Adel Darwish: Targeting fellow Muslims may be one step too far

Al-Qa'ida's gamble is more likely to backfire than to bring down the Saudi government
Click to follow

Commenting on Sunday's terrorist attack in Riyadh, which killed many Muslims, Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described the terrorists atrocities as "senseless". But for the evil-minded perpetrators, they make a lot of sense.

Aware of the scope of the threat facing his nation, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi Ambassador in London, said yesterday that al-Qa'ida was "an evil cult" whose members blindly follow their leader's fatwas, in contravention of the Islamic prohibition of suicide and the killing of innocent civilians.

The long-term aim of al-Qa'ida, which divides the world into mo'amineen (true believers) and kafers (infidels), is to control Muslims worldwide, re-introducing the 7th-century concept of Islamic umma, a bloc of hundreds of millions of Muslims. Control of Islam's holiest shrines, in Mecca and Medina, is essential to legitimise its call, while Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves would give it the economic resources to achieve its goal. Targeting Muslims in Iraq, with its massive oil reserves, also falls within this strategy; anarchy there, they reason, could force the coalition to give up, leaving Islamic extremists in control.

Creating similar confusion in Arabia is part of al-Qa'ida's tactics to remove the Saudi government, which has just started a long awaited programme of reform - meagre by Western standards, but significant in a conservative tribal culture, where democratic change is resisted by a powerful religious establishment that resists replacing God-made laws with those forged by men.

President Bush, who last week called for democracy and reform in the region, was quick to remind us of the need fight this battle against terrorism from the same trench as the Saudi royal family. Two opposing strategies are thus being deployed in the battle for hearts and minds of Muslims.

Aided by secular Muslims, London and Washington try to build better cultural bridges with the Islamic world. The British Council, for example, has launched a multi million pound programme of joint training for Muslim and British journalists and opinion formers. And William Farish, the US ambassador to Britain, is hosting a Ramadan Iftar [the Islamic banquet for breaking the day's fast], in London this Thursday.

Al-Qa'ida's tactics are to frighten the hearts and terrorise the minds of Muslims into submission. Thus targeting Muslims in Riyadh is not " senseless" but a link in a long chain. The residents of the al-Muhaya compound which was bombed on Sunday lead a global way of life that is anathema to fundamentalists. Women drive inside the walls, and multi-faith friendships are struck-up in picnics around swimming pools where Muslims share food with Western "infidels". Al-Qa'ida's attack sends a complex message: Muslims of "lesser faith" will be punished, and guest workers from other Muslim nations would be advised to avoid Saudi Arabia, whose economy relies heavily on guest workers. It also wants to make the Saudi government appear unable to protect Muslims in Ramadan, when tens of thousands of faithful pour into Mecca to visit its holy sites.

Sunday's attack is a continuation of the failed tactics first adopted in Egypt over a decade ago by terrorists such as Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's chief terror mastermind. The targeting of the Muslim compound in Riyadh is reminiscent of the killing of anyone dealing with tourists in Egypt in 1990s; it is legitimised for extremists because of their victims' association with "infidels".

However al-Qa'ida's gamble is more likely to backfire than bring down the Saudi government. After the deaths of over 900 people in a six-year wave of terrorism that culminated in the 1997 Luxor massacre, which killed more than 60 people, the majority innocent tourists, Egypt's security forces were able to turn the tables on the terrorists. Exploiting public aversion to the atrocities, police were able largely to ignore civil rights in a relentless pursuit of extremists.

Until now, Saudi intelligence efforts to identify "sleeper cells" were hampered by tribal taboos that forbid informing on fellow clansmen. But in slaughtering women and children - while their menfolk were praying at the mosque - the terrorists broke the code that binds tribal Muslims. The attack removes the stigma of informing on neighbours and clansmen suspected of backing the terrorists. Following the terror attacks on three other compounds in May, information from the public - including tribal and religious leaders - poured in, enabling police to smash a huge number of cells and arrest more than 600 suspects in the past six months.

Ironically, this success led to panic among terrorists. They are deploying their cells and arsenals before they lose them. But unable to hit well-guarded targets, the terrorists chose a soft target, which will backfire on them and aid America's war against them.

With national and international support, the Saudi authorities are expected to be tough in weeding out sleeping cells and cutting their remaining financial support, which is channeled through alms-giving. And continuing their programme of reform will prove essential in defeating al-Qa'ida's strategy, which is devoted to halting modernisation.