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Archive for Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Al-Qaida bombings backfire

May 20, 2003

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— Although the terrorist bombings here killed dozens of innocent people, the true targets were Saudi Arabia's royal family and its economic and security relationship with the rest of the world. Al-Qaida, which seems certain to be behind the attack, has long sought to sever Saudi Arabia from the Western world and to foist a premodern, thuggish society on the kingdom. But the blasts will have the opposite effect.

According to the kingdom's intelligence community, the attacks were orchestrated by Khaled Jehani, al-Qaida's "Saudi operations chief." Over the past 18 months, his cell has targeted a string of Saudi government offices, oil facilities and military posts. In early 2002, a huge ammunition stockpile was discovered here along with plans to bomb the defense ministry. Soon after, another attack plan -- this time against the ministry of the interior -- was uncovered. Last summer a bombing of Ras Tanura -- the world's largest oil terminal complex -- was thwarted, as was another attempt against the Tabouk air base (where attackers erroneously believed U.S. forces to be stationed).

These failures probably convinced cell leaders that they should focus on "soft targets" such as expatriate housing compounds and businesses, which are nearly impossible to defend. These sites represent Saudi Arabia's partnership with the West. By striking them, the terrorists hoped to scare away foreign investment and influence, derail the government's modernization plans and keep the kingdom out of the 21st century.

But if these were the goals, the attack has backfired. Instead of undermining the government and rallying Saudis to al-Qaida's cause, the bombings have outraged and galvanized the country against terrorism. The kingdom's government, media, religious leaders and general population have strongly condemned the attacks. Images of dead children and decimated families have revealed the true character and moral bankruptcy of al-Qaida. They also will extinguish any lingering support for Osama bin Laden in the kingdom.

In addition, extremist clerics and others who encouraged intolerance and violence are losing support. When the three most prominent radicals of the new generation, Ali al-Khudair, Nasser al-Fahd and Ahmad al-Khalidi, called on Saudis not to cooperate in the search for those behind the attacks, widespread disgust and anger erupted. They were quickly forced to retract their statements. Extremists are in a bind.

Condemning the attacks reveals their hypocrisy, for many radicals have echoed Osama bin Laden's call to drive Westerners from the kingdom by force. If they now condone the attacks, they risk losing all support. Thus fanaticism in the kingdom looks to be a main casualty of the bombings.

Al-Qaida has a history of avoiding Arab anger by striking Westerners and Western interests. But this attack killed many more Saudis and Muslims than Americans, inflaming those they intended to inspire. According to Saudi intelligence sources, nine of the bombers had narrowly escaped a recent government raid. With their names in the Saudi press and a wide-ranging manhunt under way, their time was running out. In fact, a captured high-ranking member of their cell revealed that increasing pressure from Saudi and Western intelligence agencies led the group to rush its plans, resulting in a desperate, scattershot attack that injured their cause.

It is possible that this tragedy will yield positive results. Al-Qaida's true motives have been revealed to Saudi citizens. It is not a desire to free the kingdom from "occupying" forces (U.S. troops were already on the way out) but a barbaric and bloody hatred of the modern world. This is a vision almost no Saudi supports. The bombings should also lead Americans and Saudis to focus on their mutual interests, the most important of which is defeating global terrorism. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, said, "The blood of Saudi citizens was mixed in this tragic event with Americans."

If the Saudi leadership follows through on its pledges and redoubles its efforts to aggressively stamp out al-Qaida within the kingdom, this blood will not have been shed in vain.

-- Nawaf Obaid is a Saudi oil and security analyst.ect.

According to the kingdom's intelligence community, the attacks were orchestrated by Khaled Jehani, al-Qaida's "Saudi operations chief." Over the past 18 months, his cell has targeted a string of Saudi government offices, oil facilities and military posts. In early 2002, a huge ammunition stockpile was discovered here along with plans to bomb the defense ministry. Soon after, another attack plan -- this time against the ministry of the interior -- was uncovered. Last summer a bombing of Ras Tanura -- the world's largest oil terminal complex -- was thwarted, as was another attempt against the Tabouk air base (where attackers erroneously believed U.S. forces to be stationed).

These failures probably convinced cell leaders that they should focus on "soft targets" such as expatriate housing compounds and businesses, which are nearly impossible to defend. These sites represent Saudi Arabia's partnership with the West. By striking them, the terrorists hoped to scare away foreign investment and influence, derail the government's modernization plans and keep the kingdom out of the 21st century.

But if these were the goals, the attack has backfired. Instead of undermining the government and rallying Saudis to al-Qaida's cause, the bombings have outraged and galvanized the country against terrorism. The kingdom's government, media, religious leaders and general population have strongly condemned the attacks. Images of dead children and decimated families have revealed the true character and moral bankruptcy of al-Qaida. They also will extinguish any lingering support for Osama bin Laden in the kingdom.

In addition, extremist clerics and others who encouraged intolerance and violence are losing support. When the three most prominent radicals of the new generation, Ali al-Khudair, Nasser al-Fahd and Ahmad al-Khalidi, called on Saudis not to cooperate in the search for those behind the attacks, widespread disgust and anger erupted. They were quickly forced to retract their statements. Extremists are in a bind.

Condemning the attacks reveals their hypocrisy, for many radicals have echoed Osama bin Laden's call to drive Westerners from the kingdom by force. If they now condone the attacks, they risk losing all support. Thus fanaticism in the kingdom looks to be a main casualty of the bombings.

Al-Qaida has a history of avoiding Arab anger by striking Westerners and Western interests. But this attack killed many more Saudis and Muslims than Americans, inflaming those they intended to inspire. According to Saudi intelligence sources, nine of the bombers had narrowly escaped a recent government raid. With their names in the Saudi press and a wide-ranging manhunt under way, their time was running out. In fact, a captured high-ranking member of their cell revealed that increasing pressure from Saudi and Western intelligence agencies led the group to rush its plans, resulting in a desperate, scattershot attack that injured their cause.

It is possible that this tragedy will yield positive results. Al-Qaida's true motives have been revealed to Saudi citizens. It is not a desire to free the kingdom from "occupying" forces (U.S. troops were already on the way out) but a barbaric and bloody hatred of the modern world. This is a vision almost no Saudi supports. The bombings should also lead Americans and Saudis to focus on their mutual interests, the most important of which is defeating global terrorism. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, said, "The blood of Saudi citizens was mixed in this tragic event with Americans."

If the Saudi leadership follows through on its pledges and redoubles its efforts to aggressively stamp out al-Qaida within the kingdom, this blood will not have been shed in vain.

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