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New Saudi tack on Al Qaeda

The arrest of 172 suspected militants reveals a Saudi public that is helping in the fight against the terrorist group.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2007


Some had trained abroad to become pilots and were planning to hijack airplanes to destroy oil refineries, Saudi Arabian officials said over the weekend, revealing alleged details of a foiled Al Qaeda plot on the kingdom.

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Government officials announced on Friday the arrests of 172 suspected militants, one of the largest such roundups inside the country and the result of months of work involving informants and intelligence gleaned from captured militants.

While the arrests may have thwarted a 9/11-like plot, stopping the attacks in the planning highlights how successful the country's security services have been in restricting the group's ability to operate since 2004. By then, dozens of Saudi nationals and foreign-born residents had been killed by Al Qaeda's adherents as the group appeared to be growing in strength and support.

What happened, analysts say, is that the Saudis came to view Al Qaeda as a legitimate threat as average Saudis – who had been somewhat supportive of Al Qaeda when its attacks seemed targeted at driving the US out of Afghanistan or Iraq or focused on foreigners in the kingdom – grew disgusted with bloodshed on their own soil.

"In May 2003, when the first attack happened, the Saudi security was not prepared. They never thought there would be an attack" inside the country, says Mustafa Alani, referring to the Al Qaeda attacks on three compounds where many American residents lived in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that killed 35 people.

Now, "security services have improved," says Mr. Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, a think tank funded by a Saudi businessman.

"More importantly, there has been a change in Saudi society," says Alani. "Al Qaeda made a strategic mistake by attacking Saudis, Arabs, and Muslims. For the sake of killing one foreigner, they are killing five or 10 Saudis. The average man no longer believes it is jihad. Any attacks in Saudi Arabia they see as unjustifiable, illegitimate, and terrorism, not jihad."

That shift in local attitudes, he says, has made policing the country easier.

"Society became the main source of intelligence … there are many cases when the information is coming from the family. Someone calls and says my son or brother has disappeared and I believe he has been recruited," Alani says.

There's no question that Al Qaeda's ability to successfully carry out attacks inside Saudi Arabia has been severely degraded in recent years.

According to data compiled by Alani, 50 civilians and members of the security services were killed by Islamist militants inside the kingdom in 2003, 68 in 2004, and seven in 2006. Alani didn't provide data for 2005, but a review of press reports from that year shows at least five deaths.

Saudi Arabia has also moved away from what appeared to have been a state of denial regarding Al Qaeda. In 2002, there were a series of assassinations of local officials and foreigners in the country, but at the time the Saudi government described many of the killings of the foreigners as tied to gangs involved in alcohol smuggling (alcohol is illegal in the Kingdom).