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Home-grown terror

Published : Dec 05, 2003 00:00 IST

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The terror attack in the heart of Riyadh highlights the precarious situation in Saudi Arabia, a country that has had a controversial role in the rise of militant Islamic groups, including Al Qaeda.

THE car bomb attack in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, on November 9 is another strong indication that the House of Saud is coming under tremendous pressure from home-grown enemies. It was the third such attack in the past six months. Al Qaeda, which has its roots in the kingdom, has predictably owned up the bombings.

The Saudi authorities said that more than 18 people were killed and 120 wounded in the attack on a housing compound located near the residences of some of the senior members of the Saudi royalty. The authorities in Riyadh said that all those killed in the attack were Arabs. There were a few Westerners among the injured. The compound at one time was earmarked for the nationals of Western countries working for an American defence contractor.

The statement attributed to Al Qaeda, however, claims that there were many American intelligence agents living in the compound at the time of the suicide attack. Besides, Al Qaeda has shown no remorse for the death of the Arab nationals, mostly of Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian origin. In fact, it has justified the attack on the grounds that those working and mixing with Americans deserved death.

Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda have no love lost for the Saudi royal family. Bin Laden's fight against the Saudi government started in earnest after the first Gulf war. Bin Laden and many other Saudis were aghast when American troops were given basing facilities on Islam's holiest land. Bin Laden and his loyal band of fighters were treated until then as heroes in the kingdom for their role in the "jehad" in Afghanistan. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, bin Laden had offered the support of his "jehadis" to liberate Kuwait and protect Saudi Arabia in case Iraq turned its attention to the kingdom. Bin Laden's offer was spurned. Instead, the Saudi rulers succumbed to American pressure and allowed the United States Army to set up military bases on Saudi territory.

Many in the Arab world were of the opinion that the Saudi authorities had bartered away the country's sovereignty. Bin Laden wrote in 1998 that "for over seven years the United States has been occupying the land of Islam in the holiest of places, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorising its neighbours, and turning its bases in the kingdom into a spearhead through which to fight the neighbouring Muslim peoples".

In 1998, bin Laden issued a "fatwa" calling for the killing of "Americans and their allies - civilian and military". He argued that it was the "individual duty" of every Muslim to drive the Americans out of the Arabian peninsula. The Bush administration had, in fact, shifted much of its military hardware and troops to Qatar before it embarked on its imperial adventure in Iraq. Saudi authorities say that only American military advisers are left in Saudi Arabia. However, when the U.S. launched its "Operation Freedom" against Iraq in March, the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia was used by the U.S. to launch 286,000 flight missions against Iraq.

It has been quite clear that Al Qaeda has penetrated deep into Saudi society. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks were Saudi citizens belonging to well-off families. Until recently, the Saudi authorities tried to neutralise Al Qaeda by spending generously on Islamic missionary and charity work all over the world. However, the suicide attack in May, which targeted American citizens, has made the Saudi authorities shift gears. There has been tremendous pressure from the Bush administration on the Saudi authorities to crack the whip on Islamic militant outfits. In the last couple of months, there have been reports of many Al Qaeda activists being killed or arrested. Saudi authorities have also claimed that many Al Qaeda cells have been penetrated.

But if Al Qaeda is to be believed, it too has gained a lot of influence inside the kingdom. It has been reported that the car used in the latest suicide attacks was an official Saudi police vehicle. The attackers were said to be wearing official police uniforms. Al Qaeda spokesmen claim that they have widespread support in the Saudi armed forces and that "the battle for Riyadh" has started in earnest. The recent attacks may have been aimed at destabilising the economy and preventing expatriates from coming to the kingdom.

Many observers of the Saudi scene are of the opinion that the heavy-handed manner in which the Saudi authorities have dealt with dissent has strengthened the hands of Islamic militant organisations such as Al Qaeda. Recently, the Saudi riot police roughed up women protesters who demanded more political rights. There were demonstrations in Mecca against the royal family in October. Many analysts feel that the Saudi monarchy and democracy are incompatible. Bin Laden has said that he expected the rulers of Riyadh to meet "the same fate as the ruler of Iran".

The Bush administration has come out in support of the Saudi government after the recent bombing in Riyadh. However, a few days prior to the Riyadh incident, President Bush had indirectly targeted Saudi Arabia and Egypt for criticism by calling for more concrete steps towards democracy in the Arab world. It is no secret that the "neo-conservatives" in the Bush administration want a redrawing of the map of the Arab world. Laurent Murawiec, a close associate of Richard Perle, former U.S. Defence Policy Board Chairman, while presenting a paper at the Pentagon last year, was highly critical of the Saudi government. Murawiec, who works for the conservative Rand Corporation, told Pentagon officials that the Saudi leadership "was lazy, overbearing, dishonest, corrupt".

The Saudi leadership as well as many Arab commentators believe that in case of a serious upheaval taking place in the kingdom, the Americans will seize the lucrative oilfields in the north and leave the rest of the country to whoever is in control in Riyadh.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Dec 05, 2003.)

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