Bombers alienate Arab opinion by killing Muslims
By Robin Gedye  and Adel Darwish
(Filed: 10/11/2003)

Al-Qa'eda appeared yesterday to have unwittingly alienated a vast spectrum of Arab opinion and helped America's war on terrorism by attacking Muslims it considers traitors to the faith, intelligence sources in Riyadh said.

 
Destroyed buildings at the housing compound in Riyadh after yesterday's explosion

Seventeen people, mostly of Arab descent, including four children, died in the suicide attack against a housing compound in Riyadh on Saturday night. The victims included four Egyptians, four Lebanese, and a Sudanese.

The attack has engendered unprecedented condemnation throughout the Middle East and will have damaged al-Qa'eda's appeal as anti-western and pro-Islamic.

The killings will have also alienated conservative Muslims in largely tribal Saudi Arabia and boosted efforts to identify and weed out terrorist "sleeper" cells by winning over many more people willing to act as informants, Saudi officials believe.

The largely discredited tactic of targeting fellow Muslims, known as al-takfeer walhigrah (atonement and withdrawal), was first used by Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, in Egypt a decade ago.

After the deaths of up to 1,000 people in a wave of terrorism that culminated in the 1997 Luxor massacre, which killed 67 tourists, Egypt's security forces were able to turn the tables on the terrorists. Exploiting public aversion to the atrocities, police were able largely to ignore civil rights in a relentless pursuit of extremists.

Al-Qa'eda also used the tactic in suicide bombings in Morocco in May, which killed 32 people.

The targeting of the Muslim compound in Riyadh, like the killing of anyone dealing with tourists, is legitimised for extremists because of association with "infidels".

A way of life in which women drive into the compound and Muslims share western food at picnics around swimming pools is anathema to the fundamentalists.

In attacking the Muhaya compound, al-Qa'eda was sending the message that Muslims of "lesser faith" will be punished and guest workers from other Muslim nations would be advised to avoid Saudi Arabia. The Saudi economy relies heavily on guest workers.

Al-Qa'eda also wanted to embarrass the Saudi government by making it appear unable to protect Muslims in the last two weeks of Ramadan, when tens of thousands of faithful pour into Mecca to visit its holy sites.

The tactic will not only backfire on al-Qa'eda, say security officials, but will help the intelligence services gain support in a conservative society where tribal taboos prevents people from informing on other clan members.

In slaughtering women and children, the terrorists broke the code that binds tribal Muslims, handing police a unique opportunity to infiltrate the dozens of terrorist cells in Saudi Arabia, where al-Qa'eda gains much financial and ideological support.

Information from tribal leaders and the public on terrorist activities soared following last May's attacks on western compounds in Riyadh, enabling police to smash a huge number of cells and arrest more than 600 suspects in the past six months.

As it shut down terrorist operations and tightened the net around terrorist activities in the kingdom, Saudi security gained enough intelligence to warn, almost to the day, that al-Qa'eda was planning a big attack.

The choice for Saturday's attack was considered a relatively "soft"target in comparison to compounds housing westerners where security has been raised to the point where they are believed vulnerable only to rockets and missiles.

Intelligence officials believe that as Saudi security forces closed in on home-grown terrorist cells, they caused a degree of panic. The terrorists feared that their weapons and explosives dumps might be discovered and "it became a case of use it or lose it," one western security official said yesterday.

9 November 2003: Fears for Britons as dozens die in Saudi bombing
13 August 2003: Gun battle as Saudis round up militants