist or takfiri terminology," says the Western diplomat. "It's a group of people - 60, 600, 6,000, 60,000. We don't know the exact number, but it's not infinite."
These jihadis have switched tactics as well, targeting intelligence officials. On Dec. 29, Lt. Col. Ibrahim al-Dhaleh parked his Lexus and stepped away just before it exploded. Earlier in the month, Maj. Gen. Abdelaziz al-Huweirini, the No. 3 in the intelligence service, was shot and wounded in Riyadh.
"We've got to recognize that we're fighting an ideology that springs out of a radical or xenophobic Islam," the Western diplomat says. "If we caught Osama bin Laden tomorrow, I am convinced Al Qaeda would be finished. But that won't end the war on terror. The ideology is entrenched in the Muslim world.... We will probably be battling this for the next generation."
Tomorrow: A spiritual fight against religious extremists.
Inside the walls of their tightly secured compounds, foreigners in Saudi Arabia are essentially sequestered from Saudis. But despite toughened security measures, some residents say that Americans, in particular, are clearing out and leaving the country.
In the Al Yamama compound in Riyadh, which houses foreign workers who are helping develop this country, there are 370 connected, beige stucco townhouses - with two or three bedrooms. Near the center, there's a tiled open-air plaza with palm trees, surrounded by a grocery store, restaurant, flower shop, jewelry store, and preschool. A recreation room boasts raquetball, squash, and tennis courts as well as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. There's also a K-12 school.
"There are people here who hardly ever go off, or need to go off, the compound - especially now," says Jim Greenberg, an American businessman who's lived here for nearly 30 years. But, he adds, he and his wife, Lisa, have personally decided not to "change the way we live at all."
However, those who do go out generally travel in SUVs with tinted windows - mainly to prevent Saudis from seeing Western women inside who may not wear veils. "Inside that wall, I dress as I like," says Jan Quinn, an American expat who lives in a nearby compound.
She says life has drastically changed. For example, her four children who are attending school in the US are now afraid to visit. In fact, she says, this Christmas was the last they will spend together as a family in to Riyadh. Greenberg, though, still travels throughout the country and Riyadh - now home to 4.5 million where only 300,000 lived "in mud-brick homes" when he arrived some three decades ago.
Greenberg he also says that most of his colleagues have changed their habits - or left. There aren't exact numbers on US expatriates living in Saudi Arabia today, nor is there a historical record. The US Embassy here puts the number of Americans in Saudi Arabia today at about 30,000.
Greenberg, though, says he's seen the number diminish greatly over the years - especially after the May and November attacks. "This was probably an 80 percent American compound at one time," he says. "I suspect it's not more than about 20 to 25 percent now." One telling example, he says, is the school. When his four children left "a few years ago," the school was K-9 only and taught 2,200 kids. Today the school is K-12 and houses only 1,050 students.