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David Miller: Terror's Changing Tactics

David Miller Online

Terror's Changing Tactics

Assuming that the weekend bombing in Saudi Arabia was the work of an al-Qaeda cell, then it marks a change in tactics for the network and one that is potentially a very dangerous path to take. This is the second bombing in Saudi Arabia in the last six months only this one has occurred during the holy month of Ramadan. What is also striking about these incidents is that the targets appear to be pillars of the Saudi state rather than Westerners. If this is the case, then al-Qaeda has shifted its operational plan. Rather than strike exclusively at the United States and its allies, the emphasis is to destabilise a regime and a country that is as important to its survival as it is to the US position in the Middle East.

There is the possibility that the terrorists were targeting Westerners but for reason did not aim in that direction. It could have been that their intelligence was at fault or that there was a breakdown in the operation, for example, the bomb detonated prematurely or was intercepted by security before it reached its intended target. These possibilities cannot be discounted but they appear unlikely. After all, many al-Qaeda operatives are believed to be Saudi and the House of Saud has come under increased criticism during the past two years for allowing al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups to operate within its borders.

So why aim in this direction? There is the obvious US connection. Saudi Arabia and its government may be key elements to the al-Qaeda network but they are also close US allies and remain so despite differences over Iraq. There are valuable trade, oil and military relations between the two countries and the US has been vocal in its push to have the Saudi Royal Family introduce democratic reforms. This has always made relations between the House of Saud and the extremist movements extremely fragile and potentially volatile and Osama bin Laden has himself publicly denounced the Saudi Government for its ties and support for Washington.

Apart from the United States, It is not unreasonable to suggest that there were three aims behind this attack. The first was to destabilize the position and control of the Saudi royal family. The second is to cause economic damage at a time when Western governments are issuing travel warnings to their citizens and closing their embassies and diplomatic missions and third, to try and generate popular support for the extremist position. Of these three objectives, the extremists really only stand a slight chance, if any, of success with the final one. The level of control that the royal family exercises over the country is too tight for attacks of this nature to force any weakening and even though other countries may be hesitant about allowing their citizens to reside in Saudi Arabia at present, the vast oil reserves means that there will be little in the way of economic downturn. It is also not unreasonable to assume that any political freedoms are likely to increase support for the royal family rather than diminish it and the fact that Arabs died in this attack and during Ramadan does not appear a logical tactic in any hearts and minds campaign.

If this bombing was part of a new al-Qaeda strategy, and it can only be assumed that it is at this stage, then it is an illogical and potentially very risky path. Already there has been condemnation throughout the Arab world and religious leaders are beginning to speak against them as well. It is this anger and denunciation that can undermine the actions and support base of al-Qaeda and similar movements and this is a far more powerful weapon than American planes or bombs. The US Government now has an opportunity for dialogue and interaction with the various governments and the religious movements in the Middle East to try and counter the growing terrorist problem. Whether it can seize this opportunity will remain to be seen however al-Qeada or whichever group carried out this attack is playing a very dangerous game.


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