April 27, 2007

Saudi Arabia: Al Qaeda's Widening Focus

Source: Stratfor

April 27, 2007 21 42 GMT


Saudi security forces announced April 27 that they have rounded up 172 militants plotting to attack oil facilities and military bases in the kingdom. Al Qaeda's core leadership appears to be working to give a boost to the network's regional nodes, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Conditions in Iraq have led to this widening of al Qaeda's focus, though the capabilities of the regional nodes remain dubious.


The Saudi Interior Ministry announced April 27 that it had arrested 172 militants, including non-Saudis, plotting attacks against Saudi Arabia's oil refineries, public figures and military bases. Saudi police also seized more than $32.4 million in cash from seven armed cells in the kingdom. The suspects, according to a Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman, had been "influenced by the deviant ideology" (a common Saudi reference for al Qaeda.) Prior to this roundup, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul-Aziz told reporters that the interior ministry will soon announce a new list of most-wanted militant suspects in the kingdom.

The possible revival of al Qaeda's Saudi node came to light in February with the reappearance of the group's online magazine, Sawt Al Jihad, which called for attacks against energy-related targets on the Arabian Peninsula. The regular publication of Sawt Al Jihad was, previously, closely linked with a higher degree of operational strength for the Saudi node. Since the February online edition, however, the Saudi node has not kept up with its historic biweekly publication schedule, calling the group's publishing capabilities -- and operational ability -- into question.

The February edition of Sawt Al Jihad claimed that several of the militants who participated in the February 2006 attack against the oil facility in Abqaiq are "still alive and still fighting," and even included an interview with one of the survivors of that attack. The attempt on Abqaiq marked al Qaeda's first notable attempt to target Saudi Arabia's energy infrastructure and revealed that the group's target selection was shifting beyond Western operations and personnel. The planners behind the Abqaiq operation have had more than a year to learn from their mistakes, and judging from the rhetoric in Sawt Al Jihad, they likely have been gearing up for a larger attack against key Saudi oil installations.

Saudi officials said some of the suspects rounded up in this latest raid had received aviation training in other countries, implying a 9/11-style plot to fly aircraft into a target, such as an oil facility. Al Qaeda's core leadership has a known penchant for using aircraft in large-scale operations, though Saudi Arabia has ample empty space to re-route flight paths and set up no-fly zones over major energy installations. Although the Royal Saudi Air Force possesses the most advanced air-defense system in the region outside of Israel, it is doubtful that Saudi operators could identify the emerging threat or that Saudi commanders could react to it in time to prevent an airborne suicide attack from being at least partially successful.

Even if the Saudi node attacked a major oil target in Saudi Arabia -- whether by plane, boat, car or foot -- it would only damage a portion of any facility, considering the sheer size of and security surrounding energy installations (the Abqaiq facility, for example, occupies more than a square mile of territory.) That said, even a failed attempt on a vital energy target, such as the Ras Tanura oil port, would send massive psychological shockwaves through the energy market -- a fact al Qaeda acknowledged in the Sawt Al Jihad publication, saying the price of oil would have spiked even more had the Saudi government not lied about the extent of the damage.

Riyadh's series of counterterrorism strikes since June 2004 have significantly degraded the Saudi al Qaeda node's operational capabilities. The damage from the recent roundup will end up taking even more wind out of the node's sails, forcing the militants to regroup, re-evaluate their pending operations and tighten operational security to avoid further run-ins with the police. Though the Saudi node is unlikely to return to its glory days of the summer of 2004, when al Qaeda activity was most intense in the kingdom, the group continues to come up with ambitious plots and shows no sign of getting wiped out in the near future.

In addition to the Saudi node, al Qaeda appears to be giving a boost to other regional branches, revealing a surge of activity by al Qaeda franchises across the board. Over the past month, North Africa has witnessed a significant uptick in jihadist activity by al Qaeda's node in the Maghreb. Suicide bombings are also on the rise in the Horn of Africa as Somalian Islamists appear to be enhancing their cooperation with jihadists. In Afghanistan, Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah has aligned himself more closely with al Qaeda by giving credit for the February Bagram Air Base attack to Osama Bin Laden, even though the Afghan Taliban command is more than capable of pulling off such an attack itself.

The most active al Qaeda node is in Iraq, where the country's continued downward spiral has created an ideally chaotic environment for the group to maintain a strong presence. Though al Qaeda's Iraq node is in a relatively comfortable position, it has been facing increasing flack from the Sunni nationalist insurgents who have been turning against their former jihadist allies in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province. As the environment in some of Iraq's Sunni areas has turned increasingly inhospitable to the jihadists, some of these militants could be driven to return home and wage attacks in their home countries using the tactics they have picked up in Iraq. This already appears to have taken effect, as illustrated by the Algerian node's adoption of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.

A surge of al Qaeda activity does not necessarily imply improved capability. As the latest raid in Saudi Arabia illustrated, Saudi security forces are extremely active in rooting out al Qaeda cells, and the North African police states are quite capable of containing the jihadist presence in their countries. The best chance of success for al Qaeda remains in its usual hotspots of Iraq and Afghanistan. That said, the level of training these two theaters of operation provide allows al Qaeda to ensure its continuity, as lessons learned there regarding operational security and tradecraft spread to al Qaeda's local affiliates

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