Has the rumor of Osama bin Laden’s death been greatly exaggerated, or is there more to it than initially thought? The news first surfaced last September, when a French regional newspaper citing French and Saudi intelligence sources claimed the most wanted man in the world died while hiding in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan. If one is to read into behavioral changes among Saudi Arabian jihadi fighters returning from Pakistan and Afghanistan, bin Laden could indeed be dead.
Consider the following: Saudi Arabian security services have arrested several former fighters returning from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Saudi Arabia over the last few months. While these arrests may not indicate much, the manner in which those fighters trickled back home is revealing.
“They had no attack plan and no clear command structure,” said Saudi security expert Nawaf Obaid. “They focused exclusively on avoiding Saudi security services.” Mr. Obaid is a Saudi Arabian security and intelligence analyst who monitors trends among Saudi terrorist groups. He told United Press International there appears to be an increasing number of Saudi nationals who went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to join bin Laden’s training camps for a chance to fight American forces and their allies in Afghanistan.
Scores of these fighters are suddenly making their way back to Saudi Arabia. The returnees seem completely disorganized, not knowing where to go, or what to do once in the kingdom. They have no marching orders, many have not been paid in several months, and they seem in total disarray.
Since Saudi Arabian intelligence, security and counterinsurgency forces have been reorganized, and al Qaeda groups infiltrated, the terrorists have been unable to reorganize and regroup. “No coherent command structure has been re-established,” Mr. Obaid said.
The disarray displayed by the returning jihadis runs counter to al Qaeda’s established modus operandi. Reports filtering to the West always seemed to indicate jihad volunteers were traditionally taken care of: housed, fed and paid a minimum monthly stipend. If indeed bin Laden has died from medical complications as rumored, it would explain the disarray observed among his jihadi fighters as reported by Saudi intelligence.
In a lengthy report titled “Remnants of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia: Current Assessment,” Mr. Obaid says Saudi Arabia’s reorganized security forces are making great progress in their war against terrorism.
Since May 2003, Saudi security officials have captured 845 individuals with direct or indirect links to al Qaeda. More than 400 have attended “ideological re-education programs.” Some 264 al Qaeda commanders, logisticians, theologians, financiers and fighters have been captured or killed. Of the original 26 members that comprised the first “most wanted” list, all but one have been killed or captured and all five initial al Qaeda cells have been identified, infiltrated and decimated.
Of 36 second-tier operatives comprising the second “most wanted” list, 20 had already fled the kingdom when the list was published. Of the remaining 16, only four have not been killed or captured. Saudi intelligence believes it was this group that carried out a recent failed attack on the oil processing facility at Abqaiq.
Saudi security forces have been able to foil more than 25 major terrorist attacks since May 2003. The kingdom’s security services have identified four of the main routes used by terrorists to smuggle themselves, fighters, weapons and drugs in and out of the country. Painstaking police work and close surveillance has resulted in hundreds of interceptions along the Saudi-Yemeni border.
The kingdom continues to invest heavily to protect its oil industry and infrastructure from future possible terrorist attacks. In 2004, $8.5 billion was spent to keep the oil flowing safely from the world’s largest producer — $1.2 billion allocated to Petroleum Security, including the National Guard. The amount jumped to $10 billion in 2005. And in 2006, the kingdom estimates it will spend some $12 billion, of which more than $2 billion will be allocated to Petroleum Security, including the National Guard.
Saudi Arabia has spent more than $2.5 billion on counterterrorism. Major increases in budgets were allocated to the specialized services of the Interior Ministry for equipment purchases, increased troop hiring and state-of-the-art training installations.
Saudi Arabia employs an estimated 35,000 troops in its Special Emergency Forces, or SEF. Another 10,000 troops are employed by the Special Security Forces, or SSF. Specially created units in Energy Security have been deployed to coordinate with the National Guard and the four services of the armed forces.
Mr. Obaid credits the success of the Saudi counterterrorism program on the General Security Service, or GSS, better known by its Arabic name, Al Mabahith Al Amma.
The GSS has successfully deployed state-of-the art electronic systems that help it leverage its vast human intelligence assets in the kingdom and the region. Intelligence collection, analysis and implementation have been merged into a new “Command and Control” structure that allows the GSS to act within minutes of major alerts, directing the SEF and SSF throughout the kingdom.
The report attributes the success of the various services to proportionate and effective security investments and strong human intelligence. No expense has been spared, and great care has been taken to avoid waste in the multibillion-dollar Saudi security budget. The government has successfully enlisted the media, the religious authorities, and average citizens in its fight against terrorism.
But as the threat from terrorism is ever-changing, so too, must the security adjust itself. “Security plans must be part of a larger social, economic and political program,” concludes the report. However, despite all the money invested, along with the human intelligence and the super-sophisticated electronic equipment at their disposal, the most-sought terrorist remains unfound.
Maybe with Robert Gates, a former head of the CIA, as the new defense secretary, efforts will be increased to find bin Laden. Unless, of course, bin Laden is already dead.
Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.