Saturday, April 28, 2007

Saudi Arabia: democracy; terrorist cells

Momentum for democratic reform wanes in Saudi Arabia

Hassan M Fattah

International Herald Tribune 25 April 2007

JIDDA: It was a scene to warm the heart of any democrat: Here in this autocratic kingdom, elected City Council members vowed to stand up for poor fishermen and ask the government that a large section of seafront, on which a new university was planned, be left accessible to local residents.
After an hour of vigorous discussion recently, the City Council of Jidda actually passed a resolution calling for the waterfront to remain open to the people.
There was one catch - or rather three: The resolution is nonbinding, its wording will not be made public and it is unlikely to have any impact on the government's plans.
Two years ago, largely at the urging of the Bush administration, the first elections in the history of Saudi Arabia were held for municipal councils in a handful of cities, including Jidda, Riyadh and Mecca. Only men could vote and only half of the members were elected, but still the elections were praised as emblems of change.
Increasingly, however, they are being dismissed as symbols of the opposite: political stagnation.
"We thought all you do is call for elections and you're done," said Abdullah al Otaibi, an advocate of change who gave up and moved to Dubai last year to help open a research center. "Now we know things won't work that easily."
There are many reasons for the waning prospects for change, Saudi advocates of change say. Factors including an economic boom driven by high oil prices and a more aggressive regional foreign policy have put democratic change on the back burner.
"The curse of the oil money is that it has stopped all reforms," said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, editor in chief of Forbes Arabic, based in Dubai, and a longtime Saudi advocate. "The more money you have, the more arrogant you become, because you think you can implement anything your way."
Over the past year, the government has cracked down on advocates of change, placed restrictions on their meetings and even scrapped some long-promised initiatives. The city councils have proved to be powerless in the face of Saudi Arabia's ingrained governmental bureaucracy and a decidedly vague mandate. According to one council member, more than half the decisions made by the councils have not been carried out. Most of the others have been in support of the government.
"The people in the councils want to make you think that they're working, but ultimately they are powerless," said Bassim Alim, a prominent Jidda lawyer and an advocate of change. "The rest is all for show."
It was not supposed to be this way.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wave of terror in the kingdom itself in 2004 and 2005, many Saudis argued that stifling political and economic conditions had turned the kingdom into fertile ground for extremism.
King Abdullah - who at the time was crown prince - set out on a campaign for change, spearheading national dialogues, beginning new programs and popularizing the language of reform.
The environment reinvigorated civil society campaigners throughout the country, and they began openly calling for change.
In 2005, the government instituted elections for new city councils, allowing for half the 14 members of each council to be elected by the local population and the rest to be appointed by the government.
Some change did occur: The country's vice police force has been forced to restrain itself, and women have seen some of the most overbearing restrictions on day-to-day life eased, though they are still forbidden to do things that women elsewhere take for granted, like drive.
Some laws pertaining to public gathering and criminal procedures were also changed, Alim says, in accordance with requirements of the World Trade Organization, which Saudi Arabia joined in 2006. The city council elections, too, proved a symbolic step. And Saudis have become more willing to step forward and complain, council members say.
Still, many of the efforts have slowed considerably, if not come to a halt, advocates say. As high oil prices filled the country's coffers and allowed the government to reassert its position as a cradle-to-grave patron of its people, the sense of crisis has ebbed and the impetus for many changes has subsided, they say.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's newly assertive foreign policy, focused on quelling the Middle East's numerous crises while responding to Iran's encroachment into the region, has focused Saudis' attention outside their borders, further damping the impetus for change.
Advocates also point to a longstanding split within the royal family itself. Matrouk al Falleh, a prominent Saudi change advocate in Riyadh, said he noticed the split in 2003, after he and a group of his compatriots presented then Abdullah with a petition calling for a constitutional monarchy. The prince encouraged the men, but two weeks later, Prince Naif, Saudi Arabia's mercurial interior minister, appeared to squelch the discussion, noting in an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassa that the men had "misunderstood Prince Abdullah."

Many Saudi advocates have themselves abandoned the change agenda, analysts say, focusing instead on more easily attainable social goals, or simply jumping on the sectarian bandwagon and emphasizing fears of Iran's growing influence in the region.
Government officials still make a point of mentioning reform and speak in praise of change, but uniformly emphasize that it must come slowly and gradually. In the meantime, security officials have grown less tolerant of advocates who call for things like constitutional monarchy and elections of the consultative Shura council. In February, Saudi Arabia's security forces rounded up 10 men connected to Saudi Arabia's reform movement in several cities, charging them with financing terrorism.
The arrests were initially announced as part of the government's fight against terrorism. Security officials said the men, whose names were not initially disclosed, were collecting money and smuggling it to "suspicious" bodies in Iraq. A day later, however, it emerged that at least three of the men were signatories to a petition directed to the king, calling for a new constitution based on Islamic law, for curbs on the powers of the Interior Ministry, an election of members of the consultative Shura council and more equitable allocation of Saudi Arabia's wealth and land.
Shocked advocates saw the arrests as a signal for how low their fortunes had fallen. The group submitted the petition to the king this month, but members said they had heard no response.
"You see the absurdity of calling some of these men terrorists," Falleh said. "They are just doing this to kill off the reform movement and prevent any sympathy toward those were arrested."
Alim, who represents several of the men, does acknowledge that one of them had been to Iraq twice under the auspices of the Saudi Red Crescent, but insists that the visits were strictly humanitarian.
Alim adds that he, too, would have been arrested but that he had not signed the petition. Instead, he said, the government has banned him from traveling abroad. "Some people feel it's a hopeless case, that the government is the only force for change," Hattlan of Forbes Arabic said. "People don't want to enter a losing war. Society is not on your side, and you have a long way to go."

Terrorist Plots Foiled

Samir Al-Saadi

Arab News 28 April 2007

JEDDAH, 28 April 2007 — At least 172 suspects have been arrested in various parts of the Kingdom and seven armed militant cells dismantled, the Interior Ministry announced yesterday. Some of the arrested are foreigners.
“Some (of the suspects) had begun training in the use of weapons, and some were sent abroad to study aviation in order to carry out terrorist operations inside the Kingdom,” a ministry statement said. “One of their main targets was to carry out suicide attacks against public figures and oil installations and to target military bases inside and outside (of the country).”
Government officials did not say when or where these arrests were made, citing security concerns and ongoing investigations in the fight against militant extremism in the Kingdom.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Al-Turki said the government believed these cells were working independently and did not fall under one organization.
Nationalities of the foreigners arrested will not be revealed until the countries of their origins are notified, he added.
Saudi TV yesterday showed undated footage of agents digging in desert areas and inside buildings bringing out weapons wrapped in plastic sheeting, including grenade launchers, plastic explosives, ammunition cartridges, handguns and rifles. Computers and stacks of Saudi riyals were also seized.
Security investigators were shown breaking tiled floors with hammers uncovering pipes that contained weapons. In one scene, an official upends a plastic pipe and bullets and little packets of plastic explosives spill out.
The ministry said in its announcement yesterday that the members of one cell was allegedly planning to raid a prison and free comrades. Authorities said many of the suspects planned to carry out terrorist activities “abroad”.
Some foreign wire services incorrectly reported that the suspects were all arrested yesterday and that $32.4 million in cash had been confiscated. Saudi officials said the arrests had been made over an unspecified period of time in recent months and that a total of SR20 million ($5.3 million) had been confiscated. Other confiscated items included documents, telecommunications equipment and electronic files containing militant propaganda and assault plans.
Out of the seven cells that were dismantled, 120 of the suspects came from two cells. The other five cells included the following number of suspects: 16, 13, nine, nine and five. The ministry did not specify how many of the suspects were Saudi.
The largest cell had 61 members, some of whom swore allegiance to its leader in front of the Kabaa. He sent some of the members outside the Kingdom to be trained as pilots so they can carry out terror attacks inside Saudi Arabia. Regarding the group’s funding, the ministry statement said that their leader misled a lot of people to invest in bogus companies.
The second largest group of 59 members was made up of mostly Saudis and were linked to outside terrorist organizations and camps.
One of the groups of nine suspects is accused of burying weapons caches in remote areas near their targets. The group of five suspects is believed to have been involved in the Feb. 24, 2006 attack on the Al-Abqaiq oil refinery.
The ministry said one of these men took pictures and participated in the shooting at the site while the other four played supporting roles, including reconnaissance.
Officials said without elaborating that they believe some or all of these cells are affiliated with outside organizations whose members went to training camps and who were helped in their return to Saudi Arabia with the intention of carrying out attacks.
Saudi authorities said all of these suspects had adopted the takfiri ideology (Muslims branding other Muslims as infidels) in order to justify their plans to commit murder and mayhem inside the Kingdom.
The ministry said that Saudi security forces were able to track suspicious movements, which included recruiting others and covering up financial operations.
Militants swearing allegiance to Al-Qaeda launched a violent campaign to topple the government in 2003, carrying out suicide bomb attacks on foreigners and government installations, including the oil industry. Militants in February killed four French expatriates working and living in Saudi Arabia in the latest attack on foreigners in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia warned foreign embassies last month that a group blamed for the killings could strike again.
Riyadh was calm and peaceful yesterday as the news of the arrests broke with the usual traffic for a Friday. The three checkpoints on the roads leading to the headquarters of the Ministry of Interior were functioning normally with no noticeable increase in security. Cars were stopped as usual at random and drivers asked to provide ID.
Some of the five-star hotels with underground and adjacent car parks did appear to be a little more cautious in their vehicle inspection, with security officials not only checking the undercarriages of vehicles with mirrors, but also the boots and beneath the hood.
An official who lives in the diplomatic district of the capital told Arab News that things were normal within the enclave.
In Jeddah, police at one checkpoint were seen jotting down license plate numbers of the vehicles they were stopping.
The United States welcomed the arrests. “I think this shows that the Saudis are continuing their efforts to be a good partner with us in the war on terror,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters in Washington.
“It’s important that they and other countries continue to do everything they can not only to try and deal with those who are responsible for acts of violence, but to break up those cells and break up those individuals who are intending to commit acts of violence or who in any other way — whether through financial means or otherwise — are supporting terror networks.”

Saudis arrest 172 suspected militants tied to multiple terror plots

Michael Slackman

International Herald Tribune 27 April 2007

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia: Saudi security officials said Friday that they had broken up a vast terrorist ring, arresting 172 men who planned to blow up oil installations, attack public officials and military posts, and storm a prison to free terrorist suspects.
The wide-ranging plot was uncovered over seven months, officials said, as one lead yielded another, allowing the authorities to seize a cache of weapons buried in the desert and more than $5.3 million in cash.
The government referred to the ring as a "deviant group," the phrase often used to describe the ideology of Al Qaeda.
"This did not happen overnight," said General Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. "This gives you the idea that terrorists are still trying to re-establish the activities in the kingdom. It is still a war going on."
Officials said that the suspects had trained abroad, in Somalia, Afghanistan and especially Iraq. The chaos in Iraq has fueled radical ideology among the region's youth while providing an environment for militants to train, officials and analysts here said.

It is the beginning of jihadi operations leaking out of Iraq," said Abdul Aziz al-Qassim, a retired Saudi judge and moderate Islamic activist. "It is clear that this is some of the effects of what is happening in Iraq, in terms of training and in terms of learning from the Iraqi experience."
An Interior Ministry statement said there were seven cells scattered around the country, comprised mostly of Saudi nationals. Some suspects had begun training to use weapons and others had been sent abroad to learn to pilot aircraft, though the authorities did not say what, specifically, the pilot training was intended for.
The statement also said that some weapons had been stored near targets and that one group was on the verge of launching its attacks.
In images broadcast on state television, investigators were shown digging up arms in the desert, including plastic explosives, handguns and rifles wrapped in plastic sheeting.
"One of their main targets was to carry out suicide attacks against public figures and oil installations and to target military bases inside and outside," the statement said.
In Washington, American intelligence officials said it appeared that the Saudis had disrupted a plot by Al Qaeda. One intelligence official said the plot was "well beyond aspirational," but declined to say how close the militants were to launching the operation.
Turki said the investigation was an ongoing operation in the kingdom's battle against an entrenched ideology that promotes terrorism and seeks to recruit young people. The official statement repeatedly referred to "takfir ideology," a view that effectively allows one Muslim to declare another Muslim an apostate, or nonbeliever, and then kill that person.
"We have never actually said we have reached an end," Turki said in an interview. "We always confirm that security forces' efforts are not enough. Not unless you really tackle the ideology that is inspiring these people in order to be involved in these activities."
The Saudi leadership was forced to address the rise of radical, violent Islamic thinking within its borders after the 9/11 attacks, where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi.
But the kingdom has had its own history of violence and at one time — after the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by militants in 1979 — found security in supporting some of the most radical Sunni Muslim religious voices. At the time, Saudi officials were also concerned about the Islamic revolution in Iran, which brought a Shiite government to power.
But in recent years, the ideology promoted by Al Qaeda has called for bringing down the royal family, saying it is un-Islamic. Security was stepped up markedly here after the American Consulate in Jidda was attacked and a housing complex for foreigners was bombed.
In recent months there has been a failed attempt to blow up an oil installation, the murder of three French citizens and the beheading of a state security officer, all actions that the authorities here link to the ongoing struggle with the most radical ideology. Officials have decided that in addition to relying on the security forces, they will try to "re-educate" those suspected of terrorist links.
The approach has led to a joke going around Riyadh that says the best way to get a job and a new house is to join Al Qaeda — and then repent to the government. Turki said that when officials change the minds of those caught, the prisoners also end up as useful informers.
"If they change their view, they work against the ideology, they help you, they tell you things," he said. "They tell you how you can improve your actions to prevent the continuation of the ideology."
The case announced on Friday showed just how much of a challenge the government faces. The number of people was large, officials acknowledged, and came just six months after another 136 people were arrested in a similar sweep and charged with plotting similar crimes, the general said.
"The fact that these young men were recruited points to a huge failure in fighting Al Qaeda," said Faris bin Hizam, a writer specializing in Al Qaeda. "Fighting Al Qaeda involves a security side and an ideological side. The security side is successful but the other side of combating Al Qaeda is ideological and it is not successful."
The announcement of the plot was made on Friday, the day of prayer and rest, when all offices are closed. What was most unnerving to some was the government's description of one of the cells: Officials said it was made up of 61 men, mostly Saudis, who had traveled with their leader to Islam's holiest site, in Mecca, where "they promised to obey him and promised complete obedience."
"Al Qaeda is no longer an organized structure," said Qassim, the retired judge. "It became an ideology and a system of work. This is Al Qaeda now."


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