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Saudi Arabia changes game in terror fight

Tip given to US shows how far Saudi Arabia anti-terror program has come.

Yemen bomb plot, Saudi Arabia
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud attends a military parade in the Saudi holy city of Mecca in 2008. Nayef called the White House last week with the tip that foiled the Yemeni bomb plot.(Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2007, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz publicly lamented that “no action was taken” on a tip about terrorist plots that his government had passed to London before the horrific 2005 attacks on its public transport system, which left 52 people dead.

Three years later, the king can make no such complaints.

When Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef recently called White House counterterrorism chief John O. Brennan to tell him that Al Qaeda’s most industrious affiliate had express-mailed bombs to the United States, the U.S. intelligence community swung into high gear to locate the packages.

The different responses highlight major developments that bode well for the international effort to isolate and disrupt Al Qaeda-like terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based group which on Friday said it had mailed the bombs, and which is widely considered one of the most dangerous Al Qaeda branches.

The first change has been big improvements in Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism capabilities, resulting in more accurate inside information about extremist Islamic networks.

Unlike the information that Riyadh passed to London, which British intelligence officials at the time said was not relevant to the 2005 attacks, the news conveyed to Brennan by Prince Muhammad was precise and detailed. According to media reports, it included tracking numbers on the packages which were addressed to Chicago locations.

“The most important point here is that the Saudis have been a major asset in counterterrorism warnings in the last two months,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “It appears that the information they’re getting recently is extraordinarily accurate.”

French officials last month praised Riyadh for alerting them to potential terrorist attacks in Europe, specifically in France.

Saudi Arabia’s improved intelligence on AQAP in Yemen, which shares a rugged, mountainous border with Saudi Arabia, appears to result not only from increased electronic surveillance of the organization, but also from more successful infiltration by Saudi spies, experts said.

“There’s been an incredible investment of U.S. time and expertise in helping the Saudis develop their intelligence capabilities,” said Jarret Brachman, author of “Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice.” “They’ve really come a long way ... and have developed an independent capability … that’s moved much more into human intelligence collection.”

Thomas Hegghammer, author of “Jihad in Saudi Arabia,” said that “the fact that the Saudis are helping [with intelligence tips] is not new. They have done so for a long time. What’s new and interesting is that they seem to have infiltrated the organization on some level. And that’s very rare. Al Qaeda is notoriously hard to infiltrate.”

In the past, added Hegghammer, a research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, the Saudis “relied mainly on signals intelligence and tips from the public.”

Press reports quoting unnamed Yemeni security officials have said that crucial information, which led to uncovering the potentially disastrous cargo bomb scheme, came from a Saudi militant who recently abandoned AQAP in Yemen and surrendered to Saudi officials.

The return last month of Jabir Al Fayfi, 35, a former detainee at Guantanamo, was portrayed by Saudi officials as the decision of a man who realized he had made a mistake. They said he had called officials he met while in a Saudi program to rehabilitate extremists and asked for their help in giving himself up.

If this description of Al Fayfi’s change of heart is accurate, it would boost the prestige of the rehabilitation program, which is a major component of Saudi Arabia’s fight against militants, because it suggests that it can lead to intelligence coups. The program endeavors to wean extremists from their radical mindset and reintegrate them into Saudi society through financial inducements and family pressures.

A second major change in recent years has been growing mutual awareness by both Saudi Arabia and Western governments that they share a common enemy — radical Islamist terrorist groups.

For groups like AQAP, “Saudi Arabia is the near enemy and the United States is the far enemy, and the two go hand-in-hand,” said Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor and founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.

This mutual recognition has led to greater cooperation, added Karasik. “The threat to all of them is the same, so they are able to coordinate or at least appreciate each other’s interest in preventing something catastrophic” being done by groups like AQAP.

In AQAP, however, there is something else that makes for greater cooperation between Riyadh and Washington: Both Saudis and Americans hold key jobs in the extremist organization, which also claimed responsibility for training the Nigerian man who tried to blow up an American airliner over Detroit last Christmas Day.

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