assessments

Saudi Arabia: Homegrown Jihadists Press Their Agenda?

5 MINS READMay 3, 2004 | 21:05 GMT
Summary
Attacks against Western workers in the Saudi oil city of Yanbu were likely pulled off by independent Saudi jihadists, not directed from the outside. This signifies the Saudis and the militants are locked into a long-term battle with little room for either side to back down. As a result, the threat level to Saudi and Western targets will not recede anytime soon and could yet expand geographically.
U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Oberwetter has urged Americans living in the kingdom to leave following the first known militant attack in the Red Sea port city of Yanbu on May 1. Four gunmen attacked the offices of Swiss-based engineering and oil services firm ABB Lummus Global, spraying the offices with bullets and killing two Americans, two Britons, an Australian and a Saudi citizen. Reports of injuries range from 25 to 50 people. The U.S. Embassy confirmed that one of the bodies was badly mutilated, and there are conflicting reports that one of the Americans was dragged behind the getaway car. Saudi security officials said the four attackers were killed in the ensuing car chase and shoot-out, which injured 10 Saudi police officers. Three of the gunmen worked at ABB Lummus and utilized their security passes and knowledge of the petrochemical site in carrying out the attacks. The company has decided to evacuate its 100 foreign workers from Saudi Arabia. Also on May 1, a pipe bomb thrown over a wall of the Yanbu International School caused minor damage and slightly injured a custodian, according to the U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council. The Yanbu incidents come amid a sharp rise in conflicts between Islamist militants and Saudi security forces, and less than two weeks after a suicide car bomb exploded in front of the headquarters of the Saudi security services in Riyadh. The attacks appear to be the work of homegrown Saudi jihadists sympathetic to al Qaeda, but not necessarily linked to external al Qaeda leadership in any formal way — such as through direct financing or selecting or planning operations. These groups are likely making their own decisions about targeting, and have their own set of goals that link broadly with the wider global network of jihadists. This is an important distinction. If the Saudi operations were being organized from abroad by an "al Qaeda prime," the jihadists might be willing to work for an interim goal, such as forcing the Saudi security forces to back off their current offensive — enabling al Qaeda to use portions of Saudi Arabia for sanctuary and fund-raising. This would open the door for some kind of under-the-table deal between the Saudi ruling family and the militants, negotiated by their designated go-betweens. Instead, Riyadh seems to be dealing with domestic militants with their own agenda geared specifically toward Saudi Arabia. Their ultimate goals seem to be: first, to drive out U.S. forces from the kingdom; and second, to overthrow the ruling House of Saud, which they consider to be an illegitimate and apostate regime. The implication is that the Saudis and militants are locked into an escalated battle with little room for either to back down. The militants have no reason to negotiate a middle ground — for them, it does not exist. Meanwhile, the government is fighting for its very existence, which relies heavily on the continued flow of oil revenues. Those revenues, in turn, are heavily reliant on a massive number of Western companies and expatriate workers — including 30,000 Americans among approximately 100,000 Westerners. With militants going after the government and Western workers simultaneously, the Saudis have little choice but to continue an aggressive crackdown, even if that crackdown begets a rise in militant operations, and vice versa. The upshot for Westerners present in Saudi Arabia is that — apart from a stunning (and unlikely) government victory over the jihadists — the intensified threat level in the country is unlikely to recede anytime soon. In fact, it could go up as the militants witness a rise in evacuations in response to the increasing number of attacks — and seek to maintain a tempo that results in further evacuations — and more pressure on the House of Saud. After Yanbu, the threat level has risen specifically along the Red Sea coast, which also includes Jeddah and Mecca, even though the greatest risk remains in and around Riyadh. This raises the threat level to Western workers, specifically those around soft targets. At this point, maintaining the tempo of operations could require a number of smaller operations, such as the Yanbu shootings, rather than large attacks on heavily fortified compounds. Recent warnings by the United States and other governments to their citizens living in the kingdom and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region have emphasized the possibility of attacks on soft targets. Also, militants will be more inclined to hit oil workers than actual oil infrastructure. The long-term goal is to maintain that infrastructure to be managed by a new, legitimate Islamist government in Saudi Arabia. The problem that many foreign firms are going to struggle with is vetting their local Saudi/Arab work force, and trying to figure out who the possible infiltrators might be. Internal relations between Westerners and Arabs in the Saudi oil industry often are strained, and companies will struggle to determine just where they might have an enemy among their workers. This puts the foreign companies and the Saudis in a tough position. Neither can afford a massive housecleaning of locals from the work force, but Yanbu underscores that their presence is a potentially dangerous unknown. For some workers, leaving Saudi Arabia for a time might be the wisest move, though it could feed the militants' overall determination.

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