However, wall-to-wall US news coverage of Katrina meant that very few Americans learned of the Saudi strike against an al Qaeda cell in the town of Ad Dammam, and the evidence the strike turned up.
The September 6 strike, which ended a two-day standoff, killed all five cell members inside the seaside villa. But it was what the police found in addition to the bodies and weapons cache ("enough weapons for a couple of platoons of guerrilla fighters") that alarmed governments around the world. And would have sent oil traders into a fresh panic if they hadn't been distracted by hurricanes in the US Gulf. Christopher Dickey reports for the October 3 issue of NEWSWEEK:
According to a Saudi Interior Ministry statement [the evidence] included forged passes to enter "important locations."Precisely what the Dammam cell intended to hit, if known, has not been revealed in any detail. But as NEWSEEK sources pointed out, Saudi Arabia is a target-rich environment.
The Saudi daily Okaz quoted the minister, Prince Nayef, saying the cell -- which was linked directly to Al Qaeda -- had planned major attacks on some of Saudi Arabia's key oil and gas facilities.
"There isn't a place that they could reach that they didn't think about," said Nayef.
And their ultimate target was the global economy. Saudi Arabia is the greatest source of oil on earth, with a quarter of known reserves and a proven policy of trying to stabilize prices even in today's volatile markets. [...]
Certain critical nodes in the general vicinity of Ad Dammam have worried American strategists for years. Past studies suggest a moderate-to-severe attack on the Abqaiq oil-processing facilities, for instance, could cut Saudi output (now about 9.6 million barrels a day) by more than 4 million barrels for two months or more.Lest you think closing down the Ad Dammam cell represents a lasting victory for the Saudi police, new cells seem to spring up almost as soon as the old ones are closed down.
Al Qaeda has used suicide boats before. A successful hit against a major offshore loading facility at either Ras Tanura or Juaymah would knock millions of barrels off the market.
[Former CIA agent Robert] Baer wrote in 2003 that "a single jumbo jet with a suicide bomber at the controls ... crashed into the heart of Ras Tanura, would be enough to bring the world's oil-addicted economies to their knees." [...]
But that is not surprising given the history of Saudi police interrogation of al Qaeda suspects. So many al Qaeda suspects have been killed resisting arrest that it's a running joke among Western intelligence agents.
Consider the Dammam cell. After 48 hours of the police force's "light" artillery shelling of the seaside villa, the roof collapsed, which ended the standoff. But the people inside were dead before the roof came down. The remains were so charred and reduced to jell by artillery fire that it took DNA tests to establish exactly how many people were inside the house. This is no way to extract intelligence on al Qaeda activities in Saudi Arabia.
Cynics would observe that's just the point: dead men tell no tales. True, there are opposing factions inside the House of Saud, which means that despite the threat to the Saudi government from al Qaeda, the terror organization still has their uses to factions that want Abdullah off the Saudi throne.
So one can understand the reluctance at the highest levels of government to adopt negotiation tactics favored by American big city police when they face a standoff.
However, given the scary evidence turned up by the Dammam raid, Pundita wonders whether the ruling faction might want to consider the kind of tactics that are dear to American district attorneys going after Mafia bosses.
They might want to adopt a policy of trying to capture al Qaeda suspects -- or rather "deviants," as the Saudi royals prefer to call them -- and offer amnesty or at least leniency if a suspect is willing to make a deal. And put out the word that they'll be offering milk and cookies to suspects instead of torture.
Even if captured suspects sit with arms folded after munching their cookies and say, "Nope, I won't rat" -- al Qaeda commanders couldn't be sure of that. There is great tactical value in the enemy having to make alterations based on his concern that an operative is talking.
Those who would point out that the Dammam operatives had enough firepower to make it unlikely they'd agree to negotiate would be ignoring the history of police action in Saudi Arabia. And they would ignore the vast, generously paid network of spies working for the Saudi government.
Darn tootin the Dammam cell wouldn't negotiate. They knew they'd be killed resisting arrest, even if they came out with their hands up and waving a white flag.
These things keep happening in Saudi Arabia. A police battalion armed to the teeth with "light" artillery happens to be out for a stroll in a certain neighborhood. Suddenly a cop's eyes roll in his head and he shrieks, "I'm having a vision of deviants holed up in that house we just passed!"
Knock! Knock! "Who's there?" The Saudi police coming to check on a vision.
Gimme a break. The police had that seaside villa, and the deviants inside, under observation for days or weeks, if not months. The police could have picked off those five men outside the villa -- away from the arms cache. But unlike the dead, the living do tell tales.
Here is one of the biggest obstacles to putting al Qaeda out of business: the Saudi government is so sure that the United States military will come to rushing to their aid in the event of a big strike on their oil wells, they know they can clown around with impunity.
Washington is very much aware of this. But a Mexican standoff is in effect: every time the White House asks the Saudis to interrogate al Qaeda suspects instead of killing them, the Saudis retaliate. One way they do this by spreading stories that the US presence in Iraq is keeping al Qaeda going. This is despite the fact that the last thing Saudi King Abdullah wants is to see the US quit Iraq. At the bottom of it all is struggles for power within the House of Saud.
Is there a way to end the standoff? Well, President Bush, with backing from the Congress, could order the US Department of State to tell the Saudis, "Hey listen, if the oil wells fall into al Qaeda's hands, we'll just have to open diplomatic negotiations with those deviants. Maybe they won't be so much trouble once they're running your country."
That would get things moving in Riyadh. As to whether State would obey the order: yeah sure, if you went into Foggy Bottom with a tank division to deliver the order. Otherwise, the hired help in the White House and Congress do not instruct the mandarins who run America's foreign affairs. And the hired help in the Pentagon and US soldiers can clean up whatever messes the mandarins make in the process.
If you tell me I'm proposing a game of Chicken in place of a standoff -- I am proposing that Washington finally confront palace politics in a polygamous kingdom.
Those oil wells so precious to the democratic world are owned by one big family of half-brothers who do not hesitate to murder each other in a bid for power. The only thing that will force cooperation in such a family is if they think the "Blue-eyed genie," as King Fahd once referred to American troops, won't play the maid.