Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, remains a major threat but drone strikes are making significant headway against the franchise, say Saudi interior ministry officials, who are working to cut off Saudi funding of the group and prevent the recruitment of Saudi operatives.
Speaking to a visiting group of US journalists in Riyadh, the officials underscored the importance of US-Saudi cooperation in fighting terrorism but refused to confirm or deny reports that Saudi intelligence was involved in foiling the latest underwear bomb plot by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
“This information [about who was responsible] going out at this particular time … doesn’t serve anyone,” said Lt. Col. Sultan Mohammed of the ministry’s counterterrorism department, who has been tracking Islamist militants since the late 1990s.
Since 9/11 and a wave of domestic terrorist attacks in the following years, the Saudi government has taken strong measures to shut down jihadis and their ideology in the country. They have arrested more than 11,000 suspected militants over the past decade, about half of whom were released while the rest are being tried in a series of cases now moving through Saudi courts. The Ministry of Interior has also instituted a broad program to prevent the spread of jihadi ideology, which includes everything from requiring licenses for religious sermons to the promotion of books and leaflets that counter militant ideology to a generously funded rehabilitation center originally started for ex-Guantánamo detainees.
Officials said today that the Saudi government had now largely “destroyed” Al Qaeda as an organization in Saudi Arabia, wiped out public sympathy for the group, and said that drone strikes over the past year in Yemen have weakened the group there. But they remain very much aware of AQAP’s efforts to regroup in Yemen in order to launch attacks against not only the West but also the Saudi kingdom.
Formerly Al Qaeda had separate branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, but by early 2009 they had merged into one organization.
“To us, they are very dangerous because we are a major target of their terror,” said Maj. Gen. Mansour Sultan al-Turki. “On the other hand, they rely very much on young Saudis to be recruited. They also rely a lot on Saudi financing. So we have to make sure they do not get either of these two things.”
Easy to sneak off to Yemen
General Turki emphasized that the current situation in Yemen is similar in many ways to that of Afghanistan pre-9/11, when Osama bin Laden used it as a training base for jihadis from various different countries. But Yemen’s extensive coastline makes it easier for militants to come and go from the country and get supplies, while the long border with Saudi aids recruitment and potential attacks against the kingdom, he said.
“For young Saudis, it’s easy to go to Yemen for a few days without their families knowing,” says Turki, the ministry spokesman. “Even the [Saudi] government would not know about it, and that is very dangerous” because those Saudi nationals could then be used to launch attacks back home.
In August 2009, an AQAP militant faking repentance nearly assassinated the deputy interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
The militant, Abdullah al-Asiri, was the brother of Ibrahim al-Asiri, the alleged bombmaker involved in the latest underwear bombing plot, as well as the earlier plot on Christmas Day 2009. Mr. Nayef is the son of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who has run the Ministry of Interior since the 1970s.
“The good thing about Al Qaeda in Yemen so far is that they have failed in every suicide attempt,” says spokesman Turki, ticking off the attempted Nayef assassination, the 2009 Christmas Day plot, the 2010 cargo plane plot, and the latest underwear bombing.
“Each time we say thanks to God. When they fail, it makes it hard to recruit, because it shows that the leaders are not good.”
Ministry officials did not provide exact figures on AQAP, but estimated the bulk of the organization’s leaders to be Yemeni, with no more than 100 Saudis among them. Col. Mohammed, when asked about links between AQAP and Al Qaeda in Pakistan said unequivocally, “It’s one organization.” He cited messages of support for AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi from Mr. bin Laden before his death, and from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the new Al Qaeda leader, but did not give any details of logistical support beyond the existence of a “very limited number” of couriers who travel between Afghanistan and Yemen.
This story was updated after posting to clarify that Saudi officials did not take credit for successes against AQAP in Yemen.