The suicide bombings are the deadliest since the Bali and Mombasa strikes of last year. Al Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden might have suffered set-backs due to the capture of some of its important leaders in Pakistan since March last year, the consequent dispersal of its trained cadres into numerous cells and the disorganisation of its command and control system rendering centralised direction and co-ordination difficult, but the motivation of the survivors of the US-led campaign against them remains as strong as ever and there has been no dearth of volunteers for suicide missions.
The motivation is likely to have been strengthened by the increased anger against the US consequent upon its invasion and occupation of Iraq. The only sure yardstick for judging the success of a counter-terrorism campaign, whether carried out by the military or the police and para-military forces, is to what extent the campaign has been able to dent the motivation of the terrorists and deny them a continued flow of volunteers for suicide and other dangerous missions. Body counts and number of captured can be misleading indicators, inducing a false sense of complacency. Judging from this yardstick, the so-called war against terrorism is yet to make any impact on Al Qaeda and the other constituents of bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF).
The Riyadh blasts have received considerable media coverage because of their spectacular nature, the audacity of the suicide terrorists, the large number of foreigners, particularly Americans, killed and the coincidence of the strikes with the West Asian tour of Gen. Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, but there have been other equally worrisome and condemnable terrorist strikes in Afghanistan, in Jammu & Kashmir in India and in Southern Philippines even after the Mombasa attacks.
While the attacks in Afghanistan, which did not involve large casualties, were carried out by a re-grouped Taliban, Al Qaeda and Gulbuddin Heckmatyar's Hizbe Islami, those in J&K were carried out by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), a Pakistani organisation forming part of the IIF. The attacks in southern Philippines were attributed by the local authorities to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which, in the past, had links with Al Qaeda, but is not a member of the IIF. (The LET is now operating under a different name to evade a ban on it imposed by the Pakistan Government on January 15, 2002, but I would continue to refer to it as LET)
These attacks show that despite the UN Security Council Resolution No.1373 against terrorism and despite the hype about the counter-terrorism and the intelligence agencies of the world joining hands for a common battle against terrorism, the networking of governmental agencies of different nations, which are victims of terrorism, has not been as strong and effective as the networking of terrorist groups of different countries under the leadership of Al Qaeda. To break this network, it is important for the international community to devote the same attention to the task of neutralising each and every component of the IIF as to the task of neutralising Al Qaeda. This is not being done.
The international community is yet to take serious notice of the emergence of the LET as a co-ordinator of the activities of the various constituents of the IIF to make up for the present organisational disabilities of Al Qaeda. Next to Pakistan, where the headquarters of the LET are located (in Muridke, near Lahore), the second most important infrastructure of the LET is in Saudi Arabia. Despite being a Wahabi organisation, it has been critical of the Saudi ruling regime and shares bin Laden's anathema for the Saudi ruling family. In the past, it was not very articulate in its criticism of the US, but has in recent months been increasingly virulent in its attacks on the US. It has been collecting funds in Pakistan for its "martyrs" who, it claims, died in the jihad against the Americans in Iraq.
While the LET's headquarters in Pakistan co-ordinate its activities in North India, including J&K, the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Russia (Chechnya and Dagestan), its headquarters in Saudi Arabia co-ordinate its activities in Mumbai and South India, the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka and in the countries of S.E. Asia. Since 2001, there have been a number of arrests of LET cadres in Mumbai and South India, who reportedly claimed to have been trained, funded and directed by the LET set-up in Saudi Arabia and not directly by the LET headquarters in Pakistan.
Thus, Al Qaeda as well as the LET have a separate organisational presence in Saudi Arabia, which has evaded detection and neutralisation by the Saudi authorities. It is difficult to assess at present whether the Riyadh blasts might have been carried out by Al Qaeda or the LET or by the two acting in tandem. The blasts came in the wake of more than one indicator of a likely terrorist strike in Saudi Arabia.
According to the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, as quoted by the Saudi media, the suicide bombers were believed to be linked to the May 6, 2003, discovery of a large weapons cache. The Saudi Government was searching for 19 suspects in that case, including 17 Saudis, a Yemeni, and an Iraqi with Kuwaiti and Canadian citizenship that it believed were receiving orders directly from bin Laden. It is said that the group had been planning to use the seized weapons to attack the Saudi royal family as well as American and British interests.
One of the absconding 19 had surrendered to the Saudi authorities, but his interrogation did not seem to have given them any clue of the impending blasts. This speaks poorly of the counter-terrorism capabilities of Saudi Arabia. More disconcertingly, it gives rise to suspicion of possible complicity with the terrorists by elements inside the Saudi security set-up, which does not bode well for the future stability of the regime.
Afghanistan-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia constitute a terrorism triangle. So-called charity and other private organisations in Saudi Arabia have been the generous providers of funds and volunteers for terrorist operations in different parts of the world; the jihadi organisations of Pakistan have been the providers of sanctuaries, training, arms, ammunition and explosives and extra funds from the heroin trade; and Afghanistan was another provider of sanctuaries and training facilities, but this role has been reduced, if not eliminated, after the US air strikes on the training camps in Afghan territory. The Afghan-based terrorist infrastructure has since been transferred to Pakistani territory.
Since the New York World Trade Centre explosion of February,1993, there have been frequent reports of anti-royal and anti-US Saudi recruits being brought clandestinely to Pakistan for being trained in the training camps of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and the LET and sent back to Saudi Arabia. The HUM was a co-signatory of bin Laden's first fatwa of 1998 against the US and Israel and is a member of his IIF. The arrest of Ramzi Yousef, one of the principal accused in the Trade Centre explosion in Pakistan in 1995, and his transfer to the US to face trial brought to light his role in the training of the Saudi terrorists in Pakistan.
In the first exposure of the role of the Pakistan-based HUM in organising jihad world-wide in an arc extending from the Southern Philippines to Chechnya in Russia, Kamran Khan, the well-known Pakistani journalist, brought out in some detail the role of Ramzi Yousef in this matter. In an article in the prestigious News of March 27,1995, Kamran Khan cited his Pakistani sources as claiming that acts of violence committed by these groups trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan inside Saudi Arabia were not known to the outside world. According to him, dozens of Saudis committed to jihad all over the world were visiting military training camps in Afghanistan. "These training camps are ideal places to rub shoulders with persons like Ramzi and to learn from their experience," he said.
The Riyadh blasts of Monday night were not the first sensational terrorist strikes in Saudi Arabia. Such strikes have been taking place at regular intervals since 1996 -- some known to the outside world and some covered up by the Saudi intelligence agencies. The Saudi intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies have not been as forthcoming as the agencies of other countries in sharing with the international community the details of their knowledge of the terrorist infrastructure in their country.
The world knows a lot about the complicity of the military and intelligence establishments of Pakistan with terrorist groups of various hues. Is there a similar complicity in Saudi Arabia? If not, how has terrorism been able to thrive in its territory, despite its reputation of being one of the most tightly-ruled States in the world? No convincing answers to these questions are available.
Saudi Arabia consequently continues to be the dark side of the terrorism triangle. Unless it is brought under international spotlight, the fight against terrorism is unlikely to make significant headway.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Convenor, Advisory Committee, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.)