Iraq: spinning off Arab terrorists?
Counterterror experts from 50 countries met in Saudi Arabia to discuss how to combat emerging threats.
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — The lessons of Afghanistan are not lost on counterterrorism experts and Arab government officials here.
As the insurgency continues in Iraq, the risk is that the country becomes a regional training ground for terrorists - as Afghanistan was in the 1990s - creating newly radicalized and experienced jihadis who return home to cause trouble in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere.
In fact, there's evidence it's already happened in Kuwait. In the past month, the tiny Gulf state has been rocked by a series of shootouts with Muslim militants, some of whom learned their craft by working alongside Iraqi insurgents.
"We found during the interrogations that about four of the suspects had learned how to make explosives in Iraq," says Col. Khaled al-Isaimi, who heads the Kuwaiti delegation at a four-day global counterterrorism conference which ends Tuesday in Riyadh. Some 40 terror suspects have been handed over to Kuwaiti prosecutors in the past month.
Saudi security expert Nawaf Obaid agrees that Arab fighters returning to Saudi Arabia from Iraq is an issue. "This is a major concern in the sense that some people have gone to Iraq and have been getting training but there's no indication that they've come back [yet]. We know fighters have gone but we don't know how many exactly," says Mr. Obaid, a Saudi security consultant.
At the opening of the conference attended by counterterror experts from more than 50 nations, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullahcalled for the establishment of an counterterrorism center to make it easier for countries to "exchange information instantly in response to the demands of the situation and the need to prevent accidents, God willing, before they occur."
Richard Barrett, United Nations coordinator for the Al Qaeida/Taliban Monitoring Team, agrees that governments are concerned that terrorists are being trained in Iraq. But he notes that Iraq is not Afghanistan. "There was a government [in Afghanistan] actively training, supporting, and arming these fighters," he says. "That's not the case in Iraq."
The other difference is that young men are not being sent to Iraq with unofficial Saudi blessing and subsidized airfare, as was the case in Afghanistan.
Kuwaiti Colonel Isaimi says that the countries bordering Iraq met in Iran last year to take steps to prevent Arab fighters from getting in and out of Iraq. "We're exchanging information with Iraq and Syria, we're monitoring our borders, and we're meeting with all the countries that border Iraq," says Isaimi. But Iraqi and US officials have complained that Iran and Syria are not doing enough to seal their borders.
In late January, US Army Gen. George Casey told reporters in Baghdad that the foreign fighters in Iraq probably number no more than 1,000 - or less than 10 percent of the total insurgents. In November, Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said Iraqi authorities had 167 foreign fighters - including Syrians, Saudis, Egyptians, Afghans, Sudanese, and Moroccans - in custody.
In Riyadh, Iraq's interim Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Iraq were from Sudan, where Osama bin Laden was based in the early 1990s.
According to Faris bin Hizam, a Saudi researcher and journalist who closely follows Al Qaeda, some 2,500 Saudis have gone to Iraq. "These fighters will most probably return to Saudi Arabia to bolster Al Qaeda, which has been weakened and is in disarray with the death of much of its leadership," he says.
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who heads national security, told the conference that in Saudi Arabia more than 90 terrorists have been killed and 17 injured in confrontations with Saudi security forces in the past two years.
Prince Nayef said in that period 22 attacks by militants in Saudi Arabia killed 129 people, 90 civilians and 39 members of the security forces, and wounded 720. Material losses from the attacks were estimated at $267 million, he said.
Hizam says that more than 100 Saudis have been jailed, after being caught trying to get into Iraq.
The most prominent of those was Saudi soccer star Sulaiman al-Hudaithy whose story gripped the nation last year when he was arrested near the Syrian border on his way to fight in Iraq. Mr. Hudaithy, a married man with children, who plays on the national Saudi soccer team, was looking for the fastest way to heaven, says Hizam.
Media adviser to the Saudi ambassador in England, Jamal Khashoggi, who traveled to Afghanistan many times during the Soviet occupation and met Mr. bin Laden, says the Arab fighters in Iraq are more violent and more dangerous than the "Arab Afghans."
"The Arabs who first fought in Afghanistan were moderate. Initially Osama bin Laden was not radical. There were no kidnappings of relief workers or beheadings. But any Saudi who survives Iraq is a potential danger to Saudi Arabia. These men have blood on their hands and blood in their hearts," he says.
Mr. Khashoggi says many Arab writers and clerics are responsible for encouraging young men to fight in Iraq. "Egyptian papers, Al Jazeera television, some of the Saudi clergy, they are all indirectly participating in the sin of sending young men into Iraq."
Saudi student Abdul-Aziz al-Harbi says two close friends have died fighting US forces in Iraq. He knows of more than a dozen acquaintances who found their way to Iraq over the past year and a half. The number of people going into Iraq has slowed down over the past three months, he says.
"We hear that it's more difficult to make it into Iraq. The borders are much more closely monitored." Mr. Harbi and two of his fellow students from Imam Saud University of Islamic Law in Riyadh all sport the scruffy beards and plain headdress that mark them as conservatives.
They say they did not feel tempted to fight the US occupation in Iraq. "The clerics I follow said that resistance in Iraq was for Iraqis," says Abdullah Sulaiman, a journalism student. Though Harbi doesn't condone Saudis fighting in Iraq, he understands the motivation. "Americans can't imagine how a young man living a decent life in Riyadh could feel so much love and passion for a fellow Muslim and feel compelled to go and fight when he sees television footage of Iraqis or Afghans being killed and tortured. But that's a result of the strong Islamic blood ties," he says.