One of the things that interests me about suicide attacks is how groups go about developing them as a weapon and turning them into a re-useable capability in their operations. A key part of my thesis argument centres on the importance of organizational resources and processes in delivering an effective capability.
Thomas Hegghammer’s 2008 article on the rise and fall of the al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is an insightful look at the importance of resources and capability in facilitating (or hindering) the activities of terrorist or insurgent groups. Hegghammer notes that prior to the May 2003 car-bombings in Riyadh, there had been little in way of jihadist violence with the Saudi Kingdom, and attributes this to organizational factors. First, following a series of failures by the nascent al-Qa’ida movement in Saudi between 1997 and 1998, bin-Laden took the decision to postpone actions in the Kingdom, lest the network be fatally weakened. Instead bin-Laden and al-Qa’ida turned their attention to international targets and the United States. Hegghammer argues convincingly that before 1998 AQ lacked the capability to mount operations in Saudi Arabia, and between 1999 and 2001 it (or bin Laden) lacked the intention.
This situation changed dramatically on 12 May 2003, when teams of armed attackers accompanied by suicide VBIEDs targeted three residential compounds near Riyadh. In total 27 people were killed in the attacks, along with nine attackers. Such a large and coordinated attack suggests that the perpetrating organization had significant resources which begs the question of what had changed to allow AQ to mount such an ambitious operation.
Hegghammer makes a multi-pronged argument to account for this change in the situation. First, he suggests that after its loss of a safe operating base in Afghanistan in late 2001, AQ decided to refocus its attention on Saudi Arabia, and in the first five months of 2002 between 300 and 1,000 Saudi-born al-Qa’ida members returned to their homeland to fight against the Saudi state. In order to foster resilience in AQ’s operations in Saudi, bin Laden deliberately created two separate networks within the country, one focused on mounting immediate attacks, the other directed towards long term capacity building. Within the latter, a core leadership group began to build a logistical network by procuring weapons, acquiring safe-houses and establishing training sites. The May 2003 attacks were the first outputs from this influx of human and material resources. Therefore the availability of these resources, which had been lacking prior to 2003, was critical to the resurgence of AQ operations on the Arabian Peninsula.
However, Hegghammer also argues that the capability, or lack of it, on the part of the Saudi security forces, was also a key aspect in the developing campaign of violence. This was compounded by a strong element of denial on the part of senior Saudi security personnel, who refused to admit to the seriousness of the new threat posed by AQ. A further problem arose from the security forces’ attitude to policing, which was traditionally non-confrontational and non-intrusive, qualities unsuited to mounting an effective counter-terrorism campaign.
Following the May 2003 attacks, AQ operatives instigated a a series of plots and attacks, which, despite drawing a good deal of media attention, never really posed a threat to the stability of the Saudi regime. As Hegghammer notes, by 2008, almost all of the group’s members had been killed or arrested and that AQ had been unable to mount a large scale operation since late 2004. So despite a large influx of resources and weakness on the part of the Saudi state, AQ’s efforts to establish itself as a robust organization in Saudi failed. Hegghammer attributes this failure to three key factors. First, the returning Saudi ‘Afghanis’ were were highly radicalized as a result of their experiences and seriously misjudged the level of popular support for their cause and their violent actions. Second, the emergence of the insurgency in Iraq following the 2003 Coalition invasion was seen by many as a more legitimate cause then fighting in Saudi and thus important sources of human (i.e. recruits) and financial resources were directed to helping fighters in Iraq, denying their use to AQ in Saudi. Finally, when the Saudis realized the extent of the threat they faced from AQ, the ‘virtually limitless’ resources of the state were brought to bear on the problem, with the Interior Ministry…given virtually blank cheques to fund its counterterrorist efforts’. Al-Qa’ida’s organization in Saudi Arabia could not compete with such a lavishly resourced opponent, and through the security forces’ development of improved intelligence and information capabilities, AQ’s operational capability was gradually whittled away.This case example highlights that resources and capabilities are indeed very important for groups such as al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula. Without the right level of resourcing (personnel, finance, weapons and explosives) and capabilities (intelligence/counter-intelligence functions, media operations, bomb-making skills, recruitment, communications, logistical support, fundraising and so on), such groups will struggle to mount meaningful or sustained campaigns.
It also highlights that, at least in some instances, such groups may only be able to mount attacks or campaigns in environments where the forces of the state (or other rival groups) are weak enough to permit operations to be undertaken. This principle can be seen in AQ’s mounting of operations in places like Kenya and Tanzania (the 1998 Embassy Bombings). This implies that the security environment is an important consideration in assessing what a group may or may not be capable of.
Finally, it also shows that resources are not by themselves a sufficient condition for success. The AQ which returned in force to Saudi in 2002 was an external agent seeking to impose itself on local society, and badly misjudged the degree of sympathy for its cause. Without a degree of local support the group was denied the opportunity to merge into the local populace, and was unable to recruit or fundraise from local sources.
Despite all of the above, and the difficulties and setbacks it has faced, AQAP remains a concern in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Recently the Saudi authorities arrested around 100 alleged members of the group who were apparently plotting to attack oil installations. Despite failing to establish a robust presence in Saudi, the group has taken advantage of the more permissive environment across the porous border with Yemen, from where it has mounted two audacious (though ultimately failed) attacks; the assassination attempt on a Saudi security minister, and the Christmas Day 2009 attempt to bring down a US airliner. This demonstrates that, given time and space to regain strength and reorganize, even a group taken to the brink of destruction might recover and seek to recommence its activities.
(Its worth noting that Hegghammer has a new book out ‘Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979’, which I’ve not got hold of yet, but its on my Amazon wish-list. Sadly I have a huge backlog of material to wade through before I can justify buying anything else. But given the quality of his work to date I’m sure it will be a worthwhile read).
HEGGHAMMER, T. (2008). Islamist violence and regime stability in Saudi Arabia International Affairs, 84 (4), 701-715 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2346.2008.00733.x