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Family ties

Terrorism | Saudi royals come under attack from the radicals they once courted

Issue: "Opium wars," May 12, 2007

The streets of Saudi Arabia are replete with the influence of the nation's official religion: Movies and most books are strictly prohibited, women are not allowed to drive, and apostates are publicly prosecuted.

This Islamic radicalism is so extreme that it doesn't hesitate to condemn its own as infidels and seek their destruction. That is precisely the predicament engulfing the Saudi royal family, whose past attempts to buy al-Qaeda's approval and solidify their power base turned out to be a deal with the devil.

In a massive plot with an eerie resemblance to 9/11, terrorist factions were preparing to sabotage the nation's ruling family by piloting planes into oil refineries, targeting government leaders with suicide bombers, and breaking militants out of jail. The plan-believed to be in its final stages-was foiled during a nine-month offensive targeting seven cells and resulting in the arrest of 172 people, according to an announcement made by the nation's Interior Ministry on April 27. Police also seized a large cache of weapons and explosives and found more than $5.3 million in currency during the sweep.

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The House of Saud has committed two major errors in the eyes of al-Qaeda: aligning with the United States and permitting foreigners in Arabia, the birthplace of Muhammad. The ruling family's decadent lifestyle has added fuel to the fire.

Wahhabism-known as Salafism by its followers-calls for a return to the utopian "golden age" of Islam during the seventh and eighth centuries and takes literally Muhammad's command to expel polytheists from Arabia. For mainline Wahhabists, that means non-Muslims are banned from Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. Its ultraconservative factions extend that ban to the entire Arabian Peninsula.

Saudi security forces have been engaged in a massive crackdown on terror cells since a 2003 triple suicide bombing in a Riyadh foreign housing complex killed 35 people. Now there is ample evidence that militants are turning their guns directly on the ruling family and the nation's oil industry, which holds a quarter of the world's proven oil reserves.

"They [al-Qaeda] have said for a year now that they are going to attack oil installations and that their principle target of attack was going to be oil facilities in Saudi and other countries in order to destabilize the world economy and lead to a global depression," New York University professor of Islamic studies Bernard Haykel said. "I think they're a very serious threat, and they must be taken care of."

Saudi security officials say the offensive is gaining ground, claiming they have killed or captured most of the 26 terrorists on their al-Qaeda most-wanted list. The recent sweep began with one terror cell, and confessions led to the locations of six others.

But with al-Qaeda operations spanning multiple countries and several continents, the job is far from over. Some of the suspected terrorists received flight training in nearby countries, and part of their plot included attacks on military bases outside Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda remains a source of major trouble in Iraq, and its growing influence in North Africa is causing waves of concern.

Haykel, a scholar of Wahhabism and its global influence, says governments need to fight these radicals with a two-pronged approach that focuses on both intelligence and propaganda designed to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim population. "That's complicated because it involves changing the nature of many of the regimes in the Middle East, getting them to move away from authoritarian ways to more democratic ways," he said.

"That's a long-term and very complicated political process," he added. "But I don't think al-Qaeda can ever be managed well-let alone defeated-without some very serious political and economic changes taking place."

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