Pakistani-Saudi security co-operation poses great risk to al-Qaeda

Pakistani media reported recently that Saudi authorities handed over a list to the Pakistani government containing the names of 28 Saudi nationals suspected of involvement in terrorist activities, some of whom may be hiding in Pakistan.

Although such a move is not surprising given the close security co-operation between the two countries for many years, it appears to reflect concern in Saudi Arabia that al-Qaeda is trying to rebuild itself outside of the Kingdom after its cells suffered severe blows over the past few years at the hands of Saudi security forces.

Notably, the list of 28 fugitives included names of only three individuals whose last known whereabouts were in Pakistan while Yemen was the last known whereabouts of the other 25.

Whether the fugitives are still hiding in Yemen, Pakistan or another country, Saudi Arabia’s move reflects increased co-operation with Pakistan in the fight against al-Qaeda activities.

Saudi authorities may believe that providing the Pakistanis with lists of fugitives containing their real names, photographs and full information about them could be helpful in ascertaining whether any of them were arrested under an alias (with a nationality from a country other than Saudi Arabia).

Providing Pakistanis with this information may also help Pakistanis form a clearer picture of the fugitives’ movements inside the country and the nature of contacts they made with people who may not have realised they were forging relationships with fugitives from another country.

Al-Qaeda’s activities on Pakistani soil posed a security concern to the authorities in both countries for many years, without them being able to effectively counteract this organisation’s cells.

Al-Qaeda exploited its intimate knowledge of Pakistani territory and Pakistan’s tribal makeup following the end of the Afghani jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s and early 1990s in order to build a network of contacts.

This network, in many instances, helped al-Qaeda avoid security agency surveillance and provided safe cover — allowing it to plan many of its operations during the 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium.

Attention turned to the activities of the “Afghan Arabs” on Pakistani soil immediately after the first failed attempt to blow up the World Trade Centre in New York in 1993 (carried out by Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, who is described as the “mastermind” of the bloody attack on the twin towers on September 11th, 2001). In 1993, Pakistani authorities cracked down on the “Afghan Arabs”, leading to expulsion of dozens of them and the arrest of Ramzi Yousef in 1995, along with his extradition to the United States.

But al-Qaeda’s activity on Pakistani soil did not end, although it started to shift to neighbouring Afghanistan when the Taliban movement assumed power in Kabul in 1996. At the time, al-Qaeda’s leadership—evicted from Sudan—moved to Afghanistan, where it began planning a wave of operations against the West within the framework of the “International Islamic Front for Fighting Jews and Crusaders”, which it established in early 1998.

Although operational planning took place in Afghanistan, Pakistan was the main crossroads through which al-Qaeda elements reached their destinations and returned to after carrying out their operations.

This was confirmed when Pakistani authorities revealed that some of those involved in the bombings of the US embassies in East Africa on August 7th, 1998 used Karachi Airport to escape. Consequently, security measures on Arabs arriving in this densely populated city were tightened (for example, cameras were set up to perform eye scans on persons arriving at Karachi Airport to detect forged passports).

Although the “thrust” of the movement into Afghani territory at that time moved to Iran, Pakistan remained a conduit for many al-Qaeda members who settled there, especially in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. This continued until the United States began its war against terrorism following the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

Al-Qaeda was taken by surprise when the Pakistani intelligence services—which until then had been one of the Taliban’s chief supporters—entered the war against the cells of Osama bin Laden’s organisation, which subsequently lost hundreds of members who were killed or captured on Pakistani soil.

However, al-Qaeda managed to rebound from this setback. It rebuilt its cells in the tribal areas, benefiting from the emergence of a Pakistani branch of the Taliban movement (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) and from a relationship it built over the years with the “Haqqani network”, which is considered part of the Afghan Taliban but is particularly active in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, inhabited by Haqqani tribes.

If there is truth to the numerous reports claiming for years that the Haqqani network has a relationship with certain elements in Pakistan’s security agencies, the Saudi government’s current move toward active co-operation to arrest Saudi fugitives operating in Pakistan is, without a doubt, of utmost importance. In that case, the Pakistanis will have access to any person hiding in the areas of the Haqqani network’s influence in Waziristan.

However, the arrests of the wanted individuals might not hurt al-Qaeda much in the long term. What is at stake here is much greater than the fate of those individuals, who could probably be replaced. Where Saudi and Pakistani co-operation could hurt al-Qaeda is not so much through arrests, but it is in terms of what they can do in Afghanistan and whether they are able to produce a deal between Kabul and the Taliban.

Riyadh today seems strongly supportive of efforts to achieve peace in Afghanistan—efforts in which Pakistan plays a pivotal role.

The Saudi government tried previously to hold reconciliation sessions between the government of President Hamid Karzai and some members of the Taliban.

But today the main effort in this area appears to be through Pakistan, which many view as capable of bridging the gap in views between Kabul and some key players in the Taliban such as Mullah Mohamed Omar.

Any reconciliation that occurs, whether Pakistan reconciles with its “Taliban” branch or Afghanistan does so with its “Taliban”, will come at a great cost to al-Qaeda. The organisation will be forced to freeze its activities or face the threat of expulsion of its fighters from the safe areas where they are currently hiding along the Afghan – Pakistan border.