Counter-Terrorism: People You Can't Trust

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March 28, 2010: Saudi Arabia recently arrested 113 suspected al Qaeda members. Most (58) were Saudi, but nearly half were Yemeni. The suspects were organized into three cells, and were amassing explosives and weapons for another series of attacks. Captured documents indicated the three cells were linked with the al Qaeda operation in Yemen. That group is under attack by the Yemeni government, but many members have been able to take shelter among Islamic conservative tribes. Other Islamic terrorists down there have fled to Saudi Arabia, which is apparently one reason for this roundup.

Four years ago, Saudi Arabia declared al Qaeda defeated within the kingdom. They continued to seek al Qaeda members, and over a thousand arrests have been made since then. The Saudis realized that while al Qaeda was beaten, it was not eliminated from Saudi Arabia. The government knew this because, using American technology and technical assistance, they had gained a high degree of control over Internet use within the kingdom. This capability made it very difficult for al Qaeda members to keep in touch, and enabled the government to track new al Qaeda activity. An unfortunate side effect of this is that the Saudi Internet police have gone after all opponents of the government. Since 2003, over 3,000 people have been arrested as a result of this.

This crackdown caused Saudi al Qaeda to change tactics. They shifted from attacking foreigners in the kingdom, to going after the royal family. Because of the crackdown, al Qaeda now considers the Saud family "un-Islamic" and no different from a secular government. While the corruption of the Saud family has made them very unpopular, no one but al Qaeda believes the Saudi monarchy is a secular government.

Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia has also recognized that trying to drive foreigners out of the kingdom would cause the economy to collapse, and that is very unpopular with Saudis. Moreover, most of those foreigners are Moslems. Al Qaeda, while never hesitant to kill Moslems in the past, has noticed that this has become very unpopular in the Islamic world. This is largely because of the thousands of Iraqi Moslems killed by al Qaeda in the last seven years.

So now the Saud family is the principal target for al Qaeda. That's fine in theory, but in practice, the Sauds are the best protected people in Saudi Arabia. Most of the royal bodyguards are Saudis. Loyal and well-paid Saudis, often with tribal and personal links to the royal family. Al Qaeda is going to kill a lot of these bodyguards when they try to get at the thousands of Saudi princes. That will not be popular with many Saudis. For the moment, this is the al Qaeda strategy in Saudi Arabia. Everything else they have tried has failed. The new strategy is high-risk, but al Qaeda has few other options. The Saudi family is at risk, and many Saudis would like a new government. But the smart money is not siding with al Qaeda.

The government has sufficient popular support that they are able to observe al Qaeda cells, and wait until they are large, and ready to strike, before rounding up the maximum number of suspects. This popular support for the counter-terror effort is not unique to Saudi Arabia. The battle in Iraq, waged by thousands of al Qaeda and local Sunni Arab Islamic radicals, changed Arab attitudes towards Islamic radicals. As a result of the terrorists killing over 50,000 Iraqis, al Qaeda popularity, which peaked after September 11, 2001, plummeted. This not only brings in a flood of tips on suspected Islamic terrorists, but sometimes vigilante action as well. Recently, in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber was spotted, on his way to a target. Afghan civilians promptly attacked with stones and knives, killing the suicide bomber before he could detonate his explosive vest.

Al Qaeda long depended on popular support to protect their operations, and provide recruits and other contributions. No more. Al Qaeda has to assume that the Moslems they live among are more likely to be hostile, than supportive.

 

 


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