The sweeping arrests of suspected al Qa'eda operatives and sympathisers in Saudi Arabia are a reminder that the terrorist threat from extremist Islamist groups, who are losing the ideological battle, still remains potent. On Wednesday, Saudi authorities announced that 113 men, half of whom are Saudis and 52 Yemenis, were detained for belonging to Al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Saudi security forces claim that several of the AQAP militants were planning attacks against the country's oil installations. This is a credible accusation: in February 2006, al Qa'eda mounted an audacious assault against the Abqaiq oil refinery and attackers managed to penetrate the first line of defence before being stopped.
That attack was part of a campaign that shook the kingdom starting in 2003, including the bombing of residential compounds and the targeted killings of foreigners. But the Saudi government defused the threat through a shrewd mix of tough counterterrorism policies and deradicalisation and rehabilitation programmes that reformed many active and potential terrorists. The kingdom is now creating a 35,000-strong force to protect its critical infrastructure, including oil facilities.
This is partly why al Qa'eda's strength in Saudi Arabia has ebbed. The announcement in January 2009 that Saudi and Yemeni branches had merged was an admission that the movement had failed to create popular momentum. By linking with the Yemeni branch, which operates with greater latitude given the weakness of the Yemeni state, the Saudi movement sought new life. Late last year, the terrorists almost succeeded in an assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the mastermind behind Saudi counterterrorism efforts, and the attempt to destroy a US civilian airliner above Detroit. Both failed, but both illustrated the AQAP threat.
As the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia is a symbolic battlefield for al Qa'eda. Disrupting the flow of oil would not only hurt the Saudi state and economy, but, in AQAP's reasoning, also bankrupt the US, ending its presence in the Middle East. Al Qa'eda's delusions are convincing fewer and fewer people, but they remain a lethal threat, even in the very heart of Saudi Arabia.