The al Qaeda attack against the U.S. Consulate on Dec. 6 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, must not have met its planners' expectations. Damage was minimal and no U.S. citizens were killed. The details of the attack suggest it could be the beginning of a new al Qaeda campaign, and its success depends on how vigorously the Saudi regime responds.
The latest al Qaeda attack in Saudi Arabia, a Dec. 6 assault against the U.S. Consulate in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, killed 12 people, including five consular workers and three of the attacking militants. No U.S. citizens were reported killed, but an unknown number were injured. This is the first attack against a U.S. diplomatic office in the kingdom, and the manner in which it was carried out suggests the country's al Qaeda branch might have launched a new campaign and further attacks are in the offing. Though damage was minimal, this was a major attack, the first under the direction of Saud bin Hammoud al-Otaibi, the new al Qaeda military commander in the kingdom. Saudi security has had some success disrupting al Qaeda activity, killing four of al-Otaibi's predecessors. Despite its relative failure, however, the Dec. 6 operation was well-planned, and it poses a test of whether Saudi security forces can maintain their penetration of the network or whether the jihadists have been able to seal the leaks. We will know in a matter of weeks. Penetrating the al Qaeda network could be an increasing challenge for the Saudi regime. After losing four commanders in a little more than a year — two since June — al Qaeda is likely to have enhanced security around al-Otaibi. While the five attackers failed to create much havoc, it was more a function of weak intelligence than inadequate training. Their ability to make their way into the compound indicates these fighters were decently trained and not your run-of-the-mill foot soldiers typically employed in attacks against individual targets. This, along with the fact that it was the debut attack of al-Otaibi — who had to demonstrate his operational leadership acumen — suggests additional attacks are to come (al Qaeda militants engaged in such meticulous planning are not usually in the business of random, one-time attacks). Also, we know al Qaeda has more well-trained fighters who have staged daring assaults in the past. These skilled operatives might be dedicated to larger attacks, such as the ones that took place earlier this year in Yanbu and Khobar. Just how lethal and frequent these attacks will be depends not just on al Qaeda's planning and resources, but also on the ability of Saudi security forces to respond forcefully and effectively. If they quickly eliminate the new al Qaeda leadership in the kingdom, there could be a lull before the next attack. It also is possible that al Qaeda, having learned from the past, might have contingency plans in place that would maintain the momentum of attacks should any leaders be killed. Attacks alternating with periods of dormancy in Saudi Arabia is a pattern that is likely to continue for some time. What is certain is that the Saudi regime is nowhere near dealing a serious, killing blow to al Qaeda because of the network's complex structure in the kingdom.