RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Yousif Salih Fahad al Ayeeri, known as "the Swift Sword," was one of al-Qaida's big fish in Saudi Arabia. When he died in a shoot-out with security forces, he was strapped with explosives and had four false ID cards, a GPS tracking device and a letter purportedly from Osama bin Laden.
After the shoot-out, Saudi officials discovered that al Ayeeri had been communicating with another al-Qaida member about possible new attacks in the United States and elsewhere.
Saudi authorities cite al Ayeeri's death last May as a cherished victory in their assault against bin Laden's terrorist network. Six months later, however, the desert kingdom remains one of the world's hottest battlefields in the war on terrorism, and it isn't always clear who's winning.
Just as Saudi officials appeared to have the upper hand, suicide bombers struck Nov. 8, killing at least 18 in an attack at a residential compound in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Now, after two terrorist car-bombings in Istanbul, Turkey, in the past week, Saudi officials are braced for yet another display of al-Qaida violence, aimed at Western targets or symbols of Saudi Arabia's monarchy.
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. and Saudi officials had received "all kinds of information" through intelligence channels suggesting that an attack may be imminent. As in the past, however, the timing and targets are unclear.
Saudi forces have arrested more than 600 people in a nationwide crackdown that started after coordinated triple attacks May 12, and they think they've decimated the top leadership. But that in itself presents a problem for investigators.
Compared with "the Swift Sword," the al-Qaida disciples who remain are smaller fish who can operate easily and anonymously in an Islamic country of 23.5 million where men dress identically in gowns and headdresses and women conceal themselves in black.
Authorities believe there are dozens of fragmented, autonomous cells in Saudi Arabia, with more than 300 hard-core al-Qaida operatives and perhaps 1,500 reliable sympathizers who can be drawn in to help on a particular mission.
"There are certainly hundreds of al-Qaida terrorists and sympathizers in the country," said Robert Jordan, who was the U.S. ambassador to Riyadh until mid-October and now is practicing law in Dallas. It's difficult to assess the exact strength, he said, because "they travel in such clandestine circles."
Saudi officials point proudly to some arrests, for example, that of Ali Abdulrahman al Ghamdi, also known as Abu Bakr, who was one of bin Laden's disciples in Afghanistan and is thought to have played an organizational role in the May 12 attacks, which killed 35 people in three residential compounds.
Others, however, are still at large and suspected of providing long-distance leadership from hiding places in Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan. Among the most prominent fugitives is Khaled Jehani, who led the Riyadh cell that allegedly carried out the May attacks. He was among 19 who escaped a police raid at a safe house just days before the bombings.
Those first attacks — aimed at compounds occupied predominately by Westerners and carried out by suicide bombers — are described as Saudi Arabia's Sept. 11. They prompted the government to unleash a multifronted campaign against terrorists.
While the crackdown hasn't eliminated al-Qaida, it's provided a detailed look at the group's operations in a country in which Islamic extremists provide a nurturing foundation. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who staged the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States were from Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden, al-Qaida's founder, was born in Saudi Arabia, although the government later rescinded his citizenship.
Investigators have remained in a 24-7 mode, sleeping on cots and bedrolls in the Interior Ministry, while special forces sweep the country, rounding up suspects. Clerics pressed into service by the government assist in interrogations by warning suspects that Islamic law forbids violent acts.
Government officials describe the campaign as the equivalent of war. At least a dozen security officers have been killed in confrontations with al-Qaida fugitives. Following leads from tribe to tribe and family to family, investigators have uncovered cells and weapons caches throughout the country.
The raids broke up plots with frightening implications. In Mecca, one of the two holiest cities in the Islamic world, members of an al-Qaida cell had rented an apartment for the holy month of Ramadan and had placed booby traps in copies of the Quran, the Islamic holy book.
Stashes elsewhere consisted of machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, plastic explosives, wigs, false identifications and thousands of rounds of ammunition. A farmhouse in eastern Saudi Arabia contained 20 tons of bomb-making chemicals. Much of the weaponry, authorities say, is smuggled in across the porous southern border with Yemen, while a smaller amount comes in through Iraq, to the north.
Saudi officials found evidence that al Ayeeri had been communicating with a fugitive al-Qaida member named Adnan al Shukrijumah, who U.S. intelligence officials believe was supposed to be the leader of a second wave of al-Qaida attacks in the United States after Sept. 11, 2001. Shukrijumah, who had been living in South Florida, fled the United States after Sept. 11 and is still at large and believed to be planning new attacks against Americans.
In the 1990s, al-Qaida's core membership consisted of Saudis who fought alongside bin Laden against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan during the 1980s and returned home steeped in anti-Western Islamic extremism.
Now they're being joined by a younger generation, restive young men in their late teens and early 20s who are largely undereducated and unable to find work in an economy where the unemployment rate hovers around 15 percent.
The Saudi government has targeted extremist Islamic clerics and Web sites that espouse al-Qaida's militant philosophy, blocking access to objectionable sites and dismissing more than 1,000 radical clerics believed to be stirring up dissent.
It's cracked down on charitable contributions that — intentionally or not — went to al-Qaida fund-raisers, even to the point of banning cash donations in mosques. Government TV aired a nationwide interview in which a jailed cleric apologized for past statements endorsing terrorist attacks.
Experts tend to support the government's contention that al-Qaida, after a steady pounding from Saudi law enforcement, lacks the muscle to bring down the monarchy.
But, in the words of Jamal Khashoggi, a former journalist who's an adviser to Saudi Arabia's ambassador to London, its surviving operatives are still "strong enough to cause chaos and disturbances."
KEY AL-QAIDA FIGURES IN SAUDI ARABIA:
Ali Abdulrahman al Ghamdi, also known as Abu Bakr. Surrendered on June 26. Believed to have helped mastermind the synchronized car-bombings in Riyadh that killed 35 on May 12. A former economics student who dropped out of King Abdul Aziz University in Riyadh, he escaped from U.S. troops in the battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December 2001.
Yousif Salih Fahad al Ayeeri, known as "the Swift Sword." Killed in a shoot-out May 31 after speeding through a checkpoint and hurling a grenade at pursuing police. He was considered a major fund-raiser and planner. His father told the Saudi press that he hadn't seen his son in years.
Still at large:
Khaled Jehani. Jehani, who left Saudi Arabia at 18 to become an al-Qaida combatant in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan, allegedly commanded the Riyadh cell that carried out the May 12 bombing. He appeared in a videotape in which he espoused martyrdom by pressing his lips to a rifle. He's thought to be a close associate of al-Qaida's No. 3 leader, Saif al Adel.
Adnan al Shukrijumah, who U.S. intelligence officials believe was supposed to be the leader of a second wave of al-Qaida attacks in the United States after Sept. 11.
(Montgomery reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)