By Fred Burton Islamist militants in Saudi Arabia increasingly are targeting the housing compounds and corporate offices of Western expatriates. The tactics used in the recent killings at the Oasis compound in Khobar indicate what is likely a new trend: militants forsaking the spectacular attack for the precise.
Last week, STRATFOR's Terrorism Intelligence Weekly focused on the likelihood that al Qaeda sleeper cells are in place within the United States, and what countersurveillance operations could do to pre-empt an attack. We now turn our attention to Saudi Arabia — where recent events also highlight the importance of effective countersurveillance techniques. Tactical Evolution U.S. counterterrorism sources recently told STRATFOR they believe new attacks against expatriate housing compounds in Saudi Arabia are highly probable — a scenario that, in fact, was borne out early June 2, with a shooting outside a compound in Riyadh. The Saudi government has yet to show any ability to effectively curb militant activity. Given the sophistication of, and striking operational similarities between, the recent attacks against Westerners in Yanbu and Khobar — and the fact that the militants appear to have sharpened the deadliness of their tactics since the Yanbu strike in early May — it appears the militants are outpacing the Saudi security services. In both cases, small — four-man — tactical groups carried out the assaults, employing a high degree of stealth and precision. In Yanbu, at least some of the gunmen were employees of ABB Lummus; they gained unfettered access to the target through long association and the cover provided by their company-issued uniforms. In Khobar, the assailants wore military uniforms — a tactic that would have aided their entrance into the Al-Khobar Petroleum Center, the offices of Arab Petroleum Investments Corp. and also their final destination, the Oasis compound. Uniforms likely also aided their escape from the scene. The targets themselves represent both a departure from attacks traditionally associated with Islamist militants, and what might be the ideal target for future operations abroad. The energy-related facilities in Yanbu and Khobar were selected for two reasons: First, they were symbols of Western business and influence in the Muslim world, and they were relatively "soft" targets — company offices and residential compounds. Symbolism — as we have long been aware — ranks high among al Qaeda's targeting priorities: Major attacks are planned with the goal of capturing the attention not only of Westerners, but of the Muslim world. Symbolism might have been on the minds of the militants when they dragged the body of a Briton from Khobar behind a vehicle for more than a mile — a scene reminiscent of Mogadishu, Al Fallujah and Yanbu, and imagery that is difficult to shake from the Western consciousness. By striking at the heart of the Saudi oil industry, the militants also sent a message to sympathizers who resent what they see as the theft of Arab wealth by foreign infidels. From another perspective, the Oasis housing compound and oil offices in Yanbu were lacking in security — enhancing their attractiveness to terrorists, because ideal targets such as embassies and military installations significantly have increased security since the Sept. 11 attacks. Assailants have been forced to seek out large concentrations of Westerners elsewhere — and the security at places such as the Oasis housing compound is no match for the sophistication the militants displayed. Sophisticated Strikes Judging from the details of the attacks and anecdotal evidence from the survivors, the Yanbu and Khobar strikes involved high levels of pre-operational surveillance: Militants displayed intimate working knowledge of the facilities' layouts and the routines of security guards.
In both cases, the attacks took place in the morning — when the day's activities were just beginning to get under way and, at the Oasis, when gates were crowded with early-morning commuters.
In the Oasis incident, militants set off a small explosive device at the main gate as a diversion. They opened fire on vehicles at the compound's entrance, then moved toward the houses.
Once inside the compound, militants literally went door-to-door, seeking Westerners for execution. As in Yanbu, they were careful to separate out Muslims and anyone of Middle Eastern origin: for instance, a Christian woman was allowed to go free after proving she was Lebanese, and an Iraqi American man lived to tell the tale of being asked to prove he was a follower of Islam. Similarly, in Yanbu, a militant passed by a Filipino native, saying, "You are not what we are looking for." One of the key differences between the Yanbu and Khobar incidents points to the likely shape of future attacks: Precision strikes. Although the Yanbu killings were carried out by a local Islamist militant group, they were praised by al Qaeda's top leader in the kingdom, Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin, as a good example to follow in targeting Westerners in Saudi Arabia. Days before the May 29 Khobar attack, al-Muqrin endorsed the use of four-man cells in precision attacks. This statement meshed with al-Muqrin's writings in previous weeks and months that focused on several tactical themes: strikes within cities, strikes against corporations, assassinations and kidnappings. Notably, the Khobar attacks were claimed by al-Muqrin himself — a sign that al Qaeda not only approves of small-scale, precision strikes, but is adapting its operations. A Matter of Security There is little that governments, businesses or expatriates in Saudi Arabia can do to protect themselves from these kinds of attacks other than stepping up security around housing compounds and offices. That in itself could be a questionable solution, if local — mostly government — security forces are employed. At the Oasis compound, unarmed gate guards fled at the first sign of violence. Afterward, three of the four gunmen managed to escape arrest, even though they were surrounded by Saudi security forces — a fact that suggests either incompetence or complicity on the part of the security forces, and certainly does nothing to alleviate fears of follow-on attacks. Tactically speaking, aggressive countersurveillance measures will be necessary if further attacks are to be thwarted. Because the militants obviously employed extensive pre-operational surveillance of the targets in Yanbu and Khobar, security services would be needed to watch for any signs of such activity around other Western-oriented facilities. An aggressive countersurveillance program — by trained security personnel — can be very effective in disrupting militant plans. Once surveillance is noted, the Saudi authorities ideally would be contacted immediately to investigate and intercede as necessary. It is difficult to understand why, in the aftermath of Yanbu, a permanent Saudi police presence was not in place at the Oasis compound in Khobar. It is possible the kingdom's security officials believed threats were limited to Riyadh and, to a lesser extent, the Red Sea coast. However, the recent trend has demonstrated that militants have a much wider geographic reach — possibly nationwide — and it would be surprising if security is not heightened around other Western facilities and neighborhoods throughout the kingdom. If government and local security services continue with business as usual, the militants will be able to as well. Given the blows Islamist militants have struck — against both Westerners and, by extension, the Saudi regime — in recent weeks, the support they have garnered from al Qaeda and the inability of the security infrastructure to deal with the threat, STRATFOR sees an inevitable increase in the use of small assault teams in strikes against Western assets in the kingdom and beyond. Given the success rate of such actions so far — compared to recent failures to carry out large-scale suicide attacks in Jordan, and the manpower, investment and false starts that went into recent successful suicide bombings in Riyadh, this methodology of precision over fire-power easily could be adapted to many circumstances and theaters of operation in which Islamist militants have a vested interest in striking at the West.