Saudi newspaper al-Watan reported March 1 that Saudi authorities have identified one of the men involved in the Feb. 26 shooting deaths of four French citizens as Walid Mutlaq al-Radadi, whose name appears on a list of Saudi Arabia's most-wanted terrorists. Although the report remains unconfirmed, the naming of al-Radadi in connection with a seemingly random, small-scale attack raises further questions about the incident — and, more important, about al Qaeda's current capabilities in Saudi Arabia. In any case, regardless of who is behind the shootings, the attack underscores the difficulties of protecting Westerners in Saudi Arabia. Al-Radadi appears on a list issued by the Saudi Interior Ministry in June 2005 of fugitives suspected of involvement in militant acts. Of the 15 wanted suspects still at large in the country at the time, al-Radadi was listed at number 12. However, except for the belief that he lived at one time in Medina, which is near the site of the attack against the Frenchmen, it is unclear what intelligence led the Saudis to identify al-Radadi. It is possible that, by connecting al-Radadi to the attack and suggesting that security forces are closing in on him, the Saudis are attempting to flush him out of hiding.
The attack reportedly occurred as the group of French and Belgian nationals picnicked on the roadside near Medina while on their way home to Riyadh after visiting the ancient ruins at Madain Saleh. As the travelers finished their lunch, men wielding assault rifles pulled up in a green Nissan sport utility vehicle, asked the travelers their country of origin and then opened fire on the males, killing three of them on the spot; the fourth victim later died from his wounds at a hospital in Medina. If one of the kingdom's most-wanted militants was involved in this relatively simple attack, it could indicate the degree to which the capabilities of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia have declined. The apparently random killing of four Frenchmen is a far cry from the group's earlier operations, such as the attacks against the expatriate housing compound in Riyadh in May 2003 and against the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah
and the Saudi Interior Ministry in December 2004. However, after a long period of inactivity, a militant re-emergence of any kind — especially when this attack coincided with the reappearance in Saudi Arabia of al Qaeda online journal Sawt Al Jihad
— is cause for concern. If al Qaeda is having difficulty staging large, complex operations in Saudi Arabia, it might consider simple, spontaneous attacks against Westerners as an attractive alternative. Beyond what this attack could indicate about al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, it outlines the problem of protecting Westerners from simple, low-tech, low-cost operations. Most Western expatriates in Saudi Arabia live in fortified housing compounds. Although these are not totally safe from attack, they are fixed locations that can be guarded. However, once Westerners leave these compounds and venture off the beaten path, they often are completely without security. Rather than an assault on a housing compound or oil facility — something that would require pre-operational surveillance and lengthy planning — the attack near Medina appears to have been a simple, hastily planned and executed attack on a target of opportunity. For militants, this type of one-off attack is effective because, although it requires minimal planning, logistics and intelligence support, it can have a disproportionately high psychological effect on the targeted group — in this case, Western expatriates. The perpetrators of this latest attack have not been apprehended, meaning the threat to Westerners from these particular gunmen remains. Moreover, their actions could inspire others in the country to stage similar attacks. The apparent re-emergence
of low-level militancy in the country calls for a close monitoring of Saudi Arabia, as similar events could indicate the jihadist network is returning to new levels of strength.