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The Saudi Arabian government has announced the capture of suspected al-Qaida members, while simultaneously publicizing its release of Saudi citizens who fought in Afghanistan, walking a fine line between appeasing Washington and risking the ire of domestic opposition.

London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat reported yesterday that 160 Saudi citizens who were arrested in January after returning home from Afghanistan have been released. According to Saudi security sources, the men had carried out military operations in Afghanistan against U.S. and Northern Alliance forces. Nevertheless, they were judged not to have engaged in “any activity threatening to the security of Saudi Arabia or other countries,” the paper reported.

Only one day later, Saudi officials announced that they had arrested seven suspected members of al-Qaida several months ago. The group, consisting of six Saudis and a Sudanese, were accused of planning to attack “key installations” – including the Prince Sultan air base used by U.S. troops – with explosives and surface-to-air missiles, Agence France-Presse reported. Discarded firing tubes from missiles have been found near U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia.

Both the al-Qaida arrests and the prisoners’ release were well-known to U.S. intelligence. Therefore, the most interesting question is not only why the Saudis made the announcement, but also why now? It appears the Saudis are feeling the heat from an Egyptian investigation into al-Qaida’s presence in Saudi Arabia, and they must therefore make a reluctant public show of support to the United States. However, they also must be careful to avoid being seen as Washington’s puppet.

The Saudis are playing to two different audiences, the first of which is domestic. There are elements in the country, including influential Saudis, that are sympathetic to al-Qaida, and there are many more who are profoundly uncomfortable with the U.S. military’s continuing presence. The Saudi government must move cautiously to placate these factions.

On the other hand, the Saudis also must play to the United States, which not only is a superpower capable of destabilizing the entire region, but also has military forces inside the kingdom. The Saudis use the Americans to protect the regional balance of power. They cannot afford a complete breach with the United States, and so are moving along a tightrope. They must convince the United States that they are cooperating against al-Qaida, while at the same time demonstrating to the domestic factions that they are not cooperating too much. Balance is everything.

For obvious reasons the Saudis are more willing to work with the United States secretly than in public. The United States, however, needs public indications of support backed by effective action to bolster the domestic American opinion of the Saudis – which is not particularly positive right now – and to generate the sense that the Saudis are part of an effective operating coalition.

While the Americans need the Saudis to give them something public, Riyadh cannot do so unless it can also demonstrate its independence. Thus we have the virtually hand-in-hand announcements of al-Qaida operatives captured and Afghan combatants released.

That explains the why but not the reason making the announcement now. Apart from the general pressure being applied by the United States, an interesting incident occurred in Egypt late last week: Security forces arrested Salah Hashem, a co-founder of the radical Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya Islamic organization, which is blamed for the massacre of tourists at Luxor, Egypt, in 1997.

Hashem has been considered a moderate in Al-Gama’a and supports a cease-fire agreement between the group and the government. Speculation surrounding his arrest did not necessarily imply that he was a threat, only that he knew a great deal about close links between Al-Gama’a and al-Qaida. Many of al-Qaida’s members are Egyptians who were originally Al-Gama’a members.

The Egyptians have been cooperating actively with U.S. intelligence, and Hashem’s detention is important because it indicates two things. First, the willingness to arrest him shows that the Egyptians are confident that they have Al-Gama’a under control. Second, it exhibits the fact that the Egyptians are reaching a level of clarity about the structure of al-Qaida that was not available before. They would not arrest Hashem on a vague fishing expedition – but only if they felt that he knew critically important things about al-Qaida.

One of the things he likely has knowledge of is the relationship between the two most important elements in al-Qaida: Egyptian and Saudi members. Hashem worked in Saudi Arabia from 1982 to 1985 and could therefore have information on people and activities there. This is a critically important addition to the intelligence Egypt has gathered about al-Qaida in general and the presence and structure of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia in particular.

Such information also disallows the Saudis plausible deniability. The intelligence that the Egyptians have gathered through this and many other arrests has put the Saudi government in a position wherein Washington would regard failure to act on this information as a refusal to cooperate. The Saudis cannot afford this.

Therefore, not only must they act; they must act publicly. This is why the arrests of the al-Qaida suspects that occurred months ago have been announced now, and it is safe to assume that further arrests that have not yet been announced are being made.

At the same time, the Saudis can’t just “cooperate.” For every action, there will be a local reaction. Hence, linked with the announcement of the al-Qaida arrests is the announcement of the release of Saudis who fought in Afghanistan. For the U.S. government, a much more important al-Qaida cell has been taken down publicly while a much less critical group of operatives have been released to appease domestic critics and assure them that the kingdom remains independent.

This may achieve the balance between the needs of the Saudis and the United States, but if the Egyptians create problems for the Saudis with their investigation into al-Qaida, then some sort of conflict is sure to erupt between Riyadh and Cairo. Saudi Arabia is increasing contact with Sudan – Sudanese President Omar Bashir traveled to the country yesterday – which the Saudis could possibly use as a proxy against Egypt.



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