The recent bombing attack on US targets in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia raises some interesting questions about the condition of al Qaida, the alleged perpetrators. Matthew Yglesias concludes that "al Qaida is back". I take a very different view.
First of all, while the ostensible targets of the attack were foreign residents, it is clear that the blow--a large-scale, coordinated terrorist attack right in in the Saudi capital--was really aimed at the Saudi government. Except for the Khobar Towers bombing, which occurred at a remote US military base in June, 1996, al Qaida has never before executed a major operation on Saudi soil--and certainly not in a large Saudi city, let alone its capital.
Secondly, it's an odd time to attack Saudi Arabia. Its main external military worry, Iraq, has just been neutralized, and the primary justification for al Qaida's hostility to the Saudi government--the presence of infidel US troops on sacred Saudi soil--is in the process of being resolved. With the Western crackdown on financial assistance to terrorist groups in full swing, al Qaida must be more dependent than ever on its Middle Eastern--that is, largely Saudi--benefactors. Some of those benefactors are well connected to the Saudi royal family, and have been paying radicals like al Qaida to make trouble elsewhere. Others may be hostile to the Saudi royals, and willing to support radical activity at the right time--but this could hardly be the right time, given al Qaida's weakness and the Saudi government's strength. Why, then, would they deliberately provoke Saudi hostility?
One possible answer is that they are fighting for their survival, in response to, or in anticipation of, a massive Saudi crackdown. The time would certainly be ripe for such concerted action on the part of the anti-radical faction among the Saudi royals. Al Qaida, after all, poses a threat to its power, an obstacle to improving its relationship with America, and a recurring source of bad international PR. The Riyadh attackers themselves apparently narrowly escaped arrest by Saudi police only last week.
But another possible reason for al Qaida to concentrate on Saudi Arabia right now is that it is simply the last place left where they are capable of operating on an attention-getting scale. It was always where their largest reserves of money, manpower and political support resided--even when they were based in Sudan or Afghanistan. And it appears that they are now faced with a choice between mounting attacks where they will cause the most damage to those reserves, and mounting no attacks at all. In effect, they have chosen to eat their seed corn, and I, for one, consider that a positive sign.