Terror Assault in Saudi Arabia
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on last night’s attack and their significance, we’re joined by Wyche Fowler, a former U.S. Senator who served as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1996-2001. Ali al-Ahmed, executive director of the Saudi Institute for Development and Studies in Washington, a group that promotes democratic reform in Saudi Arabia. And Matthew Levitt, who was a Middle East counterterrorism analyst at the FBI from 1998 until late-2001. He’s now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, a Middle East policy think tank. Welcome to you all.
Matt Levitt, a few questions first of all about the attack and the perpetrators. Do you agree with Colin Powell and, in fact, with Glenn Kessler’s analysis there too, that this does have all the earmarks of al-Qaida?
MATTHEW LEVITT: It certainly does. The near simultaneous attacks, the suicide car bombs, western targets, preoperational surveillance, and likely something that we’ll find was in the works for quite some time. These are all the hallmarks of al-Qaida, plus we know that al-Qaida is interested in targeting the Saudi regime and western interests in the Gulf in particular.
MARGARET WARNER: And also very powerful explosives it seems.
MATTHEW LEVITT: Extremely powerful explosives. This has been linked to the group that’s been missing now for a week, that the Saudis had a shootout with last week. Some people were breathing a sigh of relief because so much explosives had been found and confiscated, thinking that maybe while the perpetrators got away, that we had captured all the explosives. The fact that they still had what appears to be approximately 400 pounds of explosives indicates that this is a very serious terrorist operation.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now tell us more about this group that the raid occurred last week. The Saudi ambassador to Britain, who is the former intelligence chief, said late today that they’re pretty clear those two are linked. Who were these people? And what was the plot about?
MATTHEW LEVITT: There were 19 individuals, the Saudis made their names and their faces public on television in an attempt to track them down; there was a shootout with Saudi authorities and they confiscated in their hideout grenades, suitcases full of explosives, guns, ammunition, and computer files.
Very quickly it appeared that this was an al-Qaida related group, and I’m assuming that the Saudi authorities were particularly concerned because the last names of many of the perpetrators indicate that they’re from some of the more major, larger Saudi tribes.
MARGARET WARNER: And so does this tell you that al-Qaida is alive and operationally well and able to pull off these multiple attacks like this?
MATTHEW LEVITT: Clearly it is, and I don’t mean to downplay the counter terrorism successes that we’ve seen over the past two years. They’ve been nothing short of remarkable. But we’ve seen that al-Qaida is indeed very very flexible.
The Italians have recently released transcripts of taped conversations in Italy between al-Qaida operatives there and Syria and elsewhere. You can read the transcripts and you hear them talking about how to go about circumventing the counter terrorism initiatives that have been enacted worldwide. It’s a sign of how efficient and professional they are.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Al-Ahmed what does this say to you about al-Qaida’s operational abilities, and does it look to you, Prince Nayef who is the interior minister said he thought this was all directed by Osama bin Laden and the central command of al-Qaida. What does it look like to you?
ALI AL-AHMED: There is always a sense of denial of reality. I think this is a homegrown operation, I’ve called it al-Qaida Two. Two days ago the first communiqué was issued by this group. They didn’t put their names under it, but we found out through other sources — that the first name – Al Muhaidou (ph)- means monotheist and is the first name used by the early Wahabi movement.
This is a group that’s home grown, they have a leadership inside the country, and they are in hiding. Three religious leaders are in hiding, who are the spiritual leaders of this movement. Some of these people, for example Halil Ghibral (ph), was posted on the FBI Web site as a wanted, because he was in Afghanistan and he’s a member of the 19, the 19-member group which was May 6 discovered by the Saudi government. This is, I think, would be a different group. They have different initiatives with similar tactics because they have borrowed a lot of al-Qaida tactics, but this a local home grown, it’s not directed by Osama bin Laden; his ideas, yes, operation no.
MARGARET WARNER: What’s your view of that?
MATTHEW LEVITT: Well, I think it’s very early. The Saudis have said that the cell was in direct contact with bin Laden. Whether or not that is determined to be the case, we’ll see. But al-Qaida is known to reach out to local affiliates. This has every hallmark of an al-Qaida attack. There are concentric circles you could draw around al-Qaida in terms of the inner core people who swear the pledge of allegiance to bin Laden and then larger circles going out to homegrown groups to whom they’ve reached out.
The al-Qaida network in Europe, for example, is made up primarily of North African terrorist groups and cells that were co-opted by al-Qaida. I think it’s going to become very clear that this was an al-Qaida operation.
MARGARET WARNER: So Mr. Ambassador, if you look at the targets and the timing, what message does it appear to you that this group was trying to send, both to the Saudis and to the Americans?
WYCHE FOWLER: Well, I’m unsure at this stage what the message was. But I think it was directed to both the Saudi royal family, the government, and to the United States. I happen to agree with both of my colleagues that this could be al-Qaida One or Two, but it’s not like here where you have to join Rotary or Civil Tan (ph). These groups are very fluid, they use engineers, they use bombers, they use different personnel when they need them.
But this is this is bin Laden’s philosophy. Remember, what got him excommunicated from Saudi Arabia was a call for the overthrow of the royal family, as well as the expulsion of all Americans from the Arabic Peninsula. And his efforts have been to split up in any of his operations that strategic alliance between the Saudis and Americans.
And even on the nature, and I’m sure both my friends will agree, on the nature of these attacks, we can’t find these terrorists and destroy them, without the help of the Saudi government. And the Saudi government probably cannot find, defeat, and ultimately destroy without the resources and intelligence of the United States. We’ve got to work together.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Mr. Al-Ahmed, that raises the question, if the Saudi government thinks they know who these 19 members of this group were, and they even had their pictures on television, which I gather is very unusual in Saudi Arabia, why do you think they were unable to foil the attack or apprehend them?
ALI AL-AHMED: It’s very easy, I think, to answer this as a Saudi. Here we’re talking about, you’re asking a mother to kill its children. This group, similar groups, came from within the system. They are a secretion of the system, a religious institution which has networks and other organizations across the country, in a way help these groups and they provide recruits.
The ideology is the same. Two days ago, an ex-Wahabi imam who became a liberal writer wrote about this exact point, about this is not an outside phenomena; it’s an inside phenomena, it’s our problem, it’s not a problem of the Muslim brotherhood or the Dafrani; this is a problem within the Saudi religious institution.
MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying you don’t really think there is the political will in the Saudi government to do it?
ALI AL-AHMED: Definitely, there is no political will. Secondly, we need technical ability. Our minister of interior has been there for 28 years. I think there is a time to bring new leadership in the security apparatus, young and educated. And also in the political system, it’s unable, it’s old, it’s ruled by people who are unable to make the decisions.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, Mr. Ambassador, you were there right after the Khobar Towers bombing, though of course pre-911, that the Saudi government is doing all it could — I mean this has been a long standing bone of contention as we know been Washington and Riyadh — to crack down on terror both in the kingdom and sort of generated, nurtured in the kingdom?
WYCHE FOWLER: Well, we always have to start out, Margaret, by saying obviously enough is not being done. Or you wouldn’t, you know, we’re trying to prevent this.
But with all respect to Ali, if the Saudi government does not have the political will to work with the United States and all of our resources, which have been tied together substantially since ’96 in the Khobar bombing, because not only American Saudis were killed there. If they don’t have the political will, then they’re committing suicide, because these people are after them. They have announced it from the very beginning.
And terrorism can, the host government has to protect the guest in the kingdom. We cannot protect our people, either our military people or our diplomatic people or these private individuals, without the Saudis and vice versa. So we’re in this together, and it can only be cured together, in my opinion.
MARGARET WARNER: What’s your assessment of the political will in the Saudi government to go after terrorists, how well they’ve been doing, whether this incident will cause any change?
MATTHEW LEVITT: The Saudis have a history of cracking down on terrorist operatives who conduct attacks within the kingdom. We can expect a harsh crackdown on those elements that helped these individuals and individuals who carried it out. They have a less exemplary record when it comes to cracking down on those who support them ideologically in the kingdom and even more troubling record in terms of dealing with the support networks that are behind attacks like these, internationally, specifically when it comes to terrorist financing.
The Saudis have come up with some very good suggestions, establishment of a financial intelligence unit, they have said they will invite members of the financial action task force and money laundering into the kingdom; these things have yet to happen. When they do, that would be a very good step forward.
This is an opportunity, it is the opportunity for them to step forward and be more proactive in terms of a much greater type of counter terrorism cooperation for the very reasons that the ambassador pointed out. The dagger is at their throat as much as ours and I think this is the opportunity for them to recognize that. But to date they have been far less than helpful, or as helpful as they could be.
MARGARET WARNER: I’d like to go back to one point that we actually kind of skipped over but was raised in the taped piece, which is the U.S. has said it’s going to withdraw almost all of its forces from Saudi Arabia, this was ostensibly one of the big motivations for Osama bin Laden for 9/11. Mr. Al-Ahmed, what impact if any do you think that had? Do you think there’s anything to the coincidence in the timing?
ALI AL-AHMED: I think there is no coincidence in the timing, but the fact the withdrawal of American troops in Saudi Arabia really, it does not play a major factor any more, it’s now — it used to be the Americans they are against, now they are against even the local Saudi officials and even in their statement they targeted small or local officials.
MARGARET WARNER: Your brief comment on that?
WYCHE FOWLER: I think the Saudis know, as we say, they have to do everything. They have to use every resource that — or else they will have an irreparable break and we’ll have more terrorism.
MARGARET WARNER: Your view about the withdrawal of the U.S. forces.
MATTHEW LEVITT: I think it’s in al-Qaida’s interest to try and demonstrate that in fact the U.S. is withdrawing because of their pressure to paint that as a success of theirs, much as Hezbollah sought to portray the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon as their success. That would be a tremendous boon to their recruitment efforts.
Of course this is not in response to al-Qaida. Having solved the Iraqi problem, there’s no longer a need to have those forces stationed there. But it’s in al-Qaida’s interest to do so. Having said that, al-Qaida tends to prepare these operations long in advance, so they either planned this and it happened to coincide, or they took something off the shelf and took the opportunity.
MARGARET WARNER: And that brings me finally to one last question for you, Mr. Levitt. I’m sure some people watching this are wondering if they could pull it off in Riyadh, three simultaneous attacks or maybe four, could they do it here? Why there, why not here?
MATTHEW LEVITT: Since 9/11 we’ve done a whole lot of stuff to secure the homeland, and the operations, the training exercises that are going on this week are just one example of how we’re continually trying to see where the loopholes might be, what we can do to better I improve things.
Terrorism is about constricting the operating environment, it’s not about how many of the kicks on goal you save, but the one that gets through. It is always going to be possible for terrorists to conduct attacks here no matter what we do. But having said that, we are doing an excellent job, I believe, in making it that much harder for them to succeed.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you all three, very much.