Al Qaeda shook the world on Sept. 11, 2001. Today Osama bin Laden's terrorist gang is concentrating on shaking Saudi Arabia. Discovering whether this is a change of strategy or of capabilities is now an overriding task for U.S. law enforcement and intelligence.
No one can take solace from last weekend's tragedy in Khobar, which cost at least 22 lives. The killers slaughtered eight Indians, three Filipinos, a 10-year-old Egyptian, an American and others at the Oasis Residential Resorts housing complex for oil company workers.
This latest atrocity underlines that any war against the new totalitarianism preached by al Qaeda and its allies will ultimately be won or lost in the region that spawned bin Laden's fanaticism. Governments in the Middle East and Central Asia do not have the luxury of sitting on the fence.
Even Saudi Arabia, which shut its eyes and opened its pocketbook to homegrown terrorists as long as they operated abroad, now admits this. Moderates in the royal family claim that the government now prevents terrorist financing and recruiting in the kingdom.
The terrorists "are acting not out of strength but out of desperation, using up the resources they have left," a senior Saudi official told me recently. Local al Qaeda affiliates "strike soft targets within their range," rather than execute strategic plans made elsewhere to break American power and install an Islamic caliphate as the new global hegemony.
That Saudi analysis sounds too good (and too self-serving) to be true. But there is evidence on both sides of the proposition from recent events.
After nearly a decade of aiming its heaviest blows at distinctly American targets, al Qaeda is operating closer to home. Its two most important terrorist attacks in May were on foreign workers at Saudi oil installations, in Yanbu and then Khobar. Those atrocities followed two bloody suicide bombings in the kingdom last year, as well as other skirmishes there, and al Qaeda-style attacks in Morocco, Turkey and Spain.
There was impressive planning in some of those raids, and an element of strategy even in the botched hostage siege. A statement attributed to al Qaeda's Arabian peninsula chieftain, Abdulaziz Muqrin, warned the Saudi royals that the Khobar attack was a signal: "Our war with you will not end until God's will is enforced and the crusaders are expelled from the land of Muslims, leaving [you] as easy prey."
But this is the kind of attack that al Qaeda passed up when its branches were clearly under the control of bin Laden and his most influential adviser, Ayman Zawahiri. The Egyptian physician was instrumental in urging bin Laden to conduct a global campaign of terrorism rather than wage national campaigns of regime change in the Middle East. Complacency, or complicity, in Riyadh would also have encouraged al Qaeda to spare bin Laden's native country.
Whether, or how firmly, these two conspirators are in charge of a global organization today is unknown. It is clear, though, that al Qaeda has been badly disrupted by the U.S. and NATO campaigns in Afghanistan. Moreover, the focus of terrorist action has switched back to the region in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This change forces hard choices on Middle Eastern governments as well as on American policymakers and citizens.
As long as Americans and inhabitants of other industrialized countries do not significantly curb their appetites for Middle Eastern oil, designing an "exit strategy" for Iraq or the region has little credibility. The United States will be deeply involved in the area for years to come, whatever Americans or Arabs might wish. The scope and nature of the U.S. presence is what remains to be determined.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others get no free pass for distancing themselves from the United States or for pleading that they cannot help in the war on terrorism while Israel occupies Palestinian land. The terrorists now strike inside Saudi Arabia, even though the U.S. military presence they used to justify their first attacks has been withdrawn. They have not finished in Europe, either.
Everyone who refuses to surrender to bin Laden's world view is merely "prey," to use the Khobar terrorist chief's word. Through the fog generated by the turmoil in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse investigations or Saudi Arabia's own misunderstandings, someone has the power to remind us of the real stakes in this struggle.
In my May 28 column, I should have written that it is King Abdullah's half brother, not his son, who is to marry Lakhdar Brahimi's daughter on Sept. 7.