National Security in Saudi Arabia: Threats, Responses, and Challenges

By Anthony H. Cordesman; Nawaf Obaid | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Asymmetric Threats and
Islamist Extremists

Saudi Arabia still faces significant uncertainties regarding potential external threats from Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. Since May 2003, however, it has been all too clear that its primary security threats now come from terrorism, and specifically from a movement and cells affiliated with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

Terrorism is not new to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has been the target of sporadic terrorist activity since the 1960s, when Gamal Abdul Nasser made repeated attempts to create groups that could overthrow the Saudi government and to subvert the Saudi military.

Saudi Arabia had a major clash with radical Islamists on November 20, 1979, when Sunni militants seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, one of the holiest sites in Islam. The Saudi military, along with the special counterterrorism forces of an allied country, regained control of the mosque several weeks later. More than 200 soldiers and militants were killed, and 60 militants were subsequently executed.1Saudi Arabia also experienced Shiite riots in the Eastern Province, and some sporadic incidents and petty sabotage.

Saudi Arabia only began to experience serious internal security problems, however, when Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda actively turned against the monarchy in the mid-1990s and began to launch terrorist attacks in an effort to destroy it. The Kingdom was the first target of al Qaeda, when, in November 1995 the U.S.-operated National Guard Training Center in Riyadh was attacked, killing five Americans. This subsequently led to the arrest and execution of four men, who purportedly had been inspired by Osama bin Laden.

These attacks remained sporadic, however, until May 2003, when cells affiliated with al Qaeda began an active terror campaign directed both at foreigners, especially Americans, and the regime. Until that time, the security services had only had to deal with isolated incidents for more than two decades and could rely largely on co-option and limited measures by individual service. Al Qaeda fundamentally changed both the level of the threat and the way in which the Kingdom's security forces had to respond.

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