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Interview with Matthew Levitt, Washington Institute for Near East Policy - 2003-05-13


With the terrorist suicide bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia, the apparent involvement of the al-Quaida terrorist network has been causing concern. Joining VOA's David Borgida to discuss the situation is Matthew Levitt, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

MR. BORGIDA
And now joining us, Matthew Levitt, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Mr. Levitt, thanks for joining us.

MR. LEVITT
My pleasure.

MR. BORGIDA
It would seem, from quite a distance away from Riyadh that, based on the reporting that I've seen, this was not unexpected. There were warnings about this sort of thing and yet it happened anyway. How do you explain it?

MR. LEVITT
Well, counter-terrorism is not a perfect science. In fact, counter-terrorism is all about constricting the operating environment, and you're not always going to prevent every attack. Indeed, this was not a surprise. The State Department had issued warnings against Americans traveling to Saudi Arabia. Last week the Saudi authorities uncovered a large cache of weapons and made public the list of some 17 individuals that they suspected were al-Qaida operatives who got away, and it is believed that these were the same individuals who carried out this plot.

It's rather impressive that they were able to carry out a plot of this magnitude even as they were evading what we can assume was a rather large manhunt. But that gets to al-Qaida's continued ability to conduct attacks despite the impressive counter-terrorism operations we've seen in the past two years.

MR. BORGIDA
You say al-Qaida as if the presumption is and the assumption is that it is al-Qaida. Does it in fact have the fingerprints of al-Qaida on it, and why?

MR. LEVITT
It absolutely does have the fingerprints of al-Qaida. First of all, al-Qaida has been interested in targeting the Saudi regime for some time. And while Westerners were those primarily who were injured, this was primarily aimed at the regime.

It's very embarrassing for the regime to have Westerners targeted. It's very embarrassing for the regime for this to happen while Secretary Powell was in the region. The simultaneous attacks, the multiple suicide bombers, these are all signs of al-Qaida planning, and it was likely something that was in the planning for quite some time.

MR. BORGIDA
Crown Prince Abdullah, rather quickly responding to this, denounced it. How important is that that he is on record as denouncing this almost immediately after it occurred?

MR. LEVITT
Well, we would expect no less. This is an attack in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia has a long record of denouncing terrorist attacks within the Kingdom and cracking down on terrorism within the Kingdom. While shortly after September 11th the Saudis insisted there was no al-Qaida presence in Saudi Arabia, since then they have announced several arrests and have engaged in some good security cooperation about terrorist activities in the Kingdom.

What will be more interesting is to see whether they take this opportunity to become more proactive than they have been in combating terrorist financing coming out of the Kingdom in particular.

MR. BORGIDA
Well, let's talk about that, because months and months ago Saudi Arabia had a huge PR problem certainly in the West in terms of its ability to restrain and contain terrorism. Will this bring this issue back to the forefront, and will the eyes of the world be back on the Saudi Government to see what it can do to find who did this in connection with the U.S. authorities presumably?

MR. LEVITT
This is on the table now. This is not going away. And this is not only an issue of finding the people who carried out this particular plot but there is going to be a lot of pressure on the Saudis to address the larger problem of international terrorism. Traditionally there has been kind of a quiet understanding, where if the Saudis had to crack down on terrorism domestically they might fund some extra money to some of the more radical Ulama, the religious leaders, to kind of balance the internal political discourse a little bit.

What is going to be expected of the Saudis now is to see them not only cracking down on the domestic extremists who are carrying out these types of plots but also on any type of front organizations, charities, others, that have been linked to terrorism, a large many of which trace back to Saudi Arabia.

MR. BORGIDA
And, Mr. Levitt, there were more than whispers at the time of the Khobar Towers bombing, particularly in the U.S. intelligence community, that the Saudi Government was not as responsive as U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials would have liked. Would we expect that record to improve in this context?

MR. LEVITT
We would hope it to improve, and it remains to be seen what we can expect. Traditionally Saudi Arabia is a relatively closed society, and when there is an opportunity for dirty laundry to be exposed and for there to be a sign to the outside world that there is disagreements internally within Saudi Arabia, particularly pertaining to the way the ruling family conducts itself and rules, it's very possible that we will not get the full kind of cooperation that we've wanted in the past.

This particular operation comes, however, post-9/11. It's a different world. And so there is an opportunity here for the Saudis to really step up their counter-terrorism efforts and cooperation.

MR. BORGIDA
And, finally, in about a minute or so, Mr. Levitt, what does it say about al-Qaida's ability to pull this off? One would think that they were in trouble to some degree, given the numbers of leaders that were taken into custody.

MR. LEVITT
I don't mean to undermine the amount of counter-terrorism successes we've seen - and they have been nothing short of remarkable; we have taken off the streets many of al-Qaida's key leadership - but al-Qaida is extremely flexible. That's what makes it different from anything else.

An Italian investigation that was recently revealed, revealed transcripts of recorded telephone conversations between al-Qaida operatives in Europe and Syria and elsewhere, where they talk about how to go about evading the new counter-terrorism environment and how to go about continuing their operations despite the crackdowns. They are very flexible and they remain a very potent threat.

MR. BORGIDA
We will keep a close watch on al-Qaida and what they have been up to, and certainly the pace of the investigation, too, as we watch this story. Matthew Levitt, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Thank you, Mr. Levitt, for joining us. We appreciate it.

MR. LEVITT
Thank you.

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