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Saudis in Pakistan

International | A bogus threat and the bigger picture

On March 5, the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad reportedly received threatening emails warning of attacks on Saudi interests in Pakistan. According to English-language Pakistani newspaper The Nation, the emails purportedly were sent by al-Qaida and threatened attacks on targets such as the Saudi Embassy and Saudi airline facilities in Pakistan.

When we heard the reports of this threat, our initial reaction was to dismiss it. While al-Qaida has sometimes made vague threats before executing an attack, it does not provide a list of precise targets in advance. Prior to the June 2008 bombing of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, al-Qaida leaders repeatedly threatened to attack European (and Danish) targets in retaliation for a series of cartoons published in Denmark in 2005 that satirized the Prophet Mohammed. When the issue was reignited in early 2008 with the release of a film critical of Islam called Fitna, by Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, Osama bin Laden himself issued a statement in March 2008 in which he threatened strikes against European targets in retaliation. However, in all of these threats, al-Qaida never specified that it was going to strike the Danish Embassy in Islamabad. In addition to being out of character for al-Qaida, it is foolish to issue such a specific threat if one really wants to strike a target.

While we were able to discount the most recent email threat reportedly sent to the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad, it generated a robust discussion among our analytical staff about Saudi counterterrorism and anti-jihadist activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the large number of threatening statements senior al-Qaida members have made against the Saudis and the very real possibility of an attack against Saudi interests in Pakistan.

Threats against the Saudis

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Beginning with some of bin Laden's early public writings, such as his August 1996 "Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places," al-Qaida leaders have spoken harshly against the Saudi royal family. Bin Laden and others have accused the Saudis of collaboration with the "Zionist-Crusaders alliance" that bin Laden claimed was using military force to impose "iniquity and injustice" on the people of Islam.

However, the verbal threats directed against the Saudi royal family have escalated in recent years in the wake of a string of attacks launched inside Saudi Arabia by the Saudi al-Qaida franchise in 2003 and 2004, and as the Saudi government has conducted an aggressive campaign to crush the Saudi franchise and combat the wider phenomenon of jihadism.

In fact, it is rare to see any statement from a senior al-Qaida leader that does not condemn the Saudi government specifically or in more general terms. In a July 28, 2008, video message, al-Qaida ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi called on Muslims to act quickly and decisively to kill the Saudi king, reminding them that "killing this reckless tyrant, who has declared himself the chief imam of atheism, will be one of the greatest qurubat" (an act of devotion bringing man closer to God). In a May 2008 message, al-Libi also had urged Saudi clerics to lead uprisings against the Saudi monarchy similar to the July 2007 uprisings at the Red Mosque in Islamabad. Al-Libi never mentioned Saudi King Abdullah by name in that message, preferring to call him the "lunatic apostate" because of the king's call for a dialogue among Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Commenting on this interfaith dialogue in the July 2008 message, al-Libi also said, "By God, if you don't resist heroically against this wanton tyrant … the day will come when church bells will ring in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula."

In March 2008, al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri said the Saudi monarchy was part of a "satanic alliance" formed by the United States and Israel to blockade the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. In a January 2009 message, al-Zawahiri said: "Oh lions of Islam everywhere, the leaders of Muslim countries are the guards of the American-Zionist interests. They are the ones who have given up Palestine and recognized Israel. . . . Abdallah Bin Abd-al-Aziz has invented the interfaith dialogue and met Peres in New York, paving the way for the complete recognition of Israel." Al-Zawahiri continued, "Thwart the efforts of those traitors by striking the interests of the enemies of Islam." In a February 2009 audio statement, al-Zawahiri declared, "The Muslim nation must, with all its energy and skills, move to remove these corrupt, corrupting, and traitorous rulers."

After a January 2009 video by jihadists in Yemen announcing the formation of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Zawahiri proclaimed in a February statement that the new organization "is the awakening, which aims to liberate the Arabian Peninsula from the Crusader invaders and their treacherous agents. It is escalating and flourishing, with God's help and guidance, despite all the campaigns of repression, misleading, and deception, and despite all the obstacles, difficulties and hindrances."

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