Published January 14, 2015
Usama bin Laden's (search) latest message, his first directed specifically at Saudis in years, has been widely seen as an attempt to show he is still a player in his homeland despite a security clampdown that has sharply limited Al Qaeda's field for terrorist operations in the conservative kingdom.
The message, released Thursday, was issued after powerful blows by Saudi security to bin-Laden's supporters in the oil-rich country, where security forces have made inroads in weakening the insurgency both with arrests and anti-insurgency campaign that undercut support for the militants.
At the same time, however, bin Laden's audiotape followed up on an Al Qaeda show of strength in the country two weeks ago. Five militants attacked the U.S. consulate in Riyadh and stormed into the inner courtyard, firing guns, grabbing human shields and killing five people. Four of the attackers were killed and one was wounded in an ensuing battle with Saudi forces. No Americans were killed.
And keeping up the drumbeat Sunday the Saudi branch of Al Qaeda called in a Web statement for attacks against oil infrastructure in the Persian Gulf. The statement called on "all mujahedeen ... in the Arabian Peninsula" to target "the oil resources that do not serve the nation of Islam."
The statement urged Al Qaeda (search) members and sympathizers around the Arab world to unite "to strike all the foreign targets in the Arabian peninsula and attack all the infidels' havens everywhere."
Analysts described the Saudi-born terror suspect's Thursday message, which included a call to followers to "concentrate your operations" on oil facilities, as a reminder that he can still cause trouble. Some also saw it as a sign he is worried about blows to his credibility or that he might lose more influence if local elections prove a success.
"It's a kind of encouragement for Saudis influenced by him after the blow they have received," said Dia'a Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on militant groups. "It's a way for him to tell them he supports them, he cares about them and will, through his statement, put their cause in the international spotlight."
In the audiotape, posted on an Islamic Web site, bin Laden exonerated Islamic militants of responsibility for the violence in the kingdom, saying it was the rulers' "sins which exposed the country to God's punishment."
He also reiterated long-standing accusations that the royal Al Saud family has misused public funds and allied itself with the "infidel America against Muslims."
Addressing the Saudi rulers, bin Laden said: "You must know that people are fed up ... security will not be able to stop them."
Bin Laden's direct focus on the kingdom and its rulers is the first in about a decade. He embarked on his terrorist path in the early 1990s, after the ruling family turned down his request to use his "mujahedeen" -- holy warriors, who had trained with him in Afghanistan -- to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. The Americans led the campaign for Saddam Hussein's ouster from the tiny emirate.
After the Saudi government stripped him of his citizenship and kicked him out of the country, bin Laden moved to Sudan and then to Afghanistan.
It was there that he took his war to a higher level, focusing on the United States and mentioning Saudi Arabia in a wider context.
"He saw himself as a world leader fighting on behalf of all Muslims, not only Saudis," said Jamal Khashoggi, media adviser to Prince Turki, the Saudi ambassador to London.
After the American ouster of Saddam in 1993, bin Laden slowly shifted his fight to both the United States and Saudi Arabia, not waiting to finish off one enemy before taking on the other.
The shift translated on the ground, Khashoggi said, into the May 2003 attack in Riyadh. Militants inspired by bin Laden struck for the first time in the kingdom after Sept. 11, 2001, attacking three residential compounds. Twenty-five people were killed.
The attacks continued, but many Saudis were revolted by the tactic. Others were distress when they understood that Muslims and Saudis were dying in the attacks along with non-Muslim foreigners. Bin Laden's credibility as a defender of Islam began to suffer.
Dennis Ross, counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said bin Laden sought in the tape to "refashion the focal point of what he's about" after losing credibility. In the tape, he implies he's about "creating a new order, a new reality and ... not about doing all these things that people say are un-Islamic."
Robert Jordan, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said bin Laden's message was a reflection of how weakened he and Al Qaeda had become. "He's now resorting to political rhetoric to try to influence the people," Jordan said.
One way bin Laden is trying to do that is by ridiculing upcoming, three-stage municipal elections in the kingdom, which begin in February and are seen as an attempt by the government to open the country to political reform.
"This hasn't changed anything. ...The best they can do is that they will go into the elections game as happened before in Yemen and Jordan or Egypt and move in a vicious circle for dozens of years. This is regardless of the fact that it is prohibited to enter the infidel legislative councils," bin Laden said.
Jordan said bin Laden's reference to the elections "shows he's very nervous" about them.
"He's trying create the same kind of divisiveness we're seeing in Iraq about the elections, but I don't think he's going to succeed because Saudi Arabia is a much more homogenous society," he said.
Jordan also said it would be hard for the militants to carry out a huge attack on oil installations in the kingdom that would significantly disrupt production or distribution. At most, isolated attacks could be launched on less-guarded areas, he said, adding that targeting the kingdom's oil industry could backfire.
"This (oil) is the entire economic base of the country, and even those who might be critical of the West or America will be greatly offended by any destruction of their really only means of economic progress and survival," he said.