As the homegrown jihadist movement has declined in Saudi Arabia, cooperation between the Saudi and Iraqi branches of al Qaeda has grown. The Saudi regime's support of the insurgency in Iraq is bound to have a boomerang effect as Saudi Islamist militants return home and try to rejuvenate the movement in the kingdom.
Now the most active wing of the global jihadist movement, al Qaeda in Iraq is looking to rejuvenate the group's Saudi branch, which has been unable to wage an effective campaign. Growing cooperation between the two al Qaeda branches has been made possible by the interaction of branch operatives in Iraq, where the Saudi government hoped to send its domestic militants. The move also has been facilitated by al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who wants expand beyond Iraq and gain an effective foothold in the kingdom. Help from their comrades in the Iraqi branch will likely enable Saudi jihadists to compensate for their organizational weaknesses and the destruction they have faced at the hands of Saudi forces, especially since June 2004. Riyadh's efforts to dispatch domestic jihadists to Iraq as a means of taking the steam out of the insurgency in the kingdom and of countering the rise in Iraq of the Iranian-backed Shia could achieve the latter goal but not the former. In fact, it could lead to a setback for the al-Saud regime because jihadist traffic between Saudi Arabia and Iraq moves on a two-way street. The once weak, relatively inexperienced Saudi fighters who responded to the call in Iraq will be armed and seasoned when they return. On the other hand, al Qaeda in Iraq will use the fledgling militant infrastructure in Saudi Arabia to bolster its stand in Iraq as well as exploit opportunities that are available in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia initially had two parallel jihadist streams. One consisted of those who would stage attacks in the kingdom, while the other was composed of those who viewed the "true jihad" as taking place in Iraq. In the beginning, there was very little crossover. Then the government openly tried to redirect the jihadist movement outside the Saudi kingdom by merging the parallel streams into one and pointing it toward Iraq. Meanwhile, al Qaeda's Saudi branch began facing a leadership crisis that al-Zarqawi would love to step in and fix. He knows that Iraq will eventually become untenable for the jihadists, and he wants very much to expand his sphere of influence and rise on the global jihadist corporate ladder. Conditions will be ripe for Saudi veterans of the Iraqi jihad to return home and wreak havoc. Although the jihadist insurgency never became a major threat to the Saudi regime, it did create a perception problem abroad because of the growing insecurity for Western interests. The tipping point was the summer of 2004, when Saudi security forces were able to effectively shift from a defensive to offensive mode. Since then, all al Qaeda attacks in the kingdom have been thwarted or militants have been unable to penetrate security measures. Indigenous jihadists have consistently demonstrated substandard training, tactics and operational planning as Saudi security forces have picked off their leaders one by one. They clearly need help, and the most important thing Iraqi veterans can provide — even more than weapons or explosives expertise — will be the disciplined operational-security and organizational techniques employed by al-Zarqawi. He has been able to operate effectively in Iraq in spite of a massive intelligence effort to find and kill him. In addition, there is a certain tactical Darwinism at work in Iraq in which coalition forces are weeding out the slow-footed and dim-witted. Only the strong and cunning will survive and return to Saudi Arabia. Given the interaction between Saudi and Iraqi jihadists and the unequal distribution of power and resources, the merger of the two branches is not a far-fetched idea. But it will not go over well with al Qaeda's top leadership, which has been trying to restrict the rise of al-Zarqawi and limit the liability he poses by killing fellow Arabs and Muslims. Al-Zarqawi's gaining leadership over the home of Osama bin Laden would be seen by the central leader of the jihadist movement as a threat — and now, holed up in the mountains of northwestern Pakistan, he may not be in a position to do much about it. In any case, cooperation between these two branches of al Qaeda could lead to a dramatic spillover of jihadist activity from Iraq into the Persian Gulf/Arabian Peninsula region. The question is: How quickly will the Saudis be able to contain a resurgent jihadist threat, which they resuscitated even as they tried to kill it?