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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.

AQAP’s chief bomb-maker is believed to be Ibrahim Hassan Al Asiri, a Saudi national. The deputy leader of AQAP, Saeed Al Shehri, is also Saudi. An American, Anwar Al Awlaki, serves as the group’s main ideologue, and is among several Americans U.S. intelligence officials suspect are helping AQAP.

A third change in recent years has been Riyadh’s change of heart about cooperating with Western counterterrorism efforts. After the discovery that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals, officials in their homeland were in denial, resistant to the idea that radicals in their own religious community bore some responsibility for the spread of religious-based violence.

FBI and CIA officials complained that their Saudi counterparts would not share information, and the Saudi government was slow to close loopholes in its banking sector that had allowed wealthy individuals to finance Islamist groups and charities with questionable intentions.

Saudi attitudes changed, however, after Al Qaeda militants launched a bloody campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations in the kingdom between 2003 and 2006. Another wake-up call came with the 2009 assassination attempt against counterterrorism chief Prince Muhammed.

Chastened by the 2003-2006 events, the Saudis began to take serious steps to halt funding of terrorist groups and dismantle extremist networks — steps that included greater appreciation for the need to cooperate with other countries. Prince Muhammed was in charge of the campaign, and developed close ties with U.S. counterterrorism officials in the process.

“The more that Al Qaeda directly targeted the Saudi government,” said Pape, “the more we’re getting greater cooperation.”

In an unusual move, the White House openly acknowledged the Saudi assistance in breaking the latest plot by AQAP, and President Barack Obama called King Abdullah to thank him personally.
The publicity may have been intended to influence public perceptions of Saudi Arabia ahead of a congressional review of a pending $60 billion U.S. arms package.

Some of those perceptions are based on myths, which suggest that Saudi Arabia encouraged the 9/11 attacks, knew of them in advance or financed them. The official U.S. Commission on 9/11 found no evidence to support any of those ideas.

Nevertheless, lingering doubts held by many in the West about Saudi Arabia’s commitment to fighting Islamic extremism continue to cast a shadow over its image. That may start to change with visible signs of Saudi assistance in deterring terrorist attacks such as the one last week.

“It can only increase the perception that Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner in the fight against Al Qaeda,” said Brachman. “The Saudis have been struggling with their own Al Qaeda problem so it’s in their interest to ensure that Al Qaeda’s capability in Yemen is degraded …. Successful attacks will only lead to an increase in recruitment, which is bad for the Saudis.”