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SAUDI ARABIA: In al-Qaeda's Sights

Author: Claire Miller
November 11, 2003

Is al-Qaeda now targeting Saudi Arabia?

Yes, many experts say. Al-Qaeda attacked U.S. troops stationed in the oil-rich kingdom several times during the 1990s. But the two recent suspected Qaeda attacks on civilians appear to be aimed directly at destabilizing the country. The assaults—a November 8 car bombing that killed at least seventeen and coordinated car bombings on May 12 that killed thirty-four—targeted Riyadh housing complexes occupied largely by Saudis and foreign Arabs. Experts say al-Qaeda's ultimate target may be Saudi Arabia's ruling royal family. The terror network aims "to bring down the Saudi government as well as to create fear and spread terror," Richard Armitage, U.S. deputy secretary of state, said after the November 8 bombing.

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Why does al-Qaeda want to topple the royal family?

Saudi-born Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has long called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family to punish it for allowing U.S. military bases in the kingdom. He broke with the monarchy in 1990 over the Gulf War, when the kingdom invited U.S.-led coalition troops onto Saudi soil to its defend oil fields and to prepare to attack Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in the second Iraq war, U.S. troops pulled out of Saudi Arabia.

Why is al-Qaeda still targeting the kingdom?

For several reasons, experts say. The royal family maintains a close relationship with the United States, which al-Qaeda views as the home of "infidels." Many Saudis see the powerful princes who run the country as corrupt and dissolute. In this view, the royals are leaders of a strict Islamic state who disregard Islam's dictums by drinking alcohol or "frequenting the casinos of Monte Carlo," says Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former FBI counterterrorism analyst. Al Qaeda regards the regime as "insufficiently Islamic and an unacceptable candidate to be the guardian of Mecca and Medina," Islam's holiest sites, Levitt says. And, some experts say, the government is breaking its social contract with Saudi citizens, which gives the royal family control over politics in exchange for lifetime benefits financed by Saudi oil. A growing population and shrinking economy make it more difficult for the government to hold up its end of the deal.

Why did terrorists target foreign Arab's housing compounds in the recent attacks?

It's unclear. Some analysts say the attackers hit the lightly guarded sites because of beefed-up security around government and diplomatic buildings. Others say the militants' goal is to destabilize the regime by threatening the 6 million foreign workers on whom the Saudi economy depends. They want to "undermine the regime, demonstrating that Saudis are incapable of providing security," Levitt says. Other analysts speculate that the attackers may have acted on outdated information—the complex attacked November 8 once housed U.S. employees of The Boeing Company, but few Americans live there now. And, some analysts say, the attack may have been the work of a Qaeda affiliate group that lacks planning and surveillance expertise.

Which affiliate groups are suspected of being responsible for the Saudi attacks?

Smaller groups not under bin Laden's direct control, some analysts say. The recent Riyadh bombing doesn't have the earmarks of a bin Laden-directed attack, Levitt says, because the "inner circle" prefers to spend several years planning a spectacular attack—but "even as the inner circle does that, they train, fund, and applaud such attacks [as the Riyadh bombing] by affiliates."

How are these affiliates related to al-Qaeda?

After the fall of al-Qaeda's headquarters in Afghanistan during the 2001-2002 U.S.-led war, the terror group underwent a structural transformation, shifting from a command-and-control formation under bin Laden to a looser organization based on individual Qaeda cells spread throughout the world, according to some experts. It now functions as a global network via technology and affiliated groups, says Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. It "thrives on cyberspace" and other technology to communicate, he says, and relies on sympathetic constituent groups to carry out attacks. "Al-Qaeda is as much a movement, an idea, as it is a hierarchical organization," and its followers plan attacks independently of any central organization, Ranstorp says.

How much support does al Qaeda have in Saudi Arabia?

No one knows. But many experts worry that a large group of young, disaffected Saudis is ripe for recruitment. According to the United Nations, 39 percent of the population is under the age of fifteen. Economic prospects are bleak. In 1980, Saudi gross domestic product was $15,500 per capita, $2,500 more than the comparable U.S. figure. Now, it's closer to $7,500, almost $25,000 less than the U.S. amount. Job creation has not kept pace with the growing population, and Saudi Arabia's education system produces many graduates steeped in conservative Islam and ill-equipped to work in a modern, globalized economy. The result: an undercurrent of discontent that al Qaeda feeds upon, Ranstorp says.

Not all experts concur. "There is a large number of young and unemployed who are put off by the fact that they have no say in their government whatsoever, but that still does not make them followers or supporters of this sort of violence," says Richard Murphy, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says the latest attacks on Arabs may have diminished support for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia: "It may well be that these two bombings have cost al Qaeda more than they've gained. It's very unsettling to the average Saudi."

Could al-Qaeda overthrow the royal family?

Experts disagree. With 7,000 princes, the royal family is too strong and too deeply embedded in all aspects of Saudi government for al-Qaeda to threaten it, Murphy says. And, he says, the princes see the country as their family's creation and will not easily give it up. Others say the regime is vulnerable. Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers are "now locked in confrontation with the Saudi regime," in a clash that is "threatening the stability of the House of Saud," Ranstorp says. He says it could end in three ways—the regime could successfully defend itself and remain in power, civil war could break out between different factions within the country, or a new contender who espouses extreme Islam could emerge, perhaps from within the royal family, and take over.

What has Saudi Arabia done to crack down on terror?

The May 12 Riyadh bombings were a wake-up call, most experts say. Since then, the government has stepped up surveillance of suspected terrorists and conducted a series of raids, uncovering loads of arms caches and arresting more than six hundred suspected militants. The royal family has made efforts to quiet advocates of extremism in mosques and the media and ordered the deletion of passages in school textbooks that criticized non-Muslims. The Saudi government recently announced that the first elections, for municipal councils, would occur within a year, and Crown Prince Abdullah allowed meetings of his consultative council to be televised. Still, some experts say the regime is not doing enough, and Saudi Arabia has been blamed for financing terrorism while simultaneously fighting it.

Does Saudi Arabia finance terrorism?

A large proportion of the funds that support al-Qaeda and other terror groups comes from within Saudi Arabia, many experts say, though not directly from Saudi leaders. "For years, individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al-Qaeda; and for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem," a Council on Foreign Relations independent task force report said. "Saudis fund al-Qaeda and are being attacked by al-Qaeda. They seem mutually exclusive but they're not," Levitt says. Much of the Saudi money may have been funneled to terrorism unknowingly, according to experts, because terror groups collect funds under the guise of Islamic charities and schools. The government agreed to cooperate with FBI and Internal Revenue Service investigations of Saudi terror funding, but Levitt says the U.S. investigators have not received access to all the documents they need.

What more can it do to fight terrorism?

The regime can take several important steps, experts say. These include moving aggressively to investigate and curb terrorist financing and monitor Saudi charities; reforming the education system so that Saudis graduate with more than a degree in Islamic law and are equipped to enter the global economy; and cooperating with foreign governments in the U.S.-led war on terror. The government must also continue to pursue political reforms and promote the moderate voice of Islam within the kingdom, experts say.