Counter-Terrorism: Where In The Middle East ISIL Gets No Respect


December 16, 2014:   ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has called on its followers in the Moslem world to do whatever they can to attack non-Moslem foreigners in their midst. In this case the potential targets include Shia Moslems who, to Sunni Islamic terrorist outfits like ISIL are worse than non-Moslems (or infidels) they are heretics. Thus a recent Shia religious celebration in a Shia neighborhood in eastern Saudi Arabia was attacked, leaving six dead. Around the same time a Dutch man was shot and wounded in central Saudi Arabia (Riyadh) and police believe other attacks on foreigners and heretics are planned. To deal with all that police staged a series of raids in the first week of December and arrested 135 people. Sweeps like this are not unusual in Saudi Arabia and they usually work.

Most of those arrested will be questioned and released, after the police classify each person for their potential for becoming radicalized. For those who are obviously (or apparently) radicalized they will be held and investigated. If evidence of bad behavior is found they will be prosecuted. Since 2008 Saudi Arabia has been prosecuting terrorism suspects in a special terrorism court and details of these prosecutions are often kept secret, apparently to protect investigations that are still under way as well as the identities of witnesses and tipsters. Most of these prosecutions were of men who had organized terrorist cells but were turned in by a neighbor or someone who knew them or of them.

There is nothing new with all these prosecutions. An even larger terror cell was broken up earlier in 2014. This one was attributed to an ISIL operation inside Saudi Arabia. This group contained 62 members (59 Saudis, a Yemeni, a Pakistani and a Palestinian) who were planning several attacks and assassinations in Saudi Arabia. Initially 35 of the 62 were arrested and some of the rest are still being sought along with new suspects revealed after interrogating those already in custody.

Despite energetic police work and prompt prosecution there is no shortage of Islamic terrorists inside Saudi Arabia. Worse, ISIL is one of two Islamic terrorist organizations that have it in for Saudi Arabia. The other one is AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), based in Yemen. Both are affiliated with al Qaeda which, since the 1990s, has been dedicated to overthrowing the Saudi monarchy. Although ISIL has been expelled from al Qaeda (for being too radical) both groups continue to seek the overthrow of the House of Saud.

AQAP was formed in 2009 after the remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda organization (several thousand full and part time members at its peak) fled to Yemen and merged with the Yemeni al Qaeda branch. AQAP also benefitted from hundreds of Iraqi al Qaeda members who arrived after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-8. Growing unrest in Yemen (against the decades old Saleh dictatorship) enabled AQAP to recruit locally and take over several towns in southern Yemen by 2011. Then the new post-Saleh government launched a counteroffensive in 2012 and AQAP got hurt very badly. That offensive continued, along with the growing use of American UAVs in Yemen. In April 2014 another major offensive was launched against AQAP by the U.S. and Yemen and this succeeded in capturing all the new bases AQAP had established in remote mountain areas after the 2012 defeat. That was followed by an invasion of the south by Shia rebels from the north. While the al Qaeda situation is desperate in Yemen, AQAP is still al Qaeda’s most capable branch and the only one that has shown any ability to support attacks (few successful so far) in the West. Now that capability is in doubt, for a while at least. All this has been good news for Saudi Arabia which has always been the primary foreign target for AQAP attacks.

ISIL is a threat despite most of its leadership having come from the decade old Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). In 2013 ISI morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That happened when ISI moved into Syria and appealed to many foreign Islamic terrorists to come fight for ISI in Syria. Some of these foreigners had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group. ISI had been having a hard time in Iraq before 2011 and the decision to move into Syria was a desperate move. There the Iraqi Islamic terrorists went after glory, recruits, cash and power by poaching resources from other Islamic terrorist groups. The victims appealed to al Qaeda head Zawahiri for help and got it. That did not end the matter and the dispute escalated in January 2014 when outright war between ISIL and other Islamic terror groups in Syria began. A month later al Qaeda declared ISIL outcasts and sanctioned the war against them. That’s not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq. It is a problem for Saudi Arabia because the Saudis finance al Nusra and some of the other Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria that are now at war with ISIL. To the Saudis such support is the lesser of two evils as ISIL is crippling the rebel efforts to overthrow the Assad government in Syria. This is also part of the ideological war the Saudis (and most other Sunni Moslems) are fighting with Shia Iran (and its Shia allies the Assads and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon). Meanwhile the Saudis continue crushing the Sunni Islamic terrorists that try to attack them at home.

When it comes to Islamic terrorism on their own turf the Saudis can be thorough and persistent. This can be seen in how Saudi Arabia continues to prosecute Islamic terrorists who made several major attacks in 2003 and 2004 during a brief al Qaeda terror campaign inside Saudi Arabia but were crushed thereafter. The terrorist violence in Saudi Arabia greatly increased after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which enraged al Qaeda. Even though Saudi Arabia officially condemned this operation, it was seen as an infidel occupation of the al Qaeda homeland. So the terror attacks in Saudi Arabia began, because the Saudi government had not resisted the "crusaders" with force. The Saudis had been preparing for this terrorism and were able to defeat al Qaeda quickly. By 2009 over a thousand al Qaeda members had been killed or prosecuted in the kingdom. Several thousand more were arrested and released, often after a period of rehabilitation. Certain clergy were ordered to halt their pro-radical preaching. All clerics were encouraged to point out the religious errors in the thinking behind al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists. The Saudi royalty have always had considerable control over the Islamic clergy (who are all, in effect, state employees.)

Saudi Arabia was saved from worse trouble with local terrorists by the growing (after 2003) violence in Iraq between the Sunni Arab minority, and the Shia majority. This attracted many Saudi fanatics, most of whom died in Iraq. This greatly depleted the number of al Qaeda backers inside Saudi Arabia. Over 5,000 Saudi Islamic radicals are believed to have died in Iraq. During 2003-7 up to half the suicide bombers were Saudis, and about half the foreigners held in U.S. military prisons in Iraq were Saudis. Back in 2007, American intelligence believed about 45 percent of the foreign fighters (less than ten percent of all terrorists there) were Saudis. The next largest group was Syrians and Lebanese (15 percent), followed by North Africans (10 percent). The other 30 percent were from all over, including Europe.

The Saudis have maintained the intensity of their counter-terror operations since the 2003 outbreak. That year the first “most wanted list”, with 19 names on it, was issued. In 2004 Saudi Arabia issued another list with 26 names. In 2005 a third list, again with 26 names, was issued. Within a few years all but a few of those on the first three lists were killed, captured or surrendered. Saudi Arabia issued another terrorist most wanted list in 2009. The 85 suspects were all men believed to be engaged in planning new attacks. All but two of them (Yemenis) were Saudis. Eleven of these were men the American had been holding at Guantanamo but were released at Saudi insistence that they would be taken care of. Despite rehabilitation, these eleven men returned to their terrorist ways. So far nearly 90 percent of the 85 men on the 2009 list have surrendered, been taken or killed. There have been no new lists since 2009.

At first al Qaeda terrorists appeared capable of doing some serious damage in Saudi Arabia. In 2003-4, they carried out four major attacks. These killed 68 people, including twelve Americans. But most of the dead were Saudis, and this turned the population against the terrorists. All the planned terror attacks since then have been aborted by security forces, usually via tips from Saudi civilians. Most Islamic terrorists have now fled the kingdom.

A large minority of Saudis still support al Qaeda, but it's the majority who do not and that makes it nearly impossible for the terrorists to operate in their "homeland." Killing civilians will do that, and al Qaeda has not been able to figure out how to fight without shedding the blood of innocents. So the innocents are taking their revenge.




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