- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

Most analysts agree Saudi security forces have the upper hand in the kingdom’s ongoing war on Islamist terrorism whose aim is to overthrow and replace the royal House of Saud with a strict Islamic theocracy.

While it is clear the Saudi government made giant strides — and had major successes in its fight against terrorism — the war against pro-al Qaeda insurgents is not entirely over.

After a fourth day of shootouts between Saudi security forces and Islamist militants, the last day in the capital, Riyadh, one of the kingdom’s most-wanted terrorists was killed Wednesday.

Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst and intelligence specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the Saudis overall have been very successful in fighting the threat of Islamist terror.

“They have systematically been able to roll up the terror threat,” Mr. Cordesman told United Press International, adding: “By and large, al Qaeda in Arabia,” the Saudi branch of the pro-Osama bin Laden terror network “has not been convincing.”

The kingdom has done a good job, notes Mr. Cordesman, but adds it is easy to infiltrate the desert kingdom from Yemen or other borders, across thousands of miles of unguarded frontiers, and an incursion is very difficult to prevent.

The raid in Riyadh came hours after the end of a similar assault that lasted three days in the remote desert town of al-Ras, some 200 miles northwest of the capital. The result, the Saudi Interior Ministry said, left 14 terrorists dead and six captured; Saudi security suffered 14 casualties.

The suspect killed in Wednesday’s shootout was identified by the Interior Ministry as Abdul-Rahman Mohammed Mohammed Yazji, No. 25 on a government list of 26 most wanted. According to Saudi government sources, Yazji’s death brings to 24 the number of terrorists either killed or captured. A second militant was caught, but the government did not identify him.

An Islamic Internet Web site announced the death of two other militants Wednesday — Kareem Altohami al-Mojati, a Moroccan national, and Saud Homoud Obaid al-Otaibi, a Saudi Arabian, who it says died fighting Saudi security forces. Saudi news sources say al-Mojati was suspected a connection to the May 2003 suicide attack in Casablanca, Morocco, that killed 33.

The town of al-Ras, where the militants sought refuge, is known for Islamist sympathies. Its remoteness and its choice as an insurgent base indicate Islamists are trying to keep a low profile and avoid major centers, intelligence analysts say.

Indeed, the Saudis have gone on the offensive against homegrown Islamist terrorism, launching a nationwide campaign last December to reach out to its citizens. Saudi TV ran short docudramas depicting Islamist terrorists trying to recruit young Saudis, interlaced with nationalist messages, such as military parades and footage of horrors caused by terrorist acts.

Giant posters depicting bomb-damaged buildings and bloodied corpses were prominently displayed in various parts of Riyadh. During a three-day antiterrorist conference in the Saudi capital last February, entire front pages of local newspapers displayed pictures of victims of terrorism.

A senior Saudi official told UPI the government had recruited thousands of undercover agents, deploying them in the field, with positive results. “We are fighting terrorism, those who support it and those who condone it,” said Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz at the opening session of a first Counter-Terrorism International Conference, last February.

Once one of the safest countries in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia has been shaken by a series of bloody attacks perpetrated by pro-al Qaeda Islamist militants. The attacks left a trail of terror and blood across the country. The violence reached a crescendo last summer with multiple car bombs and gunmen assaulting government buildings and compounds for foreign workers.

Analysts believe the Saudis are making headway in their war, though the figures and results remain hazy at best. One source, speaking anonymously, told UPI some estimate there are several thousand Islamist insurgents in the kingdom. However, that could be confused with an earlier report by the London International Institute of Strategic Studies’ Strategic 2003-4 Survey citing 18,000 potential al Qaeda militants worldwide.

A Saudi official, also speaking on background, told UPI he estimated there were no more than 5,000 al Qaeda activists and supporters. But includes three tiers of terrorist supporters.

The first tier who probably number in the low hundreds, are the real “crazies,” who blow themselves up. The second tier, possibly several hundreds, are the “spotters,” who assist operations. They provide logistics and services and support for the bombers. And finally the third tier are the sympathizers, who do not directly engage in acts of terrorism but who might shelter a terrorist for a night or hold weapons and explosives. They are believed the most numerous, possibly a few thousand.

It is worth recalling that at its peak in the 1970s, the Irish Republican Army counted no more than 500 militants, of which maybe 150 were extremists. The West German Baader-Meinhoff gang had even fewer militants — by some estimates as few as 50 hard-core activists. Yet both the IRA and the Baader-Meinhoff wreaked havoc for years.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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