If Ali Abdulrahman al-Ghamdi really was the man who
planned last month's suicide bombings in Riyadh, his surrender was
about the most unique development in the history of Osama bin
Laden's al-Qa'ida movement.
No fight to the death for MrGhamdi, no heroic last battle in the
desert or the foothills of Afghanistan. He just turned up at the
home of the Saudi Interior Minister's son after personally arranging
- by telephone - to have a reception committee waiting for him.
"I thank God that my son handed himself in because this has
comforted me and his family," Mr Ghamdi's father, Abdulrahman, told
the Saudi daily Okaz. "This is the right thing to do - which he
should have done earlier. We are not happy with these [suicide
bombings] if he has really done them."
All of which begs a question: since when did al-Qa'ida members,
dedicated to secrecy and self-immolation, surrender to the local
constabulary? For if Mr Ghamdi really was involved in the suicide
bombings, which killed 34 people, he will very soon have his head
chopped off after morning prayers outside a neighbourhood
The Saudis congratulated themselves. Prince Nayef, the Interior
Minister, confirmed that Mr Ghamdi had turned himself in, that his
son had been involved in the surrender, and that the authorities
would soon have other important members of al-Qa'ida.
No one doubts that Mr Ghamdi fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya -
though, now 26, he could hardly have been involved in the Afghan war
against the Russians. However, there is some doubt as to whether he
really was with Bin Laden in al-Qa'ida's redoubt at Tora Bora before
the Americans laid waste to the mountainsides in the autumn of
For the Saudis, however, any arrest can be displayed as further
proof that the kingdom is joining President George Bush's "war on
terror" and making amends - albeit a little late in the day - for
the fact that 15 of the 19 killers of 11 September 2001 were
"The noose has tightened," a Saudi official announced
melodramatically. "There are checkpoints everywhere and suspects are
being arrested all the time. He had no choice."
But is that true? Would an al-Qa'ida operative - whose leader has
been able to circumvent the military and intelligence authorities of
the greatest power on earth - really be so mouse-like when
confronted with Saudi checkpoints?
A cynic might suggest a different scenario: that the Saudis and
al-Qa'ida have somehow done a deal, that al-Qa'ida will be left in
peace if a few members ritually turn themselves in, along with a
promise not to bomb the kingdom again. Sending Bin Laden and his
legions to Afghanistan was, in the first place, a way to get them
out of Saudi Arabia. For years, Bin Laden was in contact with Prince
Nayef's predecessor as Interior Minister.
All of which raises another question: if Osama bin Laden is not
in Afghanistan or Pakistan, could he perhaps be in Saudi Arabia,
where he has more support than anywhere else in the Arab world, even
among the royal family?
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