Thirty-five people, most of them foreigners, have been killed over the last six weeks in a dramatic, new style of terrorist attacks for this kingdom: bodies dragged on streets, traffic police blown up in their offices, hotel guests taken hostage and a chef shot outside an ATM.
The attacks are escalating despite an aggressive campaign by the government to root out terrorism, leaving many wondering whether the violence is just the beginning or — as the government insists — the last gasps of a desperate group reacting to the pressure of the hunt.
“It’s wrong what some in Saudi Arabia say ... that terrorism is taking its last breaths,” columnist Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed wrote Tuesday in the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, after a 25-hour assault by militants left 22 people dead this weekend. “We truly do not know how big the stock of air that it has in reserve.”
Afghan war veterans blamed
Saudi officials say they are fighting an unconventional, low-intensity war against an enemy that is hard to catch: It looks like them, speaks like them, can blend in to society and knows how to hide.
They believe the terror cells were formed in the 1990s by militants who spent years in Afghanistan fighting Soviet invaders and feeding off an anti-Western doctrine laid down by Osama bin Laden and militant Egyptian group Islamic Jihad.
The militants’ goal, the officials say, is to depose the royal Al Saud family, take control of Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Muslim faith, and set up an Islamic caliphate that would set out to conquer and convert the world.
One way for the militants to reach their goal is to scare off Westerners so the economy would suffer and unemployment would soar, officials say. That would make it easier to turn people against their ruler.
Officials say the kingdom’s terrorist cells do not appear to have a central command center. A cell is dormant until it interprets a news item, an event or a development — such as the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American jailers — as a call to action.
A recent Internet statement purported to be from al-Qaida’s alleged leader in Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin, said al-Qaida relied on independent cells that functioned without “organizational cohesion.” The statement said al-Qaida cells followed the group’s example, as well as books and periodicals on how to carry out attacks.
A Saudi prince said the militants made sure the cells were isolated so that if authorities broke one up, it would be difficult to link the cell to its creator. He said each cell was probably made up of 15 people, divided into three groups for flexibility. For instance, one group could be used for deception — to attract security forces away from the target — as the two others carried out attacks.
Abdul-Mohsen al-Akkas, a member of the Consultative Council, an appointed body that acts like a parliament, said the frequency of attacks meant the terrorists were no longer underground.
“They’re all out now. They’re not in the basement,” he said. “They want to take us back to the Middle Ages because they think this is what Islam is. But this is not Islam.”
Private resistance grows
Mohsen al-Awaji, a lawyer who says he has shifted from his extremist past, said he was part of a group of intellectuals trying to persuade the militants to lay down their arms.
Once senior militants are captured, he said, the rest are “tools that will not have any hands to use them.” The government has issued a list of 26 most-wanted militants. Eighteen remain on the list.
He said one way to “get rid of those deadly people” who did not want to lay down arms was to tell them “there are lots of occupied territories that require resistance,” such as Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian Authorities and Chechnya.
“If someone decides to go, we wish him luck,” al-Awaji said. “He’s going to die anyway, so let him die there while achieving something, not die here and kill innocents with him.”
Saudi authorities and diplomats said the extremists recently had begun expanding their repertoire of tactics, which previously involved mainly nighttime suicide bombings of residential compounds.
The first unusual attack came April 21, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of the traffic police building, killing five people.
On May 1, four militants stormed the offices of Houston-based ABB Lummus Global Inc. in Yanbu, killing six Westerners and a Saudi during office hours. The attackers then dragged the body of an American from the bumper of their car before they were killed.
On May 2, a German chef was gunned down outside a bank by an assailant who escaped.
And Saturday, militants went on a shooting spree that targeted two oil company compounds and then took hostages inside a residential compound in Khobar. The 25-hour assault killed 22 people; three of four attackers escaped.
In a break from previous attacks, the gunmen in Khobar tried to spare the lives of Muslims, interviewing residents and examining their apartments. Authorities and diplomats said the killing of Muslims in earlier attacks made it more difficult for the militants to recruit.
There have been suggestions that the Khobar gunmen were allowed to leave, forcing a deal with Saudi forces after beginning to kill hostages. A Saudi security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, would not directly address that but said: “Our main priority was the hostages, and those guys who ran away, we know how to find them.”