Al Qaeda forces in Saudi Arabia have shifted their strategy and are now almost exclusively searching for U.S. and other Western targets in the kingdom while avoiding attacks on domestic institutions in a bid to strengthen their flagging network, according to security officials and Saudi experts on radical groups.Bin Laden's orders to start an uprising before his cells was ready suggest how desperate he sees his situation. A commander who gives such orders must believe that he does nothave time to wait until all the cells are ready. He needed to act while he still could. It did not work and he is now making impotent attacks on "weatern" targets that kill mainly his own people and Saudi non comb atents. His latest attacks are a sign of just how much weaker he is.
While al Qaeda retains its primary goal of eventually toppling the Saudi royal family -- as Osama bin Laden made clear in an audio recording released Thursday -- an 18-month campaign of car bombings, gun battles and kidnappings has so far failed to generate many new recruits and has resulted in a backlash among many Saudis, even those who otherwise are critical of the government, the officials and experts said.
More than 80 people have died in the attacks, the majority of them Saudis or non-Western immigrant workers. Many people in the kingdom are not only angry over the bloodshed but also fearful of al Qaeda's attempt to turn Saudi Arabia, a deeply conservative tribal society, into an even more conservative Islamic theocracy, several Saudi reformers said in interviews.
"People want government reforms and changes, but they are more scared of al Qaeda extremists," said Mansour Nogaidan, a former Islamic radical who has moderated his views but is still one of the most prominent critics of the Saudi government. "The common people -- those people who thought their life might improve if the government changed -- they are not ready to lose all this for what some young teenagers have in their minds as a utopia."
Despite an al Qaeda-sponsored attack on the U.S. consulate in Jiddah this month that left 9 people dead, including the four assailants, Saudi government officials expressed confidence that they are steadily gaining the upper hand in their fight with the militants.
Saudi officials said that they have dismantled three of four known al Qaeda cells and that the insurgents are finding it harder to obtain ammunition, weaponry and money. The size and scope of the attacks have also dwindled since last year, when car bombs in Riyadh blew up two Western residential compounds and caused more than 200 casualties.
"The people who are still there are not as skillful as the ones who were there in the beginning," said Brig. Gen. Mansour Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry. "We feel more confident than we did in the beginning of this fight. We thought it would take much longer to be in control. We cannot deny that there are still possibilities that the terrorists could execute more acts, but they are not as strong as they were a year ago."
For the moment, al Qaeda is seeking to recover from the loss of leaders who have been arrested or killed. Abdulaziz Muqrin, a former cell leader who asserted responsibility in the deaths of three U.S. military contractors last summer, including the beheading of Lockheed Martin employee Paul M. Johnson Jr., died in a shootout with Saudi police in June. Murqin's replacement, Saleh Awfi, is believed to be dead or seriously injured, Saudi officials said.
Internet postings monitored by Saudi intelligence show that al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers cannot agree on who is in charge these days, or even what strategy they should adopt to remain viable, officials said. The internal disputes have simmered for more than a year, but are now becoming more of a handicap for al Qaeda because it does not have a firm leadership in place, officials said.
On the run after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, top al Qaeda leaders including bin Laden and chief ideologue Ayman Zawahiri pressed local operatives in Saudi Arabia to launch an offensive to destabilize the royal family. Local leaders in the kingdom had been building cells and amassing weapons for more than a year, but asked for more time, saying they were unprepared for an all-out assault on the Saudi government and were worried about a public backlash, officials here said.