nthposition online magazine

Midnight at the Oasis

by Michael Griffin

[ politics - june 04 ]

The three Al Qa'ida terrorists, who escaped over the wall of the Oasis Resort compound early on the morning of 30 May, clearly had no desire to die as martyrs, however relaxed they may have been at slaughtering 22 mainly Asian oil workers during a macabre, 25-hour killing spree in the Saudi Arabian oil centre at Al-Khobar.

The rampage began when four members of the 'Jerusalem Brigade' of the 'Mujahedin of the Arabian Peninsula', Al Qa'ida's splinter group in Saudi Arabia, launched a cascade of attacks against three oil-related targets a few city blocks from one another, beginning with the Al-Khobar Petroleum Centre. After shooting at guards and employees, they moved to the compound of the Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation where three people, including a British oil worker, were shot dead.

The terrorists' self-preservation instincts must have been on idle for, having shot up two energy-business facilities on a quiet Saturday morning, they took confident control of the Oasis residential compound, and its dozens of foreign and Saudi hostages. Moving along corridors, the brigade separated out the Moslems and shot any foreigners they found in the head, according to an account posted on a website by the operation's commander, Fawaz Bin Mohammed Al-Nashmi.

"We went to the compound, ate breakfast in the restaurant and then rested," related Al-Nashmi in his remarkable 3,000-word account. "We then entered the first floor and killed more Hindus." Eight Indians were among the dead when Saudi authorities lifted the siege after lowering commandos from helicopters onto the roof of the building early the following morning. Over 40 hostages were released.

By the time the commandos entered the building, Al-Nashmi and his gang were long gone over the wall. "We were now on a road with trees shadowing the way, and all the security forces thought we were still in the hotel," he wrote, adding that one of his brigade, Nimr al-Baqmi, had been wounded and was under arrest.

Coming less than a month after an Al Qa'ida raid on a US-Saudi refinery in the port of Yanbu, in which five western engineers and a Saudi captain died, the Al-Khobar attacks ratcheted up oil prices to $42 per barrel and raised questions about Saudi Arabia's ability to survive a committed domestic insurgency.

As in Al-Khobar, the attack on the Exxon-Mobil-SABIC refinery on 1 May was prelude to a frenzy of attacks on nearby 'foreign' targets, including the offices of the US oil company, ABB Lummus, a hotel, a McDonalds and an international school. One of the victims of the attacks was dragged behind a vehicle for a mile before being dumped in front of a Saudi-British bank. That raid, carried out by four Saudis over a six-hour period, ended with three of the attackers dead and a fourth in custody.

These two attacks on Saudi Arabia's premier industry, at opposite ends of the country and just one month apart, tell us something more valuable about the Mujahedin of the Arabian Peninsula group - or the factions it comprises - than the fact that it has an interest in waging economic war against the US and its allies.

It is, after all, an organisation that has largely lived in the shadows of its mentor, Osama bin Ladin, since the first Al Qai'da-attributed attack in Saudi Arabia in 1995, and now must seek to project a more pro-active presence at home in a post-Iraq-war world that has only his remote - and silent - blessing.

And - lest we forget - it may also have been the reservoir for the 15 Saudis recruited to provide muscle for the final phase of the September 11th conspiracy that destroyed the World Trade Centre and seriously damaged the Pentagon in 2001. Few of the 15, according to knowledgeable accounts, had travelled to Afghanistan, Bosnia or Chechnya, the countries where they would most likely to have met Al Qa'ida's international recruiting agents.

Though the two Saudi operations did not exhibit the glitz of an authentic bin Ladin attack, they displayed a similar bravado, with stolen SUVs, pilfered uniforms and a freedom in their savagery that implied it had been condoned, if not encouraged, by the security forces set up to prevent it. The two four-man teams mounted such a confident dance of death - particularly in Al-Khobar - that one can only assume they also intended to die, but there are other ingredients in the raids that are worth noting.

First, to leapfrog through three scenes of bloodshed during the course of a single day, as in Al-Khobar, and then to escape almost unscathed underlined both the team's nerve and its formidable intelligence, as well as the impotence of the security forces when faced with a hostage-taking situation involving guest workers.

Secondly, as has been widely noted elsewhere, the two attacks in May represented a shift in tactics from car bombings and assassinations to bolder, direct action against the Saudi oil industry that also achieve their targets, but significantly raise the public profile of the Mujahedin of the Arabian Peninsula as a fighting force.

Spraying fast-food restaurants, schools and offices with gunfire is a new tactic in local insurgences, with few precedents in Israel or Iraq, though it is widely used against Shias in Pakistan's prolonged sectarian violence.(The Al-Khobar team had brought along an explosives-laden vehicle, but gaining access to the Oasis was so smooth, it was abandoned).

These three new elements seem to point to a disturbing conclusion – the presence on the vast expanse of Saudi territory of a terrorist training camp nearly three years after the forced closure of Al Qaida's camps in Afghanistan. A four-man, commando-style operation, like the one at Al-Khobar, is not got up in a day, but takes weeks and months of training.

The Saudi Mujahedin is reportedly headed by 31-year-old Abdul-Aziz Al-Moqrin, who replaced Yemeni-born Khaled Ali Ali Haj on14 March when he was killed in a gun-battle with police. Little is known of Al-Moqrin, except his failing high-school record, a divorce and his frequent-flier miles to Pakistan and Afghanistan. He once lived in Al-Suwaidi, the district in Riyadh where a drive-by assassin killed cameraman Simon Cumbers and injured BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner on 6 June.

The Jerusalem Brigade's Al-Nashmi acknowledged Al-Moqrin as commander in his weblog of the Al-Khobar attacks but, unlike Al-Moqrin, he is not mentioned in a list of Saudi Arabia's 26 most dangerous local terrorists posted by security services in December 2003. Al-Moqrin also maintains a web presence, praising the attacks on Al-Khobar and Yanbu for their impact on oil global prices, rather in the style of bin Ladin after the destruction of the World Trade Centre.

Among those also named on the list are three former graduates of Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud University; four school or university dropouts; four former military, navy or prison service personnel; two religious teachers; and eight, who had fought or trained in Afghanistan before the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. Most of the group, which includes a Moroccan allegedly connected to the terrorist attack in Casablanca in 2003, disappeared from view from one to three years before the list was compiled. According to one source, 15 of the 26 have lived in Al-Suwaidi at one time or another.

The last person so see Al-Moqrin alive was an Indian in late April 2004, who was kidnapped to transport his goods into the wasteland of Al-Ammariya around 25 miles to the northwest of Riyadh. "The man said that his captors were desperate for food supplies and had resorted to eating desert plants and drinking rain water in order to survive," reported a local daily. Security forces later cordoned off the area, which was described as a "rugged, cave-riddled enclave" that may have been a one-time sanctuary for the group.

There must be many such places in a country as large as Saudi Arabia.