In 2007, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz publicly lamented that “no action was taken” on a tip about terrorist plots that his government had passed to London before the horrific 2005 attacks on its public transport system, which left 52 people dead.
Three years later, the king can make no such complaints.
When Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef recently called White House counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan to tell him that Al Qaeda’s most industrious affiliate had express-mailed bombs to the United States, the U.S. intelligence community swung into high gear to locate the packages.
The different responses highlight major developments that bode well for the international effort to isolate and disrupt Al Qaeda-like terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based group which on Friday said it had mailed the bombs, and which is widely considered one of the most dangerous Al Qaeda branches.
The first change has been big improvements in Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism capabilities, resulting in more accurate inside information about extremist Islamic networks.
Unlike the information that Riyadh passed to London, which British intelligence officials at the time said was not relevant to the 2005 attacks, the news conveyed to Brennan by Prince Muhammad was precise and detailed. According to media reports, it included tracking numbers on the packages which were addressed to Chicago locations.
“The most important point here is that the Saudis have been a major asset in counterterrorism warnings in the last two months,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “It appears that the information they’re getting recently is extraordinarily accurate.”
French officials last month praised Riyadh for alerting them to potential terrorist attacks in Europe, specifically in France.
Saudi Arabia’s improved intelligence on AQAP in Yemen, which shares a rugged, mountainous border with Saudi Arabia, appears to result not only from increased electronic surveillance of the organization, but also from more successful infiltration by Saudi spies, experts said.
“There’s been an incredible investment of U.S. time and expertise in helping the Saudis develop their intelligence capabilities,” said Jarret Brachman, author of “Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice.” “They’ve really come a long way ... and have developed an independent capability … that’s moved much more into human intelligence collection.”
Thomas Hegghammer, author of “Jihad in Saudi Arabia,” said that “the fact that the Saudis are helping [with intelligence tips] is not new. They have done so for a long time. What’s new and interesting is that they seem to have infiltrated the organization on some level. And that’s very rare. Al Qaeda is notoriously hard to infiltrate.”
In the past, added Hegghammer, a research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, the Saudis “relied mainly on signals intelligence and tips from the public.”
Press reports quoting unnamed Yemeni security officials have said that crucial information, which led to uncovering the potentially disastrous cargo bomb scheme, came from a Saudi militant who recently abandoned AQAP in Yemen and surrendered to Saudi officials.
The return last month of Jabir Al Fayfi, 35, a former detainee at Guantanamo, was portrayed by Saudi officials as the decision of a man who realized he had made a mistake. They said he had called officials he met while in a Saudi program to rehabilitate extremists and asked for their help in giving himself up.
If this description of Al Fayfi’s change of heart is accurate, it would boost the prestige of the rehabilitation program, which is a major component of Saudi Arabia’s fight against militants, because it suggests that it can lead to intelligence coups. The program endeavors to wean extremists from their radical mindset and reintegrate them into Saudi society through financial inducements and family pressures.
A second major change in recent years has been growing mutual awareness by both Saudi Arabia and Western governments that they share a common enemy — radical Islamist terrorist groups.
For groups like AQAP, “Saudi Arabia is the near enemy and the United States is the far enemy, and the two go hand-in-hand,” said Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor and founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.
This mutual recognition has led to greater cooperation, added Karasik. “The threat to all of them is the same, so they are able to coordinate or at least appreciate each other’s interest in preventing something catastrophic” being done by groups like AQAP.
In AQAP, however, there is something else that makes for greater cooperation between Riyadh and Washington: Both Saudis and Americans hold key jobs in the extremist organization, which also claimed responsibility for training the Nigerian man who tried to blow up an American airliner over Detroit last Christmas Day.
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AQAP’s chief bomb-maker is believed to be Ibrahim Hassan Al Asiri, a Saudi national. The deputy leader of AQAP, Saeed Al Shehri, is also Saudi. An American, Anwar Al Awlaki, serves as the group’s main ideologue, and is among several Americans U.S. intelligence officials suspect are helping AQAP.
A third change in recent years has been Riyadh’s change of heart about cooperating with Western counterterrorism efforts. After the discovery that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals, officials in their homeland were in denial, resistant to the idea that radicals in their own religious community bore some responsibility for the spread of religious-based violence.
FBI and CIA officials complained that their Saudi counterparts would not share information, and the Saudi government was slow to close loopholes in its banking sector that had allowed wealthy individuals to finance Islamist groups and charities with questionable intentions.
Saudi attitudes changed, however, after Al Qaeda militants launched a bloody campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations in the kingdom between 2003 and 2006. Another wake-up call came with the 2009 assassination attempt against counterterrorism chief Prince Muhammed.
Chastened by the 2003-2006 events, the Saudis began to take serious steps to halt funding of terrorist groups and dismantle extremist networks — steps that included greater appreciation for the need to cooperate with other countries. Prince Muhammed was in charge of the campaign, and developed close ties with U.S. counterterrorism officials in the process.
“The more that Al Qaeda directly targeted the Saudi government,” said Pape, “the more we’re getting greater cooperation.”
In an unusual move, the White House openly acknowledged the Saudi assistance in breaking the latest plot by AQAP, and President Barack Obama called King Abdullah to thank him personally.
The publicity may have been intended to influence public perceptions of Saudi Arabia ahead of a congressional review of a pending $60 billion U.S. arms package.
Some of those perceptions are based on myths, which suggest that Saudi Arabia encouraged the 9/11 attacks, knew of them in advance or financed them. The official U.S. Commission on 9/11 found no evidence to support any of those ideas.
Nevertheless, lingering doubts held by many in the West about Saudi Arabia’s commitment to fighting Islamic extremism continue to cast a shadow over its image. That may start to change with visible signs of Saudi assistance in deterring terrorist attacks such as the one last week.
“It can only increase the perception that Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner in the fight against Al Qaeda,” said Brachman. “The Saudis have been struggling with their own Al Qaeda problem so it’s in their interest to ensure that Al Qaeda’s capability in Yemen is degraded …. Successful attacks will only lead to an increase in recruitment, which is bad for the Saudis.”