RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Al Qaeda forces in Saudi Arabia have shifted their strategy and are now almost exclusively searching for U.S. and other Western targets in the kingdom while avoiding attacks on domestic institutions in a bid to strengthen their flagging network, according to security officials and Saudi experts on radical groups.
While al Qaeda retains its primary goal of eventually toppling the Saudi royal family -- as Osama bin Laden made clear in an audio recording released Thursday -- an 18-month campaign of car bombings, gun battles and kidnappings has so far failed to generate many new recruits and has resulted in a backlash among many Saudis, even those who otherwise are critical of the government, the officials and experts said.
More than 80 people have died in the attacks, the majority of them Saudis or non-Western immigrant workers. Many people in the kingdom are not only angry over the bloodshed but also fearful of al Qaeda's attempt to turn Saudi Arabia, a deeply conservative tribal society, into an even more conservative Islamic theocracy, several Saudi reformers said in interviews.
"People want government reforms and changes, but they are more scared of al Qaeda extremists," said Mansour Nogaidan, a former Islamic radical who has moderated his views but is still one of the most prominent critics of the Saudi government. "The common people -- those people who thought their life might improve if the government changed -- they are not ready to lose all this for what some young teenagers have in their minds as a utopia."
Despite an al Qaeda-sponsored attack on the U.S. consulate in Jiddah this month that left 9 people dead, including the four assailants, Saudi government officials expressed confidence that they are steadily gaining the upper hand in their fight with the militants.
Security forces have arrested or killed 17 of the 26 most wanted militant leaders in the country. Two others on the most wanted list are believed to be dead or badly injured, while a key operational planner reportedly fled the kingdom, Saudi security officials said.
Saudi officials said that they have dismantled three of four known al Qaeda cells and that the insurgents are finding it harder to obtain ammunition, weaponry and money. The size and scope of the attacks have also dwindled since last year, when car bombs in Riyadh blew up two Western residential compounds and caused more than 200 casualties.
"The people who are still there are not as skillful as the ones who were there in the beginning," said Brig. Gen. Mansour Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry. "We feel more confident than we did in the beginning of this fight. We thought it would take much longer to be in control. We cannot deny that there are still possibilities that the terrorists could execute more acts, but they are not as strong as they were a year ago."
Still, few people are predicting that the attacks will end anytime soon.
"The hands-on folks see this as a serious engagement that has some time to run," said a Western official involved in counterterrorism efforts in the kingdom, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They don't see this as ending near term. It's going to take a period of time. Is it months? Is it years? We don't know."
Turmoil in neighboring Iraq is also fueling anger against Americans. A number of Saudis involved with al Qaeda in the kingdom became radicalized after going to Iraq to fight U.S. military forces there, American and other Western counterterrorism officials said.
Last month, 26 Saudi clerics signed a fatwa, or religious edict, declaring it a duty for Muslims to fight the U.S. presence in Iraq. The fatwa was vague as to whether it was encouraging Saudis or Iraqis to resist the U.S.-led occupation, but American officials said they took it as a serious threat.
"The intent behind the clever words was to encourage young people -- and by that I mean jihadists -- to kill American soldiers in Iraq, and that is something we must protest vigorously," said James C. Oberwetter, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
For the moment, al Qaeda is seeking to recover from the loss of leaders who have been arrested or killed. Abdulaziz Muqrin, a former cell leader who asserted responsibility in the deaths of three U.S. military contractors last summer, including the beheading of Lockheed Martin employee Paul M. Johnson Jr., died in a shootout with Saudi police in June. Murqin's replacement, Saleh Awfi, is believed to be dead or seriously injured, Saudi officials said.