The Erosion of Al-Qaeda’s Power in Saudi Arabia

, June 13, 2007

Vol. 7, No. 3    June 13, 2007

  • Following major terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda against housing compounds inhabited by foreign and Arab oil experts in 2003, the Saudi regime launched a major onslaught against the al-Qaeda-led Saudi fundamentalists. Gradually the regime succeeded in eroding the ranks of the Afghanistan war veterans who comprised the operational leadership of the organization.
  • Over the last three years Saudi al-Qaeda has suffered painful blows that have practically paralyzed its ability to act and to launch meaningful attacks against the Saudi regime. The loss of senior field commanders, the detention of a number of sheikhs, and the dismantling of a large number of terrorist cells have forced al-Qaeda to turn to relatively inexperienced members.
  • Since 2004 and even more so since 2005, bin Laden and his deputy or heir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have called upon their followers to focus on the destruction of the region’s oil industry, which fuels the infrastructure of the Western economy.
  • In February 2006, al-Qaeda mounted a major attack on the Abqaiq oil complex in the Eastern Province. The al-Qaeda force penetrated the defended perimeter of the installation, but the operation failed due to the premature explosion of a truck laden with explosives. The attack sparked a massive manhunt and resulted in the cessation of al-Qaeda activity in the Arabian Peninsula for more than a year.
  • The Saudi regime’s ability to round up and destroy cells of the revived younger al-Qaeda before they were able to operate indicates that Riyadh’s security services have well learned the lessons of the past. Undoubtedly, Riyadh’s enormous revenue from oil is a major factor in its ability to fund security issues and deal with home-bred and foreign subversion.

Saudi Arabia’s Oil Power

Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Na’imi recently reiterated his earlier claim that his country’s proven oil reserves consist of over 562 billion barrels, 200 billion over the previously accepted figure of 362 billion barrels. The fact that Riyadh controls both the oil market and OPEC has been proven time and time again over the last few years, particularly after the U.S.’s involvement in the Iraqi quagmire. Despite its strategic energy alliance with America, Riyadh got OPEC to agree to cut its production by 1.2 million bpd in the Doha emergency meeting in October 2006 when oil prices sank to just over $49 a barrel, and the WTI crude price soon rose back to over $60 a barrel.

The average price of gasoline reached $3.15 a gallon at the end of April and analysts believe that in the coming driving season it is likely to reach over $3.50 a gallon, surpassing last year’s record. The price of WTI crude is forecast to rise to $70 a barrel due to increased world demand and the continuous fall in OECD (especially U.S.) inventories over the past twelve months.

Crackdown on Al-Qaeda

On April 27, General Mansour al-Turki, the Saudi deputy interior minister in charge of anti-terrorist operations, announced that the kingdom’s security forces had incarcerated 172 al-Qaeda members.1 Oil Minister Na’imi declared that production security was under control, and Riyadh would supply worried Asian consumers with all the oil they require. Indeed, in meetings between Persian Gulf oil producers and leading Asian energy consumers, the rotating OPEC president expressed concern lest oil prices continue to fall due to declining demand, efficient energy utilization, and the development of alternative sources of energy, at the same time as they are investing many billions of dollars in expanding their spare production capacity.

Following major terrorist attacks by the “Arabian Peninsula Al-Qaeda” against housing compounds inhabited by foreign and Arab oil experts in the last months of 2003, the Saudi regime, led by Crown Prince Abdullah, who became king in mid-2006, launched a major onslaught against the al-Qaeda-led Saudi fundamentalists. Gradually the regime succeeded in eroding the ranks of the “Afghani” operational leadership of the organization and its ideological infrastructure. Not surprisingly, in a video message, Osama bin-Laden called upon his followers to continue to target the Saudi regime and seek the destruction of the country’s oil infrastructure – “the source of Western power and economy” – rather than join the ranks of the Iraqi jihad.

Over the last three years Saudi al-Qaeda has suffered painful blows that have practically paralyzed its ability to act and to launch meaningful attacks against the Saudi regime. This is especially true after a number of senior al-Qaeda field commanders have been killed at the side of extremist religious scholars (ulama), who provided the organization with its jurisprudential framework. The loss of major Saudi operational commanders, the detention of a number of sheikhs, and the dismantling of a large number of terrorist cells all over the kingdom have all had a negative impact on al-Qaeda’s human resource base. The organization has lost its first- and second-rank commanders, and this has forced it to turn to relatively inexperienced al-Qaeda members and to work in secret to build new teams from the younger generation that has not participated in the Afghanistan or Chechnya wars, or fought in Bosnia. These new fundamentalist fighters were recruited inside Saudi Arabia and trained in isolated desert areas which doubled as shelters and hideouts for those wanted by the authorities. In these camps, younger terrorists were trained to be suicide bombers, as well as receive religious-ideological indoctrination.2

Al-Qaeda Targets Saudi Oil Industry

Since 2004 and even more so since 2005, bin Laden and his deputy or heir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have called upon their followers, especially in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil producers, to focus on the destruction of the region’s oil industry, which fuels the infrastructure of the Western (and especially the U.S.) economy. For its part, Riyadh is cognizant of the fact that, despite the meaningful expansion and diversification of its economy in the last few years, 75 percent of its revenue and 45 percent of its GDP is derived from the export of its oil and oil byproducts. Indeed, according to the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA), total Saudi exports coming largely from oil and oil byproducts amounted in 2006 to $191.5 billion, up from $71 billion in 2000.3

In February 2006, al-Qaeda mobilized its forces, including what was left of its “Afghani” leadership, to mount a major attack on the Abqaiq oil complex in the Eastern Province. According to several sources, including Nawaf Obaid, the Saudi oil and defense analyst, the al-Qaeda strike force actually managed to penetrate the defended perimeter of the Abqaiq installation. The operation only failed due to the premature explosion of a truck laden with explosives. Al-Qaeda’s unsuccessful attack on the country’s major oil installations sparked a massive manhunt and prosecution of the remnants of (the original) al-Qaeda members and their supporters in Riyadh and its province, as well as in the Hijaz, and less so in the Shi’a-dominated Eastern oil province. This resulted in the cessation of al-Qaeda activity in the Arabian Peninsula for more than a year. King Abdullah personally supervised a major overhaul of the Saudi security organization in 2006, allocating $2 billion of its $12 billion budget for upgrades. This budget expenditure is in addition to the huge amount earmarked for modernizing the Saudi education infrastructure and creating “respectable” job opportunities for graduates of elementary and higher education institutions.4

The arrest of the 172 al-Qaeda members announced by General al-Turki on April 27 was the culmination of a crackdown on the younger generation of jihadist militants which took place after careful surveillance over the last couple of months. In addition to al-Qaeda’s plans to target major Saudi oil installations and senior members of the regime, General al-Turki indicated that some young al-Qaeda members were dispatched to nearby countries to study and train in the operation of light civilian aircraft, similar to those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks.

The very fact that the Saudi regime decided to go public on this sensitive matter shows the sharp rise in King Abdullah’s government’s self-confidence and the power and ability of its security services. At the same time, the Saudi regime’s ability to round up and destroy cells of the revived younger al-Qaeda before they were able to operate indicates that Riyadh’s security services have well learned the lessons of the past. Undoubtedly, Riyadh’s enormous revenue from oil is a major factor in its ability to fund security issues and deal with home-bred and foreign subversion.

Engaging with the Region

Saudi Arabia has also started to engage more in regional foreign policy. In addition to involvement in the struggle against Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Saudis are playing an important role in endeavoring to find a positive solution to the Shi’a-Sunni struggle in Iraq in order to protect their Sunni brethren. Even in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Riyadh has taken the initiative and has side-stepped Washington. In addition to reviving King Abdullah’s peace plan, which has been adopted by the Arab League, it coerced both Fatah and Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, to opt for a cease-fire and create a questionable coalition government. King Abdullah has also brokered a settlement between Sudan and Chad aimed at solving the Darfur crisis, which led to Khartoum’s agreement to allow the UN to dispatch forces to western Sudan.5

Clearly, Saudi Arabia’s active domestic and international policies may be largely attributable to the enormous growth of its financial and economic power. However, a major factor is also Riyadh’s apprehension regarding Iran’s increasing power and influence in a region that has sizeable Shi’a minorities, who could side with Iran at a time when U.S. power and influence in the region is on the decline.

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Notes

1. Saudi Press Agency [SPA], 27 April 2007.

2. AlAkhbar (Beirut), Al-Hayat (London), and Asharq al-Awsat, 1 May 2007.

3. Dow Jones, 29 April 2007.

4. See Saudi Arabia’s 2007 budget, published at the end of 2006.

5. MEES, 7 May 2007.

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Mordechai Abir is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Professor (Emeritus) of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His books include Saudi Arabia: Society, Government and the Gulf Crises (1993) and Saudi Arabia in the Oil Era: Regime and Elites: Conflict and Collaboration (1988).

Mordechai Abir

Mordechai Abir is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Professor (Emeritus) of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His books include Saudi Arabia: Society, Government and the Gulf Crises (1993) and Saudi Arabia in the Oil Era: Regime and Elites: Conflict and Collaboration (1988).