The Middle East Channel

Yemeni threat in Saudi Arabia?


Saudi authorities announced Wednesday the arrest of 113 terrorism suspects, accusing them of plotting to attack key oil and security targets in the Kingdom. News accounts have tied the arrests to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. The arrests need to be put into broader perspective, however. They are part of an ongoing, broadly successful counter-terrorism campaign, rather than a dramatic new development. The alleged Yemeni connections, while troubling, raise as many questions as they answer.

Who were the reported 113 suspected terrorists arrested this week? An Interior Ministry spokesman said the suspects represented three independent cells, one consisting of 101 people and two with six members each. The larger cell was reportedly rounded up through the investigation that followed last October's shootout near Jizan, in which two militants were killed trying to enter the Kingdom from Yemen. This larger cell was allegedly plotting attacks against "economic facilities and security officers" in unspecified locations. The two small cells were allegedly in email contact with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leaders in Yemen, and were "in the primary stages of preparing attacks on oil and security installations in the Eastern Province." 

In the absence of more details, it is obviously hard to properly assess the situation. But there are several reasons to not be overly alarmed. First, the large number of arrests reflects a peculiar but well known Saudi communication strategy. In 2007, for unclear reasons, Saudi authorities stopped reporting arrests as they happened, and started grouping reports into a couple of announcements a year. The latest batch represents the "harvest" from a period of five months. Compared to previous batches, one of which exceeded 700 people, this latest one is not particularly large.   

Second, the threat to oil targets is not new. Since 2006, al Qaeda has declared, and acted on, a strategy of targeting oil facilities. With the exception of the February 2006 Abqaiq attack, Saudi authorities have successfully broken up all such plots to date, despite al-Qaeda's concerted attention, and are unlikely to be taken by surprise in that key sector. This is not reason for complacency: if hundreds of militants are plotting attacks in the Kingdom each year, how long will it take before one of them slips through? Saudi security services have become very competent, but even the best agencies make mistakes.

The extent of the Yemeni connection raises troubling questions. It certainly appears that the Yemen based AQAP currently represents the greatest threat to Saudi security. With all three cells linked to Yemen and over half the detainees Yemenis, this batch has more links to Yemen than did previous roundups.

This represents a change, but hardly a surprising one. Al Qaeda's weakening in Saudi Arabia and strengthening in Yemen has been ongoing since 2006 and widely reported since the Detroit plane incident last Christmas. But does the large Yemeni component reflect the nature of the threat or a bias in the threat assessment? It is possible that we are seeing arrests linked to Yemen because that is where the services are looking. As I have argued before, al Qaeda can infiltrate from other places, not least Pakistan. And while the threat from homegrown Saudi cells is still small, it will increase if left unchecked. It is never a good sign when a country sees all threats to its security as instigated from abroad. Having said this, it is reassuring that the Saudis are taking the threat from al Qaeda in Yemen seriously. They have every reason to do so.

Thomas Hegghammer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo, and an Associate at the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University.

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Why Jerusalem is (sometimes) the wrong fight to pick

[With the backdrop of the settlements and East Jerusalem dispute, this is the second in a series of three pieces looking at historical precedents and how they might inform the current debate. For the first in the series, please click here.]

Trying to hold Israel to the coals over its construction in East Jerusalem, as the Obama administration has been doing for the past two weeks, may have been necessary in the wake of the Biden visit provocation, but it doesn't make for a smart, ongoing tactic.

The administration, worried about America's image in the Arab world, has been trying to look tough ever since the Israeli government tactlessly announced the building of 1,600 new houses in Ramat Shlomo, a settlement area in East Jerusalem just across the Green Line, while Vice President Joseph Biden was visiting. This week the White House gave Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a very public snub by denying him the customary photo-op and press conference on his visit to President Barack Obama in Washington.

Some even think the snub was a direct reaction to Netanyahu's speech to AIPAC the previous night. He had given a textbook expostulation of what Danny Seidemann and Lara Friedman recently called the "everybody knows" fallacy: that there is no point in making a fuss about places like Ramat Shlomo because "everybody knows" that if there is a peace deal, they will end up as part of Israel. As Seidemann and Friedman point out, the longer we wait for a peace deal, the more of the land around Jerusalem will become everybody-knows territory, until the point where, if there is ever a Palestinian state, East Jerusalem, its supposed capital, will be a dingy border town barely accessible to the rest of Palestine.

This is true. But while raising a stink about Ramat Shlomo may have succeeded in making Netanyahu squirm this time-and is symbolically important to the Arabs-a knee-jerk focus on the everybody-knows places is not going to achieve much.

Partly this is because, ever since the U.S. tried last year to insist on a total settlement freeze and then backed down, Israel doesn't take these protests seriously. But mainly it's because it distracts attention from some things that matter more -- and where Netanyahu is also on weaker ground.

One of those things is what Israel is up to in the undeveloped areas around Jerusalem that are not yet everybody-knows land. The zone known as E1, a stubbly and largely empty (save for a few Palestinian homes) row of hillsides, is slated to be filled with Israeli housing to create a continuous swathe of urbanity between Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim, a large settlement that juts deep into the West Bank. It would complete the isolation of Arab East Jerusalem. So far the only finished building there is, of all things, a police station. And, according to a recent investigation by an Israeli newspaper, it was mainly paid for not by public funds, as you would expect a police station to be, but by private money from a right-wing settler organization. This raises interesting and disturbing questions about who pulls the strings in Israel, which the Americans really should ask Mr. Netanyahu.

Another thing they should is ask is why, five years after an Israeli government lawyer, Talya Sasson, issued a blistering report on the spread of wildcat "outpost" settlements that even Israel considers illegal, and that both Mr. Netanyahu and the Labor party leader and minister of defense, Ehud Barak, have promised to crack down on, are there more of them than ever?

Or why, if most Israelis and even Mr. Netanyahu himself now agree that Israel will eventually have to renounce the West Bank, are there still tax breaks for settlers who move there? A sizeable group of Israeli parliamentarians supports a bill drafted two years ago that would offer incentives to settlers to move back into Israel. Doing so would in no way threaten Israeli security, even in the absence of a peace process. Quite the reverse, in fact-it would mean fewer Israelis in the West Bank for the army to protect.

Israel has never said it wouldn't build in places like Ramat Shlomo. It has, on the other hand, said it wants to uphold its own laws, dismantle the outposts, and give up the West Bank eventually-and most Israelis want the same things. These issues, therefore, are the Israeli government's soft underbelly. "Everybody knows" is its protective shield. If the Obama administration wants to be effective, then instead of hammering its fists on the shield, it should stick them in where they will hurt.

Gideon Lichfield is deputy editor of The Economist's website, and was previously its Jerusalem correspondent. These are his personal opinions.

AFP/Getty Images