Analysis: Saudi improving tactics against al Qaeda in Yemen

By Ulf Laessing

RIYADH (BestGrowthStock) – Saudi penetration of al Qaeda- linked groups in Yemen, achieved over years of fighting domestic insurgency, appears to have enabled Riyadh to provide warning of a parcel bomb plot against the United States, analysts said.

Two parcels containing explosives, addressed to synagogues in Chicago and sent from Yemen, were intercepted in Dubai and Britain on Friday after an intelligence tipoff.

Washington said Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally and the world’s top oil exporter, had helped to determine that the threat came from impoverished Yemen, home to a resurgent al Qaeda wing that claimed responsibility for a failed plot to blow up a U.S. plane headed for Detroit in December.

Riyadh-based Western diplomats said collaboration between the Gulf Arab kingdom and Western intelligence services has been strong since foreign experts helped Saudi Arabia crush an al Qaeda campaign targeting oil facilities, embassies and expatriate housing compounds that lasted from 2003 to 2006.

“The cooperation is a continuous matter. What is new is that Saudi intelligence has surely penetrated al Qaeda in Yemen,” said prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Only two weeks ago, France said it had received warnings from Saudi Arabia that al Qaeda was targeting Europe.

U.S. President Barack Obama called Saudi King Abdullah on Saturday to discuss the parcel bomb plot.

Along with the United States, which over the past year has raised military and logistical aid to Yemen, Saudi Arabia is the other foreign power that wants to see Yemen eradicate al Qaeda.

The group’s Yemen branch says it wants to topple the ruling Al Saud family and last year tried to assassinate Saudi counter- terrorism chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the first known attack on a member of the royal family since al Qaeda started its campaign in 2003.

A Saudi suicide bomber who had returned to Saudi Arabia from Yemen posing as a repentant militant blew himself up in the prince’s Jeddah office. Although the royal escaped unharmed, analysts and diplomats say the attack was a major shock to the authorities and their intelligence apparatus.

“The attack was a wake-up call for the Saudis. They have become very professional. They have infiltrated tribes that protect al Qaeda,” said Dubai-based security analyst Theodore Karasik.

Riyadh has another reason to be concerned. The kingdom shares a 1,500 kilometer-long border notorious for smuggling. Crossing sparsely inhabited mountain and desert terrain with just few roads, it is not easy to monitor.

Khashoggi pointed to the recent surrender of two al Qaeda members who had been in Yemen under a Saudi rehabilitation program that offers a return to a normal life and financial aid if militants give up militancy and serve a prison term.

“It shows that Saudi is able…to give assurances to terrorists who give themselves in. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails,” said Khashoggi, who has written much on al Qaeda.

STILL MUCH TO DO

Saudi Arabia is Yemen’s main Arab ally and bankrolls the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, though both sides decline to say by how much.

Analysts estimate Saudi security aid to Yemen far outstrips that of the United states and may amount to $300 million annually.

Even more importantly, Saudi Arabia has built up ties over decades with Yemeni tribes in the lawless country by handing out cash or funding infrastructure projects to help improve border security — contacts that now come in handy.

But despite the intelligence improvements, Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go to secure the Yemen border, where it fought with Yemeni Shi’ite rebels for several months last year after they moved onto Saudi territory.

Al Qaeda’s main cells have been effectively crushed since around 2006, but diplomats say many fighters simply moved over the border to Yemen to regroup. Al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi arms merged in 2009.

“Poverty, corruption and rampant illiteracy, especially in remote areas, provide a fertile ground for al Qaeda,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Naji al-Shayef, a member of the Yemeni parliament.

Diplomats in Riyadh say Saudi border guards stop dozens of people trying to cross the border every night, among them Somali refugees seeking work or tribesman smuggling anything from weapons to alcohol, or pilgrims.

The border has just two major road crossings but many mountain tracks frequented by tribesmen.

Saudi Arabia signed in 2009 a multi-billion dollar deal with European defense firm EADS (EAD.PA: ) to build a high-tech fence but work will take at least five years, diplomats say.

“They will probably build only parts of it at first,” said a Western diplomat in Riyadh.

Saudi political analyst Khaled Dakhil said while security cooperation between the West and Saudi Arabia was good, more political efforts were needed to stabilize Yemen and fight poverty to eliminate the roots of al Qaeda.

“Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and the West need to work together to push for reforms in Yemen,” he said. “We in Yemen are paying a heavy price as a result of terrorism.

(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif in Jeddah and Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai; editing by Ralph Boulton)

(Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Andrew Hammond)

Analysis: Saudi improving tactics against al Qaeda in Yemen