Jun 14, 2004 | 23:13 GMT

9 mins read

Saudi Arabia: Al Qaeda's Many Layers

Al Qaeda ratcheted up the war in Saudi Arabia this week and is focusing on terrorizing Western expatriate workers connected to the defense and energy industries. The rising tension has focused attention on al Qaeda's public face inside the kingdom: Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin. He is only one piece of a much larger, multilayered structure involving thousands of al Qaeda members deployed throughout the oil-rich kingdom.
The war in Saudi Arabia has entered a new phase within the past few weeks, with al Qaeda-linked militants zeroing in on lone Westerners in Riyadh — an unusual tactical maneuver. STRATFOR has discussed the tactics used by the militants in depth. Much of the media coverage has focused on one man, Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin, as the leader of the movement. Al-Muqrin is known as the public face of al Qaeda in the kingdom and as the military mastermind behind attacks ranging from the May 1 raid against an energy company in Yanbu in which several workers were killed, to the deadly attack and hostage incident May 29 at a residential compound in Khobar. STRATFOR intelligence from sources inside the kingdom say al-Muqrin is not the al Qaeda leader. Instead, he is a popular, charismatic military commander in a highly complex jihadist network. The breadth and depth of al Qaeda's presence in the kingdom is greater than is admitted by the Saudi government, and understanding the structure of the organization helps explain not only the recent deluge of attacks but also the strategic goals of al Qaeda. The Face of Saudi Al Qaeda: al-Muqrin Al-Muqrin has the street credibility and experience to lead the guerrilla offensive inside the kingdom. He trained in Afghanistan and reportedly has fought in Algeria, Bosnia and Somalia. He is in his 30s and is known to have run a variety of combat and logistics operations in support of jihadist movements, including running guns from Europe to North Africa. Known also as Abu Hajar, al-Muqrin reportedly served prison time in the kingdom after being picked up in Ethiopia and is well known to Saudi security forces. Saudi authorities consider him one of the most wanted persons inside the kingdom, and his notoriety might have contributed to al Qaeda's decision to allow him to emerge as the face of al Qaeda. But being the face of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia is not the same as being its brain. Al-Muqrin is not the ultimate al Qaeda leader, but is the top military commander. He is important but replaceable. Information obtained by STRATFOR from sources among Saudi Islamist circles indicates that al-Muqrin is but one — albeit charismatic — face of a massive jihadist network. Saudi al Qaeda: The Brain Understanding the structure of the organization is critical for identifying similarities in attacks throughout the nation. It also helps in forecasting future developments in al Qaeda's offensive and the political, social and military position of the ruling House of Saud and the potential for future negotiations with the militants. Al Qaeda has a three-tiered structure in the kingdom, which explains its ability to stage attacks in multiple locations while rendering the appearance that the Saudi government is unable to thwart the militant assaults. The militants active inside the kingdom are part of a nationwide network established over the past several years. The network is loosely structured, with three clear layers and thousands of members. Few people know members outside their own cell, and only a select few are involved in key decisions at the highest levels. At the top of the movement sits a committee that could be likened to the executive board of a large corporation. The committee is responsible for making command decisions, determining the type and extent of major attacks and for target selection. This leadership presides over the entire al Qaeda network within the kingdom. The network consists of three concentric layers that are based on seniority, training and experience. The committee is derived from the top layer of members and is an elite group including religious scholars, tribal elders and sheikhs, members of the merchant and business elite and sympathizers within military, national guard, intelligence and other security forces — what could be called the "al Qaeda Core." Tier One: The Saudi Core This core group of members consisted originally of approximately 600 to 1,000 members. The group has shrunk to an estimated 300 members amid the U.S.-led international militant dragnet. This group's members might know each other, but do not necessarily know they all support the al Qaeda cause. Some of them are known to Saudi intelligence and are in hiding; others lie dormant and their affiliation with al Qaeda is undetected. A third set of members is too powerful or too well connected for the Saudi government to directly challenge them. Tier Two: Pre-Sept. 11 Jihadists The most visibly active layer consists of al Qaeda members who are veterans of the al Qaeda/Taliban presence in Afghanistan. Most of them have personally pledged allegiance (bayah) to Osama bin Laden. They are well trained and sophisticated in tactical combat operations. Known to intelligence services in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and possibly Iran and Yemen, they remain in hiding until deployment for specific operations. These men constitute the military hierarchy of the movement in the kingdom. They also are believed to be serving as advisers and providing logistical and other support. Tier two also has its own second, middle layer. This group has the most members — an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 operatives, 80 percent of them in the kingdom. Most of the remaining members are in the Arabian Peninsula, with others in places such as Algeria and Egypt. The second layer does not have a formal oath of commitment to bin Laden, but members adhere to the al Qaeda methodology and support is goals. Most operatives have had combat experience in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans. Al-Muqrin seems to be part of this second layer of militants who received training in Afghanistan up until the U.S. invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks. The major attacks such as those in Riyadh, Yanbu and Khobar since May 2003 are likely the disciplined work of this second layer. Tier Three: New Recruits A third group has only recently formed. Again loosely tied into the network, this group represents mostly new recruits who have joined the movement since Sept. 11 and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The recruits are thought to number in the thousands, their numbers swelled by the growing level of anti-Americanism in the kingdom and the region since the beginning of the U.S.-led war against militant Islamism. This group is comprised of a variety of people, including potentially thousands of madrassa (religious school) students and hundreds of lower level and younger ulema, who once worked for the government but were purged within the past few years for being sympathetic to bin Laden's cause. According to STRATFOR sources, members of this group are thought to be involved in the recent spate of individual shootings of Westerners. Some of them could have seen combat in Iraq and are still in the early stages of their military training. STRATFOR intelligence indicates that training camps have been established and are being run inside the kingdom, and that this third set of militants is training in them. At least three or four of the camps have been located and dismantled by Saudi security forces. But locating other small militant bases in the mountainous southwestern region or the valleys in the northwest is a difficult task for Saudi Arabia's inexperienced and ill-trained security forces. Sympathetic support from tribal groups and members of caravans might also allow the militants to learn of impending security raids days in advance. The Whole and Its Parts The layers of the organization inside Saudi Arabia interact via a complex set of relations, which is a function of the organizational evolution of al Qaeda prime itself. Al Qaeda never saw itself as an organization in the classical sense. Instead, it functions more as a university, offering military instruction to its attendees. During its peak years in Afghanistan, al Qaeda is believed to have trained and turned loose at least 40,000 militants, according to Saudi and Pakistani government sources. STRATFOR sources say that between the launching of the World Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders movement in 1998 and the Sept. 11 attacks, approximately 11,000 of those operatives returned to the kingdom from Afghanistan in preparation for the current offensive. Their goals fit neatly with al Qaeda's short- and long-term goals. Al Qaeda knows it cannot control jihadist activity everywhere; therefore it always has extended great autonomy to regional and local structures and has delegated responsibility. Some conflicts might arise, but the overall goals of weakening existing regimes through locally based and locally supported militancy only support al Qaeda's efforts to destroy government opposition to its influence in the Middle East. There are approximately 24 million people in Saudi Arabia, one-fifth of whom are foreign workers. The country is approximately one-fifth the size of the United States. The trained militants are indiscernible from the rest of the native population, and their numbers allow them to conduct operations throughout the kingdom. Moreover, there are sympathizers among the non-militant population who support bin Laden and al Qaeda's goals, at least in spirit. Conclusion: A Natural Environment for Jihad What is happening in Saudi Arabia has been a long time in the making. Al Qaeda and its sympathizers inside the kingdom have been building a loose network of supporters and affiliates for years. It is tapping into the intense anti-American sentiment stirred by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and the anti-Saudi rhetoric in the U.S. media. The naturally religious nature of the Saudi society — and its tendencies toward secrecy and close familial relations and tribal alliances — facilitate al Qaeda's efforts and frustrate efforts to respond. In the coming months, the movement will only intensify its activities as more members shift to active mode, even when taking action is nothing more taxing than taking opportunistic potshots at Westerners driving their SUVs home from work. The depth and breadth of the militant movement makes predicting attacks with any precision difficult, if not impossible. Since the layers are divided, and within each layer there are dozens of cells, any one of them could plan and carry out an attack, while others are either lying dormant or plotting their own strikes.

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