STANFORD, Asharq Al-Awsat—Ten years ago yesterday, the Saudi capital, Riyadh, was rocked by three near-simultaneous suicide bombings at housing compounds for expatriates. Over 30 people died and 160 were injured in what was, and remains, the deadliest terrorist attack in the kingdom’s history. The bombing came as a shock to most Saudis and robbed the country of its relative innocence as far as internal violence was concerned. After decades of calm, Saudi Arabia suddenly became the scene of a dramatic and protracted terrorist campaign that would claim many victims and worry many an oil investor before Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was finally crushed in 2006.
It is hard to overestimate the political impact of the Riyadh bombings. These caused a major shift in Saudi attitudes toward Islamist extremism and a complete overhaul of the Saudi internal security apparatus. The terrorism campaign—and the Saudi response to it—also did much to change Western perceptions of Saudi society, many of which, in retrospect, were biased and flawed. Finally, the campaign backfired against Al-Qaeda, leading to its demise as an organization in the kingdom. In short, the learning curve was steep for everyone involved. Specifically, the experience taught us ten important things about terrorism and Saudi Arabia.
First, we learned that terrorist campaigns need not have deep, structural causes. In the summer of 2003, many observers attributed the violence to a fundamental malaise in Saudi society, derived from some combination of economic sclerosis, lack of political participation, and religious indoctrination. However, as I showed in my book, Jihad in Saudi Arabia, the causes were mostly exogenous: the terrorists had radicalized and trained abroad, and the timing was dictated by events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Like many terrorist campaigns, this one was the result of developments within an organization.
The second lesson is that wars affect international terrorism in unpredictable ways. Nobody I know had considered that the fall of Kabul might produce terrorism in Riyadh. In retrospect, we can see that it made strategic sense for Al-Qaeda to send its army of Saudi trainees back to the kingdom, given that the alternative was near-certain death or capture in Afghanistan. Conversely, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 had the unexpected—but exact opposite—effect of undermining the Al-Qaeda campaign in Saudi Arabia, by creating a battlefront that for Saudi Islamists was theologically less controversial—and thus more worthy of material support—than the home front.
Third, war volunteers often become terrorists even though they started with less malign intentions. Most of the Saudis in Afghanistan in 2001 had not intended to join Al-Qaeda, but to train so they could fight in Chechnya or other war zones. They had left as foreign fighters, motivated by a desire to help Muslims at war abroad. Once in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda indoctrinated them into Bin Laden’s global jihad project. Prior to 2003, many Saudis saw fighting abroad as a relatively harmless activity distinct from terrorism. However, the perpetrators of the Riyadh Compound Bombing were nearly all former foreign fighters; they were the proverbial chickens coming home to roost.
Fourth, not all jihadists endorse Bin Laden’s global terrorism strategy. In fact, most radical Islamists in Saudi Arabia were what I call “classical jihadists,” who approved of fighting in war zones such as Chechnya, but not in uncontested areas like Saudi Arabia. Prior to 2003, many Western observers mistook classical jihadism for global jihadism and overestimated Al-Qaeda’s support base in the kingdom. The relative support for each of the two positions became very clear when young Saudi militants flocked to Iraq after 2003, leaving AQAP desperate for recruits.
Fifth, radical Islamism is not an existential threat to the Saudi state. In 2003, some Western observers thought the Al Saud kingdom might not make it, and many expected the violence to escalate into a veritable insurgency. We now know that Al-Qaeda never stood a chance, because it had no popular support and because the group’s core was a closed network of Afghanistan veterans that was easy to rein in once identified.
The sixth lesson is that terrorists often make grave strategic miscalculations. Al-Qaeda’s decision to launch a campaign in Saudi Arabia was disastrous, because it destroyed the group’s entire infrastructure in the kingdom, including logistics networks that might have remained useful for much longer. Osama bin Laden, like Western observers, overestimated Saudi popular support for Al-Qaeda. Like many terrorists, he had lost touch with his original constituency, and he fell for the temptation to act when waiting would have been better. As Abdulrahman Al-Rashed famously predicted in this very newspaper ten years ago, “By targeting New York on September 11, the extremists have shot themselves in the foot. In the Riyadh bombings the same extremists shot themselves in the head.”
Seventh, Saudi Al-Qaeda members were much like terrorists everywhere else. They were young males from urban backgrounds who had joined through social networks, often in search of camaraderie and adventure. There is little evidence of a “tribal factor” or “southern radicalism” in their profiles. To the extent that ideology motivated them, it was ideology in a very rudimentary sense, not some elaborate theological code. Most common was the belief that Muslims were being exterminated by non-Muslims. Only a handful of members had a very strong interest in the finer points of their ideology.
Eighth, technology can help terrorists, but it usually favors governments in the long run. In the early part of the campaign, militants exploited the Internet, mobile phones and digital cameras to their considerable tactical advantage. However, authorities soon caught up with the militants and developed a tracking and surveillance capability that severely restricted Al-Qaeda’s ability to communicate or move around.
Ninth, counter-terrorism works best when it is targeted and calibrated. The Saudi response to the Riyadh Compound bombings was relatively successful because it was restrained. History is full of governments that responded to terrorism by lashing out against an invisible enemy, thereby creating new grievances that only served to aggravate the problem. Unlike Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s, Saudi Arabia did not conduct mass arrests and appears to have abstained from systematic torture. It also developed a prisoner rehabilitation program that, despite some cases of recidivism, is better than most alternatives. However, not everything is rosy: like the United States, Saudi Arabia has a detainee problem in the form of individuals that the government, for various reasons, does not want to put on trial, but who are considered too dangerous to release.
Last but not least, it’s not over. A sustained terrorism campaign in Saudi Arabia is unlikely any time soon, but the threat from ad hoc attacks will persist for at least another decade. The Yemeni incarnation of AQAP is thriving and wants to take its war to Saudi Arabia. The Al-Qaeda movement has a long memory, and the legacy of the Riyadh attackers is preserved in Internet propaganda and by people who knew them personally. Someone will want to finish what Bin Laden started ten years ago. We owe it to the victims of the Riyadh Compound bombings to stop that from happening.