Saudis Facing Return of Radicals
Young Iraq Veterans Join Underground
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page A01
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- An increasing number of Saudis who crossed the border into Iraq to fight the U.S.-led military occupation are returning home to plot attacks against the Saudi government and Western targets in the desert kingdom, according to Western counterterrorism officials and Saudis with ties to militant groups.
The Iraq veterans are serving as fresh recruits for an underground network in Saudi Arabia that, until recently, was led by an older generation of fighters that had trained in Afghanistan and was closely connected to al Qaeda and its founder, Saudi native Osama bin Laden. Many of those leaders have been killed or captured in recent months by Saudi security forces.
Today, the proclaimed new chief of the primary militant group in the kingdom is Saleh Awfi, 33, a Saudi who journeyed north last year to join Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic radical group in Iraq that the U.S. government has branded as a terrorist organization. Awfi stayed for a few months, barely surviving U.S. aerial bombardment, before deciding to return and take up arms in his home country, according to a former Saudi radical who met with Awfi last year.
Other Saudis are returning after spending time in newly established training camps across the Red Sea in remote parts of Sudan where central government influence is weak, said a European intelligence official whose government is advising Saudi officials on their domestic terrorist threat.
For years, the religiously conservative Saudi royal family considered itself immune to attacks from Islamic extremists, but since May 2003, armed insurgents have shaken the government with a series of bombings and shootings resulting in more than 80 deaths.
The violence has helped drive oil prices to record highs, due to concern that the radicals will target pipelines or refineries.
The Saudi government sealed its border with Iraq last year and has played down evidence that Saudi radicals have contributed to the insurgency there. But Western counterterrorism officials and diplomats here said a small but significant number of Saudi veterans of the fight in Iraq have already made their way back and are helping carry out attacks in the kingdom.
Some Western officials express fear that the homecoming will grow if Iraq stabilizes. They also say they worry that the trend could become an echo of the 1990s, when thousands of Saudis traveled to Afghanistan to enlist in training camps sponsored by al Qaeda and other Islamic groups. Many of those radicals were dispatched around the world to launch attacks, including the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings in the United States.
After the Iraq insurgency is over, "there will be people who are freshly trained in the art of guerrilla warfare," said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's a real concern. How big a concern? I don't know. It clearly doesn't take too many to do a lot of damage."
Young Leaders Fill Ranks
Recent statements from Saudi militants underscore the Iraq connection. A cell that asserted responsibility last month for the beheading of Paul M. Johnson Jr., a Lockheed Martin Corp. employee kidnapped in Riyadh, called itself the Fallujah Brigade of a broader group known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Fallujah is a city west of Baghdad where insurgents have repeatedly clashed with U.S. forces.
The leader of that cell, Abdulaziz Muqrin, who was killed three weeks ago in a shootout with security forces, suggested in a statement that appeared on the Internet last fall that there was substantial crossover between the group in Saudi Arabia and foreign fighters in Iraq. "We are exerting our efforts there," Muqrin wrote, according to Janes Intelligence Review, a London-based publication.
Another example of Saudi fighters coming home from Iraq emerged in late June, when Othman Amri surrendered to Saudi officials under a recently declared amnesty program. Amri had been No. 19 on a list of the kingdom's 26 most wanted terrorism suspects. His family told Saudi reporters that he spent much of last year in Iraq as part of the insurgency there.
Like their compatriots in Iraq, cells operating in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly stated that their primary aim is to drive out all "infidels," including more than 100,000 Western expatriates who help run the country's oil industry and whose military and technical support is crucial to the Saudi government.
Although the border with Iraq is officially closed, many Saudi fighters are still finding their way back into the kingdom. Saudi officials said the nation's 900-mile border with Yemen has become an even more favored reentry point. Officials have reported that border guards have confiscated tons of explosives and ammunition from smugglers. In response, the Saudi government has begun construction of a concrete barrier along the Yemeni border, which runs through an especially desolate stretch of desert and mountains.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company