In Saudi Arabia, fresh recruits for Al Qaeda

The State Department is expected to order all nonessential diplomats out of the country this week.

Suspected Al Qaeda terrorists have waged a violent campaign in Saudi Arabia since last May's car bombings of a housing compound in the capital. Despite a stiff crackdown against them by authorities, the group continues to gather new recruits and enjoy logistical support from sympathizers, analysts say.

Just this week, six security officers and several suspected terrorists were killed in a series of shootouts in and around Riyadh, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

Militants fought with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and security forces dismantled several truck bombs ready to be used for attacks in Riyadh, the agency said. Because of security concerns, the State Department is expected to order all nonessential US diplomats and their families to leave the country, according to the Reuters news service. The US Embassy in Riyadh warned US residents of threats to diplomatic facilities and residential compounds.

"These events make it clear that [Al Qaeda is] still capable of getting new recruits, of convincing a certain segment of society of their point of view, and of getting logistical support from sympathizers," says Abdullah Bjad al-Otaibi, a writer and expert on extremists.

Despite some government moves toward a freer and more open society - municipal elections are slated for October, for example - many young Saudis are disillusioned with the current regime and its close association with the US. As well, since the US campaign in Afghanistan, many Saudis have returned from the terrorist training camps there, bringing with them new tactical methods.

"These terrorists seem to be sophisticated and well-trained. I'm not surprised given the tens of thousands of Saudis who went and fought in Afghanistan [during the Russian occupation]," says Khaled al-Dukhayel, professor of political science at King Saud University in Riyadh.

Since last May the government has instituted tougher measures to crack down on extremism. Policemen sit behind machine guns mounted on jeeps and tanks at checkpoints in major thoroughfares, opening car trunks and checking identification papers in the capital and the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah. Cinderblocks have been placed on service roads leading to American hotel chains, compounds housing foreigners, American schools, and the US Embassy.

The tightened security measures have uncovered huge weapons caches and rounded up hundreds of suspects.

The Interior Ministry has handed out thousands of booklets with photos of 26 men wanted in connection with the November Muhaya housing compound bombing. The booklets promise up to 7 million Saudi riyals, nearly $2 million, for help in finding and foiling terrorist plots. Twenty-two of those men remain at large.

"Despite the large security presence and substantial reward money offered by the government, suspects still enjoy cover within Saudi society and continue to hide and remain in and around the capital," says Mansour al-Nogaidan, a columnist for the newspaper Al Riyadh.

Many of the terrorism suspects killed in police shootouts are not on the list of wanted men issued by authorities, indicating that new faces are joining the group.

"The picture the authorities had of Al Qaeda's strength in Saudi Arabia was not accurate. They have more sympathizers and fighters than they thought, and their language of violence continues to find takers here and support among a segment of Saudi society that shares the common religious ideology of Wahhabism," says Adel al-Toraifi, a columnist at the newspaper Al Watan.

Wahhabism, the teachings of 17th-century preacher Mohammad Abdul-Wahab, an ally of the ruling Al Saud dynasty, is the only Islamic ideology taught in Saudi Arabia. It has been reinterpreted by extremists to stress holy war and loyalty to religious leaders.

Some experts say that the government is not doing enough to fix the causes of the violence.

"The problem is that we're not dealing with the extremist thought that makes these men fertile ground for the call to violence; we're only dealing with the violence," says Mr. Toraifi.

The absence in Saudi Arabia of means for clear and peaceful freedom of thought and expression, coupled with the violence against Arabs and Muslims in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq, makes it easier for Al Qaeda to gain recruits, says Mr. Otaibi.

"With the daily television images of soldiers killing Arab women and children in cold blood in Palestine and Iraq, there is growing anti-American feelings among the man in the street, and these guys paint the Saudi government as allies of the United States," says Otaibi. "We must raise the roof on freedom of thought and expression so that these tensions and emotions are dealt with in a peaceful manner."

And the situation will not improve unless reforms are implemented in Saudi Arabia, a solution is found in Palestine, and stability comes to Iraq, says Mr. Nogaidan.

"We need to implement reforms. Poverty is increasing, corruption continues, there are widespread feelings of anxiety and depression compounded by the events in Palestine and Iraq. I think the situation will continue this way for a while," he says.

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