These days, there appears to be serious internal controversy in Saudi Arabia over the degree to which al Qaeda has managed to infiltrate the kingdom. In mid-January, an unnamed Saudi official admitted to the Associated Press that his country had discovered “a number” of al Qaeda terrorist training camps hidden in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula. This assertion was quickly downplayed by Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif, who countered that “there are no training or terror camps in the kingdom, not yesterday, not today… He who says the kingdom harbors terrorism should reconsider his words.” Prince Nayif’s denial is in inexplicable contrast to his own previous admission last July that at least a “small number” of al Qaeda militants active in the region had indeed been recently “trained on farms and the like” on Saudi soil. In fact, the interior minister has contradicted not only himself, but also compelling visual evidence distributed on the Internet confirming the presence of al Qaeda safehouses and training camps inside Saudi Arabia.
Until approximately November 2001, the vast majority of hardcore al Qaeda recruits were schooled in the arts of sabotage and terrorism at Osama bin Laden’s main operational bases in southern and eastern Afghanistan–including such notorious camps as Al-Sadda, Al-Farooq, Khalden, Jihad Wal, and Derunta. Video recordings of training at the Afghan camps depict an education in everything from basic physical fitness to the operation of advanced shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (such as the one that narrowly missed an Israeli civilian airliner in Kenya over a year ago). Ahmed Ressam, an al Qaeda-trained terrorist who sought to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the Millennium, testified in federal court how he was taught advanced urban-warfare skills at these centers, varying from “how to blow up the infrastructure of a country… Electric plants, gas plants, airports, railroads, large corporations” to “how to mix poisons with other substances… designed to be used against intelligence officers and other VIPs.”
Within only weeks of the 9/11 tragedy, U.S. military forces and their Northern Alliance partners were able to put the notorious Afghan jihad camps permanently out of operation. As the hardened mountain fortresses of bin Laden and his acolytes fell to coalition troops, the membership of al Qaeda fled across the Hindu Kush into Pakistan, seeking a safe haven among conservative local tribesmen and sympathetic Taliban-style fundamentalist groups located just across the border. Some of bin Laden’s scattered cadres decided to remain in the relative safety of Pakistan–yet others, particularly those from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other regions of the Arabian Peninsula, were able to quietly return to their homelands.
Rather than assimilating back into Gulf society, these arriving extremists were quickly reorganized into new terrorist cells by a highly intricate and developed network of al Qaeda henchmen headquartered in the Arabian Peninsula. Before his death this past summer, Shaykh Yousef Al-Ayyiri (a.k.a. “the Cutting Edge”) sat near the top of this network. Al-Ayyiri was a well-known and well-liked figure in al Qaeda who had reportedly first joined the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan at the youthful age of 18. Impressed by his enthusiasm and skills as a combatant, al Qaeda gave Al-Ayyiri a position of high importance within the organization as the commander of a training camp in Afghanistan, and also as a personal bodyguard to Osama bin Laden. Knowledgeable sources say that Al-Ayyiri was handpicked in 1993 to travel to Somalia with al Qaeda’s most senior military commander–Abu Hafs Al-Masri–in order to help instruct radical Islamic militias on how to shoot down U.S. helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades.
Al-Ayyiri returned to his home in Saudi Arabia, only to be allegedly imprisoned by Saudi authorities in connection with the 1995 bombing of a joint Saudi-U.S. military office in Riyadh. The bombing (which left five U.S. citizens dead) was later blamed on fanatic supporters of Osama bin Laden. Nevertheless, despite his close, personal connections to bin Laden, Al-Ayyiri was eventually freed by Saudi authorities. A harsh stint in prison apparently did nothing to temper Al-Ayyiri’s gusto for violence and bloodshed. He remained in the Kingdom, raising money for the emerging Taliban movement in Afghanistan and offering strategic advice to various al Qaeda-linked military leaders around the world.
According to the reputed al Qaeda publication Sawt Al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad), Al-Ayyiri “was so joyous he nearly floated on air” when he learned of the “happy events” of September 11, 2001. As a firm proponent of the international jihad against America, he refocused his efforts primarily on two main causes: using the Internet as a vehicle to recruit and propagandize on behalf of al Qaeda, and setting up covert training camps for terror recruits inside Saudi Arabia, similar to the remote base that Ayyiri had once presided over in Afghanistan.
An authentic al Qaeda video released on the Internet in early December featured scenes of black-clad, hooded men carrying out indoor urban-warfare training exercises at a camp inside Saudi Arabia known as Al-Istirahat Al-Amana (the Guesthouse of Goodness). The footage was allegedly filmed during mid-2003, and at least one of the featured trainees was later killed during a confrontation with Saudi security forces. No matter how one chooses to characterize the Al-Istirahat facility, there can be no doubt as to the intentions of those who received terrorist “refresher” courses there. Following their recorded training exercises, the men gathered closely together, brandishing their automatic weapons and singing jihadist tunes. One of the men–Abdallah Al-Utaibi–goes on in the video to read a martyrdom will while sitting in the Al-Istirahat camp, begging God to “destroy” the United States.
The presence of these camps–and Yousef Al-Ayyiri’s key role in creating them–was confirmed in an electronic communiqué issued in late December by a group calling itself “al Qaeda’s Military Committee in the Arabian Peninsula.” The “Cutting Edge” manual was given its name “for the great efforts of Sheikh Yousef Al-Ayyiri… One of his last blessed deeds was to establish several training camps in [Saudi Arabia] which several of the hero mujahadeen have come from.” The communiqué contained articles from, among others, al Qaeda’s reputed senior military commander Saif Al-Adel, lecturing to faithful supporters that “these are times of jihad and preparation for jihad.” Finally, the manual suggests that those who are unable “travel to other lands” in order to “join the great camps” can instead covertly mimic their unique and demanding training regimen at home. The loyal soldiers of the late Al-Ayyiri continue to eagerly spread his message and teachings via the Internet, promising terrible revenge against the “crusaders” and the Saudi elite.
Undoubtedly, al Qaeda’s assembly-line production of terrorist recruits has found a new headquarters in the heart of Arabia. Inside the Saudi capital, terrorist cells are regularly discovered plotting the assassinations of royal officials and the suicide bombings of foreign embassies and compounds. Others have targeted Western military and civilian aircraft in the Kingdom with mobile, surface-to-air missile launchers. Even the holiest city in Islam–Mecca–has come into the crosshairs of these merciless fanatics. Thus, it is highly discomforting that senior Saudi officials continue to deny the very existence of underground training camps like “The Guesthouse of Goodness.” Al Qaeda has proven time and time again that it intends to overthrow the Saudi kingdom by means of violence and install a fundamentalist Islamic government in the Arabian Peninsula. The regime in Riyadh can pretend to ignore this potent threat only to our own shared peril.
– Evan Kohlmann is a senior terrorism consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Investigative Project and author of the upcoming book, Al Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: the Afghan-Bosnian Network, to be released by Berg Publishers in June 2004.