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U.S. warnings and Saudi arrests: is al-Qaeda on the rise?

Published: Updated:

The Saudi arrest of two foreign al-Qaeda suspects only few days after the U.S. had shut down 19 diplomatic posts in the region, is according to experts a sign of “the operational environment” between Washington and Riyadh and their “consequential counterterrorism cooperation” against a strengthened decentralized al-Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry announced yesterday the arrest of a Chadian and a Yemeni suspected of having contacts with al-Qaeda's offshoot in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The clues came through social media, as the two suspects discussed via coded words an “imminent suicide attack in the region.” The timing of the arrests, however, following the U.S. global terror alert and shutting down 19 diplomatic posts across the Middle East and North Africa, brings to the forefront the Saudi-U.S. counterterrorism coordination.

Consequential Role


While the synchronization of the Saudi arrests and U.S. embassy closures “may not be deliberate” it is a “reflection of the operational environment” between Washington and Riyadh, says Bilal Saab, the Washington Director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. Saab in an interview with Al Arabiya raises the possibility of “coordination between the U.S. and Saudi intelligence agencies around the timing” of the threat and the arrests, in particular “to send a message that they are in this together, facing the same threat” of terrorism.

Saab describes the U.S.- Saudi efforts as “the most consequential counterterrorism cooperation globally” noting that “no country can discredit al-Qaeda's narrative more than a Muslim Saudi Arabia and no country can counter al-Qaeda's operations more than the United States.” The arrests came amidst a sharp U.S. escalation of drone attacks in Yemen, killing 12 militants in three separate strikes yesterday.

A statement by the interior ministry published in the Saudi Press Agency said that the authorities have “managed at the beginning of the last 10 days of the holy month of Ramadan to arrest two expatriates.” The last 10 days of Ramadan started early last week, four days before the United States issued a worldwide terror alert for its citizens.

“The two recruited themselves for the service of deviant thought,” said the ministry, indicating that authorities “seized items from the suspects which included computer hardware, electronic media and mobile phones.” The statement released hints at their communication with AQAP, “by electronic encrypted messages or through identities via the social networks (such as Abu Alfidaa, Hspouy, Muawiya Almadani, Rasasah fi Qusasah, and Abu El Feda Aldokulai) so as to exchange information about impending suicide operations in the region” it read.

A Decentralized al-Qaeda

The nature of the U.S. warning extending over 19 countries, and the Chadian-Yemeni nationalities of those arrested by Riyadh, tell of a changing operational dynamic in al-Qaeda activities, one that is spreading transnationally.

Aaron Zelin, an expert on terrorist groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al Arabiya that “al-Qaeda is stronger than it’s been in a while.” Zelin shrugs off the talk about the “resurgence in al-Qaeda,” explaining that “it has not been in decline in the first place to see a resurgence.” He added that those who think so, are deluding themselves.” Zelin explains that what has happened is rather a shift in the nature of the terrorist organization from one central operational force, to one decentralized and spread across the region. Today al-Qaeda is a bigger umbrella for many organizations such as AQAP in Yemen to al-Nusra in Syria, to al-Shabab and al-Qaeda in Maghreb in Somalia and North Africa.

“They are drawing their strengths from destabilization in Arab countries, we see it in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Tunisia” says Zelin, contending that the aftermath of Arab spring in many countries has helped al-Qaeda.

While Zelin recommends for the U.S. administration a broader coordination mechanism in fighting al-Qaeda, that goes beyond the central government framework and connects with the tribes in places like Yemen and Libya, Saab sees the Syrian conflict as a major cause “for reviving what was once an organization on the run.” Al-Qaeda is “on the march in the Levant, in the Arabian Peninsula, in Iraq, and in Northern Africa,” and that necessitates in his opinion the Saudi-U.S. cooperation as an effective “counter-terrorism team.”

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam