Is Al Qaeda Winning in Saudi Arabia?
By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2004; 1:57 PM
"We entered one of the companies' [offices], and found there an American infidel who looked like a director . . . When he turned to me, I shot him in the head, and his head exploded. We entered another office and found one infidel from South Africa, and our brother Hussein slit his throat. We asked Allah to accept [these acts of devotion] from us, and from him."
That's how Fawwaz bin Muhammad Nashami described one part of an attack last month in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that killed 22 people. The terrorist commander, who escaped after the attack, was interviewed by Sawt al-Jihad, a journal sympathetic to al Qaeda. As translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, the interview provides both a detailed account of the attack and a vivid glimpse into the minds of the jihadists who seek to overthrow the royal family of Saudi Arabia.
Since that attack, al Qaeda sympathizers in Saudi Arabia have killed three American military contractors and kidnapped and executed a fourth, Paul M. Johnson Jr. The Lockheed Martin employee, who was abducted June 12, was killed by his captors after their demands for the release of al Qaeda prisoners held in the Kingdom were not met, according to a report aired on Al-Arabiya television today.
The jihadists' plan, according to a statement posted June 6 on an al Qaeda Web site and translated by the Washington-based SITE Institute, is to "fight and exterminate" all non-Muslims working on the Arabian peninsula.
Is the new jihadist campaign a threat to the government of Saudi Arabia, custodian of one-fourth of the world's known oil reserves?
In a piece for The Washington Post's Outlook section on Sunday, former correspondent Thomas Lippman said probably not. But several reports circulating in the international online media argue the al Qaeda campaign is gaining ground.
The Saudi government is in a "state of terminal denial and paralysis," according to Mai Yamani, a Saudi analyst based in London, interviewed by the Lebanon-based Daily Star.
"Termites of terrorism and violence are eating at the foundation of the state," said Yamani, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Yamani says she has been barred from working in Saudi Arabia because of her writings.
Saudi leaders "have not shown a united front in dealing with security issues or the question of reform in the country," she said.
The government has few good options: "If they embark on reforms, they are accused of bowing to the Americans... If they don't do anything, even the moderates are going to throw themselves in the arms of the jihadists. If they try to curb the power of the religious police -- the Mutawa -- they will have a backlash."
Others note the Saudi kingdom is vulnerable because of its dependence on skilled foreign workers to run the oil industry, the foundation of the royal family's power.
"The [terrorist] operations are small in number but their impact could be major, particularly within the enormous foreign labor market in Saudi Arabia that includes over six million people from all over the world," notes the London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat (in Arabic).
"Several governments in the West have predicted a mass exodus of expatriate workers from the Kingdom, reliable European sources told the News," a leading Pakistani daily.
Without these engineers, technicians and scientists, the Saudis may not be able to sustain current production levels. According to the News story, the London-based Jane's Intelligence Digest (JID) has drawn "significant parallels between the current situation in Saudi Arabia and the final months of the Shah of Iran before his flight into exile" in 1979.
But Bruce Stanley of the Associated Press reports from Saudi Arabia that while "expatriate oil workers are taking greater precautions and venturing less often outside their fortified compounds," there has been no mass exodus.
"Industry analysts and staff of the state-run oil company Saudi Aramco see little evidence yet that a surge in anti-western violence is triggering a mass departure of foreign workers," Stanley wrote in a story picked up by the Canadian Broadcasting Company and many other foreign and U.S. news outlets.
James Zogby, an Arab-American pollster writing in the Arab News, says the notion that extremists are poised to take power is "laughable."
But just because the jihadists are not about to overthrow the government does not mean they are failing.
"The decision of the United States and Great Britain to withdraw their diplomats shows the terrorist offensive has "scored noticeable success," according to Al-Quds al-Arabi (in Arabic), a Saudi-owned, London-based newspaper.
The paper said U.S. demands that the Saudi government "put more efforts into confronting the perpetrators of these attacks, dry up all their financial sources, and exchange information with the United States" are misplaced. The editors argue that U.S. pressure for a forceful crackdown on the Islamic extremists will not succeed.
"The use of security solutions might achieve some successes but they remain limited ones because the problem has political, economic, and social dimensions," they wrote. Until those problems are addressed, the attackers may be able to "achieve the aim of toppling the ruling family or turning the country into a stage for bloody chaos."
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