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Saudis vulnerable to terrorists and opportunists

An attack over the weekend on offices of oil facilities in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, left 22 people dead, mostly foreign workers. It might have been part of an al-Qaida effort to disrupt world oil supplies and perhaps even to affect the U.S. economy adversely. Or it might have been an attack designed more to weaken the House of Saud, the ruling family, than to influence the world economy. Or it might have been strictly an opportunistic attack done by local terrorists who saw a vulnerability.

Pinpointing a clear motive is only one of the troubles with trying to figure out how to respond to such attacks. Beyond a generalized desire to disrupt the lives of those who choose to work within the system, whether in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, it’s difficult to figure out just what is the purpose of many of these terrorist attacks.

Brian Jenkins, terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., thinks that for current jihadists, attacks are mostly opportunistic. True believers, he said, believe the strategy and the course of the war are in the hands of Allah, that their function is simply to strike at perceived weaknesses of the enemy when they can get away with it, largely to display their prowess and courage.

Perhaps that is so, but it is also possible that the most recent attack is part of a war aimed at the Saudi ruling class. Osama bin Laden, born into a wealthy but not royal family, believes the Saud family has ruled corruptly and in an overly secular fashion and must be replaced. The Saud family has for decades played a cynical game with the militant Wahabbi faction of Islam, financing schools and activities abroad in part to buy off the Wahabbis so they won’t go after the royal family directly.

The attack Saturday, along with a previous attack the week before, has shown how vulnerable the Saudi oil industry might be to sabotage. But oil production facilities were not sabotaged. Again, whether this is because the real target is the Saudi royal family or the attack was limited to killing people rather than blowing up pipelines to stave off a harsh official crackdown is difficult to know.

What the attack does show is that bold and militant jihadists are everywhere, that they can strike key political and economic targets readily and ruthlessly. The threats must be met on several levels, from intelligence to police work to financial sleuthing to neutralizing known cells to the occasional military action. For the United States, neutralizing terrorists by reducing activism and intervention overseas should also be on the table. The war on Iraq has probably done more to activate than to weaken terrorist threats.

For now, U.S. forces will probably help the Saudis track down the perpetrators. That shouldn’t preclude, however, a thoroughgoing reassessment of our relationship to the increasingly vulnerable Saudi regime.

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