On July 21, 2004, Jonathan Schanzer, Thomas Lippman, and Simon Henderson addressed The Washington Institute's Special Policy Forum. The following is a rapporteur's summary of Mr. Schanzer's remarks.
As a result of the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the al-Qaeda network now consists of small, local, and autonomous affiliate groups that attack domestic and Western targets alike. Ties between affiliate groups and the former al-Qaeda core is largely informal. For example, recent attacks have been claimed by affiliates such as Salafiya Jihadiya in Morocco and Ansar al-Islam and the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi network in Iraq.
A relatively new affiliate group calling itself "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" (hereinafter AQAP) has recently emerged in Saudi Arabia. The group has launched attacks against both the regime and Westerners in the kingdom, culminating in the grisly beheading of American Paul Johnson in June. Although the group has only a few hundred fighters, it appears to maintain a large support base among Saudis. Most Saudis abhor the grisly violence, but the combination of anger over the Iraq war and the dangerous Saudi wahhabi culture could ensure the group's survival.
Until recently, the leader of AQAP was Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin; Saudi security forces killed him in late June. Al-Muqrin was associated with al-Qaeda activities in Bosnia and, later, in Algeria, where he was captured and sent to Saudi Arabia to serve four years in prison. He was released early for good behavior and for memorizing the Qur'an. (Interestingly, other terrorists have been released from prison under similar circumstances; Jordan released Zarqawi from prison under a general amnesty in 1999, and Cairo released Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahri in the early 1980s). Upon his release, he went to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, but he was forced back into Saudi Arabia after the U.S. invasion. Like other jihadis returning from Afghanistan to their respective host countries, al-Muqrin helped form an al-Qaeda affiliate group that posed challenges to the local regime.
Saleh al-Oufi, a former Saudi prison officer, has emerged as the new leader of AQAP. He sees attacks against the Saudi regime as more important than the concurrent jihad in Iraq. He rejects the government's amnesty to militants, declaring it a sign of weakness. Indeed, Riyadh would be well advised to look at Algeria's attempts to use amnesties as a means of halting violence by al-Qaeda affiliates. Some five years after that country's amnesty deadline, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat and the Armed Islamic Group continue to kill hundreds of people. Therefore, although an amnesty may spur a short-term drop in attacks in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom should expect more propaganda and violence from AQAP in the future.
This Special Policy Forum Report was prepared by Todd Orenstein, a Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf scholar at The Washington Institute.