Originally Published 2004-07-16 05:29:22 Published on Jul 16, 2004
¿Unlike in Egypt, Algeria and Yemen, no well¿defined group engaged in sustained terrorism has emerged in Saudi Arabia¿i. A lot has been said and written about Saudi Arabia¿s role in the largely defunct ¿war on terror¿. The ruling family of the House of Saud has been an unabashed US ally in the campaign to hunt out terrorists.
Saudi Arabia: A nation in turmoil
"Unlike in Egypt, Algeria and Yemen, no well-defined group engaged in sustained terrorism has emerged in Saudi Arabia"i. A lot has been said and written about Saudi Arabia's role in the largely defunct 'war on terror'. The ruling family of the House of Saud has been an unabashed US ally in the campaign to hunt out terrorists. However even a large scale massive crackdown on terrorists in the Kingdom has not been able to thwart attacks on foreigners, mostly westerners. The recent hostage crisis in the oil city of Al- Khobar, which left 22 civilians dead including foreigners, and the brazen attacks on British journalists and American defence contractors highlights a need to understand the nature of terrorism in Saudi Arabia and the complexities that confront the state.

Beyond Al-Qaeda 

Recent events in Saudi Arabia including the beheading of Paul Johnson, the employee of an American defence contractor, point towards an Al-Qaeda organisation which is moving away from suicide bombings towards sporadic guerrilla attacks on chosen targets and kidnappings, is desperate to establish its credentials through media publicity, and most importantly has lost some of its top leaders to encounters with the Saudi forces. Even a tightly policed state has not been able to prevent terrorist operations against westerners. However it is very important to realize that terrorism in Saudi Arabia is not just under the aegis of the Al-Qaeda. Even the fact that 15 out of the 19 Al Qaeda hijackers of the Sept 11 fame were Saudis has not been able to provide enough evidence of a centralised command of the Al-Qaeda operating in the Gulf Kingdom. An internet statement of the slain Al-Qaeda leader, Abdul Aziz-al-Muqrin also claimed that Al Qaeda relies on 'independent cells that function without organisational cohesion'. Most analysts believe that Al-Qaeda is a loosely knit organisation of several 3-4 member cells which operate independently. 

There have been reports of some indigenous groups being involved in acts of terror in Saudi Arabia as was in the case of the June 25, 1996, truck bombing at the King Abdul Aziz Airbase at Khobar towers which killed 19 US servicemen. The Iranian supported Shia group, the Saudi Hezbollah has also been accused of terrorism in the country. There have also been reports of individuals who have carried out acts of terrorism claiming inspiration from Osama bin Laden's teachings but who are not affiliated to the Al-Qaeda

The Al -Muqrin factor

However recent cases of the Al-Khobar attack and the gruesome beheading of Paul Johnson that were claimed by the 'Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula,' focus the debate on the Al-Qaeda presence in the Kingdom. The man behind these acts of terror was 'Abu Hajir' Abdul Aziz -al- Muqrin. This ruthless tactician died in a shoot out by the Saudi security forces hours after he and his three accomplices had disposed off the decapitated body of the unfortunate Paul Johnson. Muqrin transformed the Al Qaeda war against the Saudi state into a pan Islamic Jihad against westerners and other 'infidels'. He had often expressed his solidarity with Muslims in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya and was even recruiting Mujahiddins for Iraq. For him, the struggle of Muslims in these countries was as much an issue for a jihad as the growing 'apostasy' of the ruling Saudi elite. 

Muqrin was a dropout from the Saudi educational system who had taken the usual path to terrorism through the Afghan Jihad where he had met his mentor, Osama bin Laden and trained under him. He had participated in several conflicts in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, the Horn of Africa in Somalia and Ethiopia and was sentenced to 4 years prison in Saudi Arabia in the late nineties. He was released after two years due to his effortless recitation of the Koran which he had learnt by heart in the jail premises.

He took over as the leader of Al Qaeda operations in March this year when the previous chief, a Yemeni national, Khalid Ali Haj and an accomplice were killed in a raid by the security forces following an aggressive anti- terror campaign. Haj himself had succeeded Yussef -Al-Ayri, who was also shot dead in June 2003, a month after the deadly suicide bombings in Riyadh in May which had claimed more than 20 lives and in which 10 Americans had died.

Author of 'Al Qaeda's targeting guidance' which was released as a chapter in the seventh issue of Al Qaeda's Training Publication, 'Camp Al Battar Magazine'ii released on March 29, 2004, Muqrin identified categories of urban, religious, economic and human targets on which future attacks would be conducted. True to this document the Al Khobar attack was on an economic target whereas Paul Johnson was the perfect human target, an American 'infidel' working for a defence contractor.

Muqrin had a flair for media publicity and often released statements and pictures on the internet and appeared on video tapes. His media propaganda was most evident in the Paul Johnson case when he posted grisly images of Johnson's severed head and decapitated body on websites which have been used by the Al Qaeda in the past. In fact he first appeared in Al Qaeda's 'Badr- al Riyadh' Video released on February 8, 2004, as an Al Qaeda field commander who had perhaps masterminded the Al Muhaya Housing Compound bombing in Riyadh in November 2003. Media propaganda as in the Johnson case enhances the impact of terror and Muqrin had understood the important role of the media.

Muqrin had escaped the man hunt since May 2001 and there were doubts about his whereabouts. Some people believed that he was not based in Saudi Arabia and directed operations from a distant country but reliable reports claimed that he was probably residing in the Al Suweidi district of Saudi Arabia, which has had a long tradition of nurturing terrorists. The BBC journalist and the camera man who were shot at in Al-Suweidi recently, were working on a documentary on Ibrahim al Rayyes, part of the 26 most wanted terrorists in the Kingdom who was killed in a shoot out last December. In fact figures reveal that 15 out of the 26 most wanted terrorists whose list was released by the Interior Ministry last December are from this notorious Al Suweidi area.

Muqrin was gunned down with three other Al-Qaeda militants while on their escape route after having dumped Johnson's body. Police received information about the car license number which helped them chase the militants. Significant to note here is the involvement of the Al-Qaeda chief in the basic planning and dumping of a body, which suggests that the leadership is part of the execution of the entire plan till its completion. Some analysts have pointed out that this could imply that Al-Qaeda is running out of recruits but the number of militants detained and killed in the crackdown by the security forces and the increasing frequency of attacks suggest otherwise. The Al-Khobar militants were young men between 15 to 25 years of age, which suggests that for the unemployed youth in Saudi Arabia, militancy is both an economic as well as a political option to vent their frustration at the 'authoritarian, corrupt, and apostate' regime which is indifferent to their plight.

Muqrin's death was denied in a communiqué by the Al-Qaeda posted on an Islamist website that the organisation uses regularly for communication. The statement said that the news about Muqrin's death was intended 'to undermine the morale of the Mujahiddin of the Arabian Peninsula'. This message was perhaps an indication of the desperation of the organisation, completely taken aback by the unexpected killing of its chief mastermind in Saudi Arabia and a master strategist and planner just two months after the previous chief was killed. The government confirmed the death of Muqrin and security experts declared Saleh Mohammad Aofi as the successor of Al-Muqrin. Some Islamist websites used by Al-Qaeda later issued a statement saying that Muqrin had died "after having prepared sincere men from among the combatants to succeed him and carry on the jihad, equipped by God with everything needed to bring harm to America and its agents among the tyrants." iii The confirmation about Al-Aofi's succession is still awaited from the information sources of the Al-Qaeda.

Challenges Before the State

The ruthless terrorist, Al-Muqrin, who had written in the 'Al-Qaeda targeting Guidance' that the "targets inside the cities are considered a sort of military diplomacy. Normally, this kind of diplomacy is written with blood and decorated with body parts and the smell of guns", has been laid to rest but his death has brought into focus several important questions related to the nature of the Saudi State and its so called 'war on terror'

The Saudi state, an Islamic theocracy, faces antipathy, not only from its citizens but also from other Islamic countries in the region because of its close proximity to the US and the corrupt and authoritarian rule which seems to have benefited the ruling few. The regime is a logical target of attack from international Islamic terrorist groups who consider the House of Saud as unfit to continue as the custodian of the Islamic Holy places. In fact before becoming a global Islamic movement, the Al-Qaeda had started its campaign in Saudi Arabia against the government calling for the overthrow of the Monarchy, the first step towards the establishment of a caliphate to unite the Muslims. Their repeated use of the term 'Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula' seems like a deliberate attempt to avoid the usage of 'Saudi Arabia', a name derived from the House of Saud.

There are increasing reports about possible linkages between the Saudi security forces and militants. Pro militant websites had reported that some elements in the Saudi security forces had helped in the kidnapping of Paul Johnson by providing the militants with police uniforms, cars and fake checkpoint on which Paul Johnson's car was intercepted by the kidnappers. This claim was denied by the government. The new Al-Qaeda chief in Saudi Arabia, Saleh Mohammad al Aofi has worked as a prison guard and may have some connections in the security set up. Even the Al-Khobar terrorists were in army uniforms. In a heavily policed state where there is a sustained crackdown on terrorists, probabilities of some police and army personnel cooperating with the militants does not seem misplaced, especially in the light of the increasingly brazen terrorist attacks and ideological support to the Al-Qaeda by some Saudis, including those in the Royal family who are against any kind of alignment with the west.

The security forces have succeeded in gunning down three Al-Qaeda chiefs but the death in each case has only resulted in a more ruthless and dangerous commander taking over. Al Muqrin's successor, Aofi is also experienced and has a substantial following.

The recent amnesty offer by King Fahd to militants who surrender themselves in the next one month is perhaps a desperate attempt by the regime to establish its credentials as a sincere ally in the 'war on terror' at the same time trying to make peace with the dissatisfied elements who may have taken to militancy. 

In reality Al-Muqrin's death may be a loss to Al-Qaeda but it certainly is not a victory for the Saudi government which is facing a daunting task today. Terrorism and fundamentalism in the Saudi state is not an imported phenomenon. There are many Osamas who have emerged out of the Saudi political and religious system which has a distinct schizophrenic characteriv. The Saudi state is a glaring example of the religious and the political spaces merging together, based on the principles of fundamentalist Wahabi ideology. Juxtaposed with this Islamic theocratic nature of the state is the Saudi elite's alignment with the western world and especially close ties with the US. The struggle between Tauhid (monotheism) and Taqarub (rapprochement between Muslims and Non Muslims) is reflected in the two factions that have emerged in the Royalty. Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, with his pro western Taqarub approach faces challenges from Prince Nayef, the Interior Minister, who is said to be a favorite with the Tauhid advocating clergy, who are also sympathetic to the Al-Qaeda ideology.v


The problem in Saudi Arabia is not just the growing menace of terrorism but a systemic collapse that is in urgent need of important reformatory changes. The power struggle in the ruling elite, coupled with the fact that the regime has failed to address issues affecting the common people, like corruption and growing unemployment has distanced the ruling class from the masses. The much needed political and economic reforms in favour of the common people hardly seems in the offing as the regime continues to derive its legitimacy from the western powers and is in control of the vast oil wealth said to be adding to the riches of a 20,000 member strong royal family.

This complex interplay of internal and external factors has provided fodder for Jihadi terrorism based on fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, advocated by the likes of Al-Qaeda. 


  1. Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al- Qaeda, Global Network of Terror (New Delhi: Lotus collection -Roli 
    Books, 2003), p 143.
  2.  The English Translation of this document on 'Al Qaeda's Targeting guidance' is available at: 
    (www.intelcenter.com )
  3. Al Qaeda replaces Saudi Arabia Chief', Taipei Times, June 22, 2004
  4. (iv) Michael Doran, 'The Schizophrenic Saudi State', Foreign Affairs, January / February 2004, pp.35-52.

(The writer is a post-graduate of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and, presently, a member of the staff of the International Terrorism Watch Project of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). She is based in New Delhi. E-mail address: [email protected]). 
With some minor alterations this article appeared in Asia Times Online, July 16, 2004. It can be accessed at
(http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/FG16Ak03.html )

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.

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