The Saudi royal family is locked in an increasingly bloody, though largely unpublicized, battle with the al-Qaida terrorist network, according to Saudi and American officials.
The weekend bombing in Riyadh that killed 17 people was only the latest confrontation in a battle that has been growing more intense since last spring.
Eight days ago, in the sacred city of Mecca, Saudi security forces killed two suspected al-Qaida members, arrested six others and seized a large cache of arms. The weapons apparently were intended for attacks on members of the royal family during the holy month of Ramadan, a U.S. official said.
Since May, Saudi Arabia has arrested more than 300 people, killed or captured a half-dozen men thought to be al-Qaida’s top operatives in the kingdom, and seized large quantities of arms.
“If body counts are a measure of success in the war on terror, they’re way in the lead,” said Chas W. Freeman, Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
The escalating confrontation has been overshadowed largely by the U.S. war in neighboring Iraq. Saturday evening’s explosion, hurriedly executed at a compound that houses few Westerners, was a symptom that a Saudi crackdown may be rattling al-Qaida, whose goal has always been the overthrow of the Saudi royal family.
“The main battlefield in the war against al-Qaida is right here,” a senior Saudi official said by telephone from Riyadh.
“We are locked in a struggle with the terrorists. It’s a daily struggle. We will win, there’s no doubt in my mind,” the official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who made a previously scheduled stop in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Sunday, told the Dubai-based television network al Arabiya, “It’s quite clear to me that al-Qaida wants to take down the royal family and the government of Saudi Arabia.”
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who was stripped of his Saudi citizenship because of his terrorist activities, has long called for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy, which bases its legitimacy on its custody over Muslim holy places. Bin Laden accuses the royal family of being corrupt, too close to the West and straying from the tenets of true Islam.
Yet it was not until May 12, when car bombs in Riyadh killed 35 people, including eight Americans, that the Saudi government acknowledged the homegrown threat of the armed militants.
Before then, the Saudis insisted they had taken care of the problem. “It turns out (they) haven’t,” F. Gregory Gause, director of Middle East studies at the University of Vermont, said.
Since then, “the Saudis have been much more pro-active in terms of their anti-terrorism efforts,” particularly on al-Qaida financing and the use of Islamic charities to fund terrorist activity, Juan Zarate, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing and financial crime, said.
U.S. agents involved in a joint task force on terrorism financing launched in early September now see documents as soon as they are obtained by Saudi authorities, Zarate said.
The Saudis also have conducted numerous raids, including one on Oct. 20 in various parts of the country that yielded C-4 plastic explosives, gas masks and assault rifles and ammunition. And they have moved, gingerly, to rein in clerics who advocate violence, removing some from their posts.