Saudi intel key in fight against Qaeda: analysts
Saudi intelligence on Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen has become crucial to Western governments, with Riyadh regularly passing on tipoffs to potential target states, analysts and diplomats said on Saturday.
The White House has credited Riyadh with the tipoff which led to the discovery of packages from Yemen containing explosive material on two US-bound cargo planes.
Two weeks earlier French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux also thanked Riyadh for information which indicated that Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was targeting Europe and France in particular.
The Saudis decline to speak publicly about the plots.
"We do not comment on intelligence operations," interior ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki told AFP. "But it's important to exchange information with other countries to defeat Al-Qaeda."
Both tips underscored a marked surge in cooperation between US and European intelligence agencies and their Saudi counterparts in the past two years, after Riyadh had faced accusations of not sharing valuable information.
Experts and diplomats said Saudi agencies now have professional, often Western-trained staff with language skills who rather than operate by old, slow bureaucratic methods will "call up at three am" if there is an immediate threat, one said.
"Before they were much more nationalistic and saw terrorism as a Western problem," said one Riyadh-based Western expert.
"But now they are proactive ... and they know our needs," he said.
"It's probably one of the best relationships that Washington has" in counter-terror cooperation," said Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The rise of AQAP has also focused the Saudis into a more proactive role, said Boucek.
AQAP is blamed for several attempted attacks, including the Christmas 2009 foiled bombing of a flight from the Netherlands to Detroit, Michigan, as well as plots inside Saudi Arabia.
The group has singled out the Saudi ruling royal family as a key target and made several attempts to assassinate the kingdom's counter-terror chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
"Yemen has emerged as Saudi Arabia's number one concern for counter-terror," said Boucek.
In the 1990s and even after the September 11, 2001 attacks -- carried out mainly by Saudi nationals -- Riyadh was reluctant to share what they knew, especially on issues like Al-Qaeda's financing.
But that began to change when the Saudi government itself became a target in 2003-2005, when Islamic militant cells launched a series of bombings and shootings that left more than 150 people dead.
"They now realise that tackling terrorism is a global problem," a Riyadh diplomat said.
He praised Saudi intelligence capabilities both at home and in neighbouring Yemen, and said that the sharing of information had vastly improved over the past two years.
"You can judge the quality of the cooperation when it is at the operational level," he said.
Saudi intelligence on AQAP has become indispensable, even more than that from Yemen's government, said Theodore Karasik of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
"They have a real good handle on the situation on the ground in Yemen and they have been able to infiltrate the group. They have a longstanding network through tribes and families and other historical links," he said.
Boucek said the Saudis had "been putting money into it ... They have very sophisticated electronic intercept capabilities as well."
This also paid off in April when the Saudis secured the release by Yemeni kidnappers of two young German girls held hostage for nearly a year in rugged north Yemen.
Even so, the Saudis were shocked in August 2009 when a Saudi AQAP member nearly managed to murder Prince Mohammed.
The attacker was pretending to surrender to the minister when he triggered an explosive hidden in his clothes. By what security analysts say was pure luck, the minister was only lightly wounded.
Embarrassed, the Saudis at first said the bomb had not been detected because it was hidden in the attacker's rectum.
But in fact it turned out have been an early version of the "underwear bomb" that another AQAP-linked militant tried to detonate on the flight into Detroit last December 25.
© 2010 AFP