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How an Al Qaeda hotbed turned inhospitable

By Faye BowersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 8, 2004


First of four parts

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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.

Support for a tough crackdown on terror grew after two domestic attacks

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.