Saudis Arrest Al Qaeda Cells with Links to Gaza, Sinai

Counterterrorism sources report a connection between the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cell captured in Saudi Arabia and Sunday’s rocket attacks on Sderot, Israel.

AQAP commands a cell dubbed “the Shura Council in the Jerusalem Area” which operates in Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.

According to Debka, an Israeli security news website, the leadership in Arabia has commanded the cell to step up attacks in the region. The commander of the Shura Council, Hisham Saydani alias Abu al-Walid al-Maqdis, was imprisoned by the Palestinian militant group Hamas until recently, when, for an as of yet undisclosed reason, he was released.

Apparently, Saydani was one of the terrorists centrally responsible for this month’s attack at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Israel that killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers. Egypt demanded that Hamas find Saydani. The rocket attack on Sderot on Sunday was a warning from Al Qaeda that Hamas should not comply.

The same day, Saudi security forces busted two AQAP cells in the kingdom that were planning attacks. The cells were in possession of chemical materials for loading into explosive charges. Debka asserts that it has sources that connect the Sderot attacks to the cells that were arrested.

Analysis

Since the rise of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a national threat in 2009, between five and twelve thousand suspected terrorists have been arrested in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom may be a proving ground for CIA operatives working to infiltrate Salafi terror cells.

Perhaps one of the least understood or underreported efforts against Al Qaeda is the coordinated efforts of the American and Saudi intelligence agencies in the covert war to defeat AQAP. Following the 2009 Christmas Day malfunction of the knicker bomber, the two countries have upped their coordination to knock out terror threats emanating from Yemen.

In April, the CIA moved to gain increased capacity to use unmanned aerial vehicles in Yemen after it saw the fruits of the tool’s usage in the assassination of the American born Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi and the primary propagandist of the organization’s Inspire magazine, Samir Khan.

The use of drones to kill American terrorists abroad set off a debate over their use in counterterrorism operations, which activists claimed denied the right of habeas corpus, further fueling dissent by Pakistanis intent on preserving their territorial integrity in the face of the sovereign challenges imposed by the use of drones in the country’s tribal areas.

The most visible effort of the CIA came in early May when a double agent foiled a bomb plot, bearing the forensic signature of Al Qaeda’s chief bomb architect, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who is believed to be hiding in Yemen.

The American-Saudi operation led to the assassination of Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, the operations manager of AQAP, wanted for his part in the 2000 USS Cole bombing, in Yemen. The joint operation was meant to be kept secret but was leaked to the Associated Press, which held the story at the request of the Obama Administration for one day.

It is too early to tell whether joint American-Saudi intelligence was involved in the most recent disruption of AQAP activities. What is certain is that in May, Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Saudi Arabian citizens to rise up against the ruling family for a Saudi version of the “Arab Spring.” The combined effects of AQAP’s successes in Yemen, constant calls for the death of Saudi royals and the recent call to jihad in the streets of Mecca and Medina by the leader of Al Qaeda have led to a posture of vigilance by Saudi officials and will likely see crackdowns on demonstrations in the near term should they materialize.

Indeed, with the increasing focus on Jerusalem by Zawahiri, intent on competing with the Muslim Brotherhood for the attention of radical Salafists, the likelihood of joint Saudi-Israeli intelligence operations is increasing.

Wikistrat Bottom Lines

Opportunities

Saudi Arabia can increase the publicity of their efforts to defeat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Israel’s Mossad can join American and Saudi intelligence activities to disrupt future AQAP activity in the region.

Joint operations to hunt down Al Qaeda bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri could cripple the training facilities that breed operational jihadists.

Risks

The continued jailing of Salafi activists can create blowback in the form of street protests, calling for the release of political prisoners by the House of Saud, providing fuel and cover for Al Qaeda co-optive operations.

The kidnapping and brutal beheading of Westerners in Saudi Arabia and Yemen could increase as AQAP’s hunts for CIA operatives.

Improperly assessing the risk of AQAP involvement in the facilitation of weapons and operatives to Hamas could lead to tragic breaches in Israeli security efforts.

Dependencies

The success of the Saudi operations against AQAP require the bulk of the threat to remain in Yemen and any Arab Spring style protests to be put down rapidly.

Continued CIA activity in the Arab Gulf states will continue to provide a training ground for operatives in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

Intertwined intelligence operations naturally allow for breaches in vital homeland security secrets. The possibility of double and triple agents working to expose and defeat the joint operations involving the United States are possible, as was evident in American involvement with Jordanian intelligence services and the death of seven CIA operatives in Afghanistan.

Jason Becknell, Gary H. Johnson, Zachary Fenster and T. Michael Lutas contributed to this analysis.