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Al-Qaida: the weapon of patience

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
25 June 2002

In examining the status and capabilities of al-Qaida in last week’s article, one conclusion was that the organisation clearly remains active, with a number of recent incidents demonstrating its capability for paramilitary attacks across the world. It also seems likely that al-Qaida is operating in a dispersed mode, with many planning decisions left to middle-level activists. Both of these aspects have been demonstrated by incidents reported in the past week, with emphasis shifting from Pakistan, Morocco and the United States to Saudi Arabia.

Thirteen suspected members of al-Qaida have been detained by the Saudi authorities on suspicion of smuggling weapons and explosives into the country in preparation for paramilitary actions. There is a suspicion that the action may be connected with an attempt to shoot down a US warplane taking off from a heavily protected air base in a remote part of the kingdom. Of those arrested, eleven are Saudis, one is Sudanese and one is from Iraq.

The Sudanese man is reported to have been responsible for the anti-aircraft attack, having been able to get the missile in from Yemen, with local assistance. He is believed to have escaped to Sudan, only to be extradited to Saudi Arabia following interrogation.

Behind Saudi lines

It is hardly surprising that al-Qaida is active in Saudi Arabia, given the strong thread of support for the organisation in the kingdom. Furthermore, since the organisation is specifically seeking the overthrow of the Saudi royal family, and the country has been the site of a number of attacks in recent years, it should be expected that the Saudi authorities will react with considerable determination.

The attack on the US plane is one of several recent incidents in the kingdom, including a sniper attack on an Australian employee of BAE Systems working in the north of the country. There have, separately, been a number of car bombings affecting expatriates, including the murder of a British banker last week. The Saudi authorities have said that these latter incidents stem from criminal activities involving illicit alcohol, but their insistence on this explanation is not hugely convincing.

In any case, what is now clear is that the aircraft attack has some more general implications and was more serious than earlier press reports indicated. According to a well-informed US journal, Aviation Week and Space Technology, the attacker fired a shoulder-launched SA-7 anti-aircraft missile at a plane and then panicked, burying a second missile before escaping.

On one level, the attack may be a relatively minor worry for the Pentagon. The SA-7 is an early Soviet surface-to-air missile, now manufactured in several other countries including China and Pakistan. It requires considerable training and experience to work effectively, and it is quite easy to avoid with counter-measures. Its threat hardly compares with the American Stinger missile used to some effect by US-backed forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

This, though, is not the point. What is significant is that groups in Saudi Arabia are able to import and use SA-7 missiles and to do so against this particular air base, one of the most securely guarded US Air Force locations in the world. Back in 1996, the US air base near Dharhan was the target for a truck bomb that killed 19 Americans and injured 500 people. A sewage truck loaded with explosives was parked and detonated in front of a high-rise barracks block, the Khobar Towers, collapsing the whole of the front of the building.

At the time, the Dharhan base was the key air base for US forces in Saudi Arabia, but it was close to the city and regarded as insecure in the face of such threats. As a result, a new base was built, out in the desert, and at a cost of around $500 million. This is the Prince Sultan Air Base, the main command and control centre for the US Air Force in the region, housing some 4,000 US service personnel.

The base has an intense perimeter security system, and a tenth of its entire personnel are involved solely in this activity. It is not a happy base, in that there are severe restrictions on people serving there in terms of movements away from the base. Though they may be very secure while there, they are also, to an extent, prisoners of an insecure environment.

The air force believes that the base is virtually immune to attack, even by suicide bombers. This may be so, but it is clear that it is possible for determined paramilitaries to get within range of low-flying planes and attempt to shoot them down. In a sense, the SA-7 attack was symbolic – it showed that Saudi Arabia has to be considered as something akin to a war zone for US military forces, even though one of the prime aims of US policy in the region is to support the current Saudi regime.

The SA-7 attack was unlikely to work, but more advanced missiles such as the SA-16 and SA-18 may become available to paramilitaries in due course, giving the US Air Force much greater concern.

Afghanistan and the Philippines: US forces remain

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the UK Marines contingent is due to depart shortly, having completed a range of high altitude operations designed to counter guerrilla activity. Apart from two arms caches, one of which may not have had anything to do with guerrilla forces, the Marines have had virtually no contact with Taliban or al-Qaida units. Their actions may have prevented a certain regrouping of the forces, but it seems more likely that they have merged back into communities on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.

Among the arms found by coalition forces operating in eastern Afghanistan in the first two weeks of June were thirty Chinese-made SA-7 missiles of the kind fired in Saudi Arabia.

Although Britain may be withdrawing most of its forces, the US view is that their own troops will stay in Afghanistan for at least another year. The US currently has about 7,000 troops in the country, about 3,000 each at two major bases – Bagram and Kandahar – and others operating in small units, mostly in the east of Afghanistan close to the Pakistan border. US military commanders characterise it as a counter-insurgency operation, mostly against numerous small guerrilla groups, but with up to 1,000 concentrated close to the border.

One US commander has stated that not all of the guerrilla forces are ideological, saying that many “tend to be criminal (rather) than anything nationalistic and idealistic”, but did accept that they could be sustained, in part, by sympathetic local people.

While the US presence in Afghanistan is set to continue, the special forces missions in the Philippines were due to be completed by the end of July. This now looks unlikely and the prospect is actually for an increased commitment to counter-insurgency training there. This turn-round follows a recent visit to Basilan Island by Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy at the Pentagon.

While the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group has recently experienced reversals, it remains active, and a joint patrol of US Marines and Philippine army units came under fire for the first time on 18 June.

Al-Qaida’s future

There has been some surprise by security analysts that the al-Qaida network has not staged another major attack on the United States, given that it is clearly active in a number of countries and almost certainly has the capability to mount a substantial paramilitary operation.

It is possible that this is due to the much increased levels of security in the United States, the degree of intelligence cooperation between the US and some of its allies, and the possible effects of the disruption to the al-Qaida network caused by the war in Afghanistan.

This may all be true, but it does not fit in with al-Qaida’s ability to mount attacks in Pakistan and Tunisia, its evident activity in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, and repeated warnings by US officials about further attacks.

There is a quite different explanation, which is much less appealing to Western officials but may be more accurate. Put simply, al-Qaida does not need to stage any more attacks at present because the United States is doing an effective public relations job on its behalf.

The reasoning behind this is clear-cut. The long-term aim of the network is to develop a sustained movement based on radical Islamic ideas but politically directed against the United States and its allies, especially states such as Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.

Such a movement is enhanced if al-Qaida can show itself to be a significant force able to have a severe effect on the United States, and if the US itself persists with policies in the Middle East that tend to encourage anti-American radicalism.

From al-Qaida’s point of view, the Bush administration is currently performing both of these functions with admirable skill and commitment. Thus, it is delivering frequent warnings about the danger of further terrorist attacks, the “dirty bomb” story being a very good example. Such warnings are reported around the world, and give the impression that al-Qaida is highly active and can even be said to have the US “on the run”. This may not be the case, but it is the impression that counts, especially in the Middle East.

Furthermore, both of Bush’s main policy planks in the Middle East play to al-Qaida’s support in the region. While an attack on Iraq may not happen for many months, the very idea of the US gearing up for military action is a strong reminder of its determination to keep the Gulf secure for what are perceived to be its own narrow interests.

Even more useful to al-Qaida is the Bush stance on the Israeli–Palestinian confrontation, with this week’s policy speech making it absolutely clear that Israel’s war against the Palestinians is seen as part of the worldwide war on terror.

It is probably the case that al-Qaida currently has the capability for another major attack, and it could happen at any time. Even so, from the al-Qaida perspective, it may not be necessary in relation to its long-term aims. At some stage a further attack could happen but, for now, the policies of the Bush administration may actually be making it unnecessary.

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