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Letter From Arabia III: Paranoia, or We’re Surrounded!

By David A. Andelman

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—The fear is widespread, unspoken, and tinged with an indomitable measure of hope. It revolves around the succession of leadership in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—a nation that has managed, thus far, to avoid the bloody revolutions of so many other Middle Eastern countries ruled by despots who have held their people in varying degrees of servitude.

“Today we have an enlightened monarch,” says one young Saudi filmmaker. “But the next in line is nothing like his older brother.” He refers, of course, to the current ruler, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques—the 90-year-old 10th son of this nation’s founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. Abdullah, still the first generation after Ibn Saud, is by most accounts an enlightened ruler. But such a reputation is in no sense shared with the designated successor, Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The Dark Prince, as some call this monarch-in-waiting, has passed more than a third of a century as the powerful Minister of the Interior—charged with a no holds barred approach to counter-terrorism and internal security. Then, further back, likely the third in line, is the Minister of Defense, Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the 25th son of King Abdulaziz and, as with Crown Prince Nayef, one of the Sudairi Seven, sons of the founding King’s alleged favored wife.

Abdullah, more than any recent Middle Eastern monarch, has done his best to move this nation toward a reformation that while far from any model that might be recognized as democracy in the West is still light years beyond this nation’s brutal past. But Nayef, 80 years old, is not his brother. He’s the longtime head of the secret police; a daisy chain of hidden prisons for terrorists, real or imagined; and not to mention the feared, and in so many quarters loathed, mutawah—the religious police.

Nayef, and all he represents, plays to some very deep-seated feelings that might verge on paranoia were it not for the shreds of reality on which they are based. Saudi Arabia, more today than perhaps any time in its short history as a nation, feels itself surrounded by enemies.

Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Mohammed, in charge of a unit that monitors the terrorist threats to this nation in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, isn’t paranoid. Not at all. But he does believe, with all sincerity, that he and his nation are encircled by deep threats to the security of this Kingdom that for decades has done its level best to stay out of the problems of the region and stay on friendly terms with all players.

So, this nation that dominates the Arabian Peninsula is circling the wagons and expelling what it sees as the principal existential threats to its way of life. And it’s building fences on the theory that stronger fences make better neighbors—or at least insulates itself from their problems, some of which it may have even created in the first place. Colonel Sultan has been working in counter-terrorism for 14 years. “Since 1997, I have been following threats from outside the Kingdom and when they move inside,” he tells visitors. Much of this attention during these years, up to today, has centered on al Qaida and Osama bin Laden.

Certainly over the past decade, there have been some major attacks on strategic and even civilian targets across this nation. In 1996, the Khobar Towers U.S. military complex was bombed, killing 19 American soldiers and wounding 372 others. Over the next 12 years, a growing number of terrorist actions took place in Saudi Arabia, including, the lethal suicide attack seven years later, on the Vinnell Compound in Riyadh that left 35 dead and 200 wounded—leading General General Mansour Sultan Al-Turki, a senior Interior Ministry official to observe, “Fighting terrorism means you should not wait until there is a crime committed. These people will not show you any crime but will keep working very quietly. It is too bad if you wait until they go do commit the terrorist acts, and then you go to count how many bodies. They will leave nothing behind. Those people will choose to die.” Even today, though the pace of terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia has slowed dramatically, the vestiges remain. Six years ago, there was substantial vigilance around the major international hotels and attached shopping malls. Every car and taxi was stopped at sand-bagged barricades, its trunk opened, and mirrors used to search beneath for evidence of explosives. Behind the barricade, camouflage-clad soldiers manned jeeps with machine-guns mounted on the back. Today, the barricades are still there, but civilians only go through perfunctory motions glancing inside the trunk. The jeep’s there too, but many guards have gone off for a tea break.

Earlier this month, a joint American-Saudi operation thwarted an attempt to place a bomb on an airliner headed to the United States from the United Arab Emirates. But the origin of the bomb is more interesting—a shadowy Saudi chemistry student with unique abilities to craft all but undetectable explosives. Ibrahim al Asiri is a Saudi who hails from the remote border province of Asiri on the Yemeni frontier. Horrified by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, he joined up with al-Qaida, fled toward Iraq, but was arrested by Saudi border guards, imprisoned, then released to his family’s custody under a terrorist rehab program that the Saudis still show off with pride to visiting dignitaries. In al-Asiri’s case, it didn’t stick. This time, the would-be bomb-maker chose a more obvious course—crossing the 1,200-mile, all but unpatrolled border with Yemen. Like scores of fellow jihadists, his targets had multiplied along with his enemies—now it’s the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as the Great Satan, the United States.

“We did not want to push the problem to Yemen, we simply wanted it out of Saudi Arabia,” says General Mansour Sultan Al-Turki, a senior Interior Ministry official. “The situation in Yemen is that it is almost a failed state.” The result is that the Saudis are doing their best to build walls around their vulnerable kingdom. On the Iraq border, a 700-mile fence, built several miles inside Saudi territory, is nearing completion—an effort to prevent the free flow of terrorists, especially Iranian-sponsored Shiite terrorists, from flowing unchecked along that frontier. Along the forbidding Yemeni border, however, the problem is more challenging. “There are a lot of similarities between Afghanistan and Yemen,” General Mansour continues. “Al Qaida always becomes bigger and bigger in this kind of environment. Look at Afghanistan, look at Iraq. The more you have a failed state, al Qaida will always be there.” The new fear now is that Syria may wind up the newest al Qaida sanctuary. “We would like to see a stable Syria,” he says. “We don’t want another Iraq, another Afghanistan in Syria.”

Dr. Abdulrahman A. Al-Hadlaq is a senior adviser to the Ministry of the Interior and has helped organize the jihadi-release program—a series of internal re-education facilities to reform jihadis. He is proud of what he describes as a 99.9 percent success rate of the program and even brings out a former Guantanamo inmate, now rehabbed and living a productive life outside of Riyadh. The problem, of course, is the recidivists. It only takes one Al-Asiri to wreak havoc in Saudi Arabia and beyond.

“After all,” points out Colonel Sultan, “Osama bin Laden was of Yemeni origin.”

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David A. Andelman is Editor of World Policy Journal. He last visited Saudi six years ago. This visit was made under the auspices of the IRP Gatekeeper Editors program of the International Reporting Project.

For David A. Andelman's first two Letters from Arabia, click here.

(Photo courtesy of Omar Chatriwala)

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