Politics & Policy

Emboldening Al Qaeda

Saudi Arabia's failure to crack down.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Marshall Johnson was murdered on Friday afternoon, after this piece was posted.

With the 72-hour deadline almost up (at the time of writing), American hostage Paul Marshall Johnson Jr. faces an uncertain but ominous future at the hands of his al Qaeda kidnappers in Saudi Arabia. Johnson’s abduction capped a weeklong spree of violent attacks on foreigners in the Saudi kingdom allegedly perpetrated by al Qaeda’s Committee in the Arabian Peninsula–acts that included the videotaped, mafia-style execution of Vinnell employee Robert Jacob outside his Riyadh home. These incidents, coming directly in the wake of last month’s terror attack in Khobar, have shaken international confidence that the Saudi regime is capable of dealing with the mounting problem of al Qaeda on its own. Indeed, a close examination of the growing al Qaeda network in the Arabian Peninsula seems to indicate that these widespread fears are quite well grounded.

The latest wave of Saudi terror attacks has its roots in events that occurred almost a year ago in Riyadh, when al Qaeda terrorists launched devastating suicide-bombing strikes against foreign housing compounds, killing 26. The attacks were traced to a collection of native Saudi al Qaeda members, some of whom had recently returned home from post-9/11 combat tours in Afghanistan. Two Saudi militant leaders in particular–Turki Nasser al-Dandani and Youssef al-Ayyiri–stepped forward to help organize and develop al Qaeda’s nascent Military Committee in the Arabian Peninsula. Prior to his death last summer, al-Dandani was the most wanted al Qaeda-linked suspect connected with the May 2003 suicide bombings in Riyadh. According to an al Qaeda video released on the Internet in December, al-Dandani–trained in the Afghan terror camps run by Osama bin Laden–was “an audacious man who [did] not fear death.” Relying on the “unique military education he acquired from jihad in Muslim countries, he managed to form… a military strike force to wage jihad in our peninsula.”

In order to accomplish this task, al-Dandani was able to rely on the wisdom and expertise of Youssef al-Ayyiri, a former bin Laden personal bodyguard who had seen a decade of combat as an al Qaeda “holy warrior” everywhere from Somalia to Afghanistan. According to an unnamed Saudi Interior Ministry official quoted by the AP, al-Dandani and al-Ayyiri were together responsible for constructing and commanding “a number” of actual underground al Qaeda terrorist training camps inside Saudi Arabia in the months following 9/11–some located in the desert region between the cities of Mecca and Medina. Authentic video footage of one such camp–Al-Istirahat al-Amana (“The Guesthouse of Goodness”)–shows masked militants training with rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank missiles, cellular-telephone-activated explosive devices, and a large cache of mobile surface-to-air missile launchers.

The violent deaths of al-Dandani and al-Ayyiri in confrontations with Saudi security forces early last summer did not stem the new wave of terrorism within the kingdom. In November, Saudi al Qaeda operatives repeated their previous success from the spring with another deadly suicide bombing attack on foreign housing compounds, this time on the Muhaya complex in western Riyadh, killing 17 people–mostly Arabs. The terrorists had carefully retrofitted a truck to look like a police vehicle in order to fool Saudi security forces. Other reports suggested that extremist factions of the feared Saudi religious police may have directly aided in reconnoitering the Muhaya housing compound on behalf of al Qaeda. The remaining terrorists–minus the two “martyred” suicide car bombers–were able to withdraw “safely and completely unhurt” despite a vigorous manhunt by the Saudi regime.

Meanwhile, a new veteran terrorist had stepped forward to fill the void left by the departure of al-Dandani and al-Ayyiri: the notorious Abdelaziz al-Muqrin (a.k.a. Abu Hajer), a 33-year-old operative with over 15 years of experience as an al Qaeda military commander. Al-Muqrin is a dropout from the Saudi educational system, and yet another infamous personality from the thousands of Saudi nationals who joined the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan during the late 1980s. Al-Muqrin gained a good reputation during combat and was appointed as a trainer at an al Qaeda terrorist camp in Afghanistan. During the 1990s, he voyaged in a jihad across Europe, participating in Arab-Afghan terrorist refresher courses in Bosnia-Herzegovina and personally aiding Algerian Islamists to smuggle weapons through Spain and Morocco. In 1999, al-Muqrin was eventually captured while fighting as an irregular combatant in northeastern Africa and extradited to Saudi Arabia, where he was sentenced to four years in Saudi prison.

Yet al-Muqrin was inexplicably released from Saudi custody after only two years of confinement, for his “good conduct and memorization of the Koran”–just prior to the 9/11 attacks. Without hesitation and within a month of his release he once again departed the Saudi kingdom to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. When the al Qaeda infrastructure in Afghanistan suddenly collapsed in the fall of 2001, al-Muqrin was among many mid-level al Qaeda commanders who dispersed like spores in the wind–eventually secretly returning to his Saudi homeland. Only weeks prior to the Muhaya operation, al-Muqrin swore in a public statement published on the Internet “to purge the Arabian Peninsula of the polytheists…we will fight in [Saudi Arabia] against the Crusaders and against the Jews until we remove them or taste [martyrdom].” He has since promised that the coming year will prove “bloody and miserable” for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Al-Muqrin proved his savvy as a terrorist commander during both the Muhaya compound bombing in November and the most recent major al Qaeda terror attack in the eastern city of Khobar. During the latter affair, a four-man team of operatives (calling themselves al Qaeda’s “Jerusalem Battalion”) initiated a shooting spree at several foreign housing and commercial compounds and dragged the mangled body of one British victim victoriously through the streets. In an interview published by al Qaeda’s Committee in the Arabian Peninsula, Fawwaz An-Nashmy, the self-declared leader of the “Jerusalem Battalion,” explained, “Our brother Abu Hajer [al-Muqrin] assigned me to be in charge of the group… I’m not worthy of command, but I consider it as a test from God.”

An-Nashmy’s description of the events that took place at Khobar offers a further depressing assessment of the ability of Saudi security forces to manage the ongoing terrorist threat. According to An-Nashmy, the four-man “Jerusalem Battalion” was able to repeatedly breach Saudi police roadblocks while traveling in a standard Nissan Maxima passenger sedan. When Saudi security forces failed to successfully storm one compound seized by the al Qaeda militants, they showered the complex with a hail of “aimless” gunfire, endangering the innocent hostages inside. By the time the Saudis dropped special counterterrorism forces in from the air, the terrorists had discovered a backdoor out of the compound by leaping off a fake waterfall and hiding in some trees. An-Nashmy bragged that as he and his men fled the scene, they continued to exchange fire at checkpoints along the road with ineffectual Saudi security personnel who “looked at us in horror as if we were ghosts.”

Even the State Department, which has been consistently supportive of the Saudi government, has expressed specific concerns about Saudi Arabia’s efforts thus far to end the threat of terrorism in the kingdom. Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted this week, “I think that there is more that they can do… They can build up their forces. There’s probably [also] more we can do with respect to intelligence exchange.” The State Department has likewise issued several warnings to Americans living in Saudi Arabia, advising U.S. citizens to leave immediately. It is not clear at this point how many fearful expatriates have heeded the instructions offered in these advisories.

While the Saudi family may yet survive the current upsurge in Islamist dissent from within their own kingdom, Americans and other Westerners will continue to present a prime target for anti-Western fanatics seeking to overthrow the Saudi monarchy. The embarrassing failures of Saudi security forces in protecting foreign nationals and prosecuting wanted terrorist leaders will only embolden Abdelaziz al-Muqrin and his radical followers among al Qaeda’s Committee in the Arabian peninsula to continue with–and dramatically escalate–their sworn campaign of violence and terrorism.

Evan Kohlmann is an International Terrorism Consultant and author of the upcoming book, al Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: the Afghan-Bosnian Network (Berg Publishers, June 2004). His website is located at www.globalterroralert.com.


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