The recent call by the second-in-command of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Said al-Shihri, aka Abi Sufyan al-Azdi, to topple the Saudi regime represents an escalation in the efforts of this organisation to spark unrest in the Kingdom after years of no security breaches.
Saudi Arabia dealt severe blows to al-Qaeda in recent years, dismantling the majority of its cells and forcing its surviving members to escape abroad, especially to Yemen, where they reorganised their ranks.
A change in tactics
Al-Shihri's threats, which came in an audio recording published by al-Malahim Media, the media arm of the AQAP, came after past calls by al-Shihri for assassinating Saudi officials and princes. The organisation in August 2009 failed to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the deputy interior minister for security affairs, who plays a key role in co-ordinating the anti-terrorism operations.
The attempted assassination signalled a change in al-Qaeda's tactics in the kingdom. The bomber blew himself up in the presence of the prince after leading the Saudi authorities to believe that he had returned from Yemen to turn himself in and to encourage the rest of the al-Qaeda members in Yemen to do the same. This attack sounded the alarms in the Kingdom and signalled a shift in al-Qaeda's operations towards targeting Saudi officials, after previous assertions that it only targets Westerners.
The assassination attempt also marked the beginning of an escalation and expansion campaign in the activities of the Gulf branch of al-Qaeda, widening the area of its operations in the Arabian Peninsula and reaching neighbouring areas as well as other parts of the world.
Rebuilding and expansion
In the Arabian Peninsula, the organisation apparently felt increasingly confident in its capabilities in its areas of presence in Yemen. This feeling of confidence was fuelled by Yemen's preoccupation with the bloody Houthi rebellion in the north and the separatists' rebellion in the south.
In addition to these thorny issues, the Yemeni government was also busy tending to the problems of poverty, unemployment, the decline in oil production and the decline of the drinking water reserves. Al-Qaeda saw all that as a golden opportunity to rebuild itself in Yemen after a crushing defeat at the hands of the Saudi security forces during the years that followed the commencement of its operations in the Kingdom in May of 2003.
The unification of the two wings of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and Yemen in February 2008 under "Al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula" marked the re-launch of the organisation's activities. Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who served a jail sentence in Iran before being extradited to Yemen in 2003, where he escaped from prison in 2006, assumed the leadership of the new organisation. The Saudi national al-Shihri served as his deputy. The latter was a beneficiary of the Munasaha programme for extremist suspects, including those released by the United States from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Al-Shihri was one of those who returned from Guantanamo. He had claimed to be a mere carpet merchant arrested by mistake in Pakistan, denying to have travelled there to fight alongside al-Qaeda following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. He also reportedly denounced Osama bin Laden. Clearly, he managed to conceal his true feelings.
Following the Yemen re-launch, AQAP initially sought to rebuild its ranks and attract new elements, especially from Saudi Arabia, including some beneficiaries of the Munasahah programme like al-Shihri.
The recruitment efforts were accompanied by intensive campaigns to collect donations from sympathisers. The stage was set for the Women of al-Qaeda, such as AQAP's Wafaa Al-Shihri – known as Um Hajar al-Azdi-- to play a larger role in the recruitment and donation collection and transfer efforts, as well as hiding wanted people from security forces.
AQAP also worked on many other fronts. This included the expansion of the theatre of activities to include the US (the failed December 25th 2009 attempt by Nigerian native Omar Farouq Abdul Muttalib, who was a student in Yemen, to blow up a Detroit-bound civilian airplane).
The organisation also established communication and co-operation channels with Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin in Somalia, which declared its support for Osama bin Laden in his war against the US and Western countries.
This co-operation between AQAP and al-Shabab in Somalia came to the fore following air strikes against locations of the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen last year. Al-Shabab announced at that time that they were ready to provide Al-Qaeda in Yemen with fighters. In its turn, the Gulf branch of al-Qaeda called on al-Shabab to co-operate in closing the Bab-el-Mandab strait, located between Yemen and Somalia and connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
Continued failure to rebuild in Saudi Arabia
However, the success of AQAP in expanding its activities inside and outside Yemen was not accompanied by success in carrying out any major operations inside Saudi Arabia, the main focus of the organisation's efforts.
The Saudi authorities on several occasions over the past two years announced the dismantling of many networks linked to what the Saudi government calls "The deviant group", in reference to al-Qaeda. This shows a continuous effort by AQAP to rebuild its cells in the Kingdom; an effort constantly thwarted by security forces each time a cell was built.
For that, al-Shihri's new call for toppling the Saudi regime comes within the same context: a repeated attempt to rebuild AQAP cells in Saudi Arabia.
AQAP may have timed this call to coincide with the advent of the month of Ramadan, in order to win sympathy during this blessed month, when Muslims give many donations to charitable activities. Religious authorities in the kingdom have issued a fatwa that clearly prohibits giving donations to terrorist groups.
The successes of Saudi security forces over the past years suggest that al-Qaeda's chances of carrying out significant attacks are low under the current circumstances. However, the Saudi security forces are likely aware that all that AQAP needs is a single person who adopts its ideas and who wants to serve its project.
On the other hand, the majority of Saudis are not amenable to accepting any new al-Qaeda adventures similar to what the organisation did in May 2003 when a series of bombings and killings nearly hit the heart of the Saudi economy. Such adventures would harm the Saudi citizen first and foremost.