Al Qaeda’s Third Front: Saudi Arabia

Bruce Riedel and Bilal Y. Saab


Osama bin Laden had ambitious plans to follow up the attacks of September 11, 2001. He and his top aides expected that an invasion of Afghanistan would follow their “Manhattan Raid” and welcomed it as a chance to ensnare the United States in what they hoped would become a bloody quagmire. Washington’s invasion of Iraq in early 2003 offered bin Laden more than he could ever wish for: the chance of a second U.S. quagmire. Bin Laden also had a third front in mind: his own homeland in Saudi Arabia, where he would wage a terrorist campaign with the intention of driving the United States and its British allies out of Islam’s holy land and of toppling the “apostate” Saudi monarchy.

The war in Saudi Arabia is being waged over the biggest stakes of all: control over Islam’s holy cities and oil wealth. Yet, having withdrawn most of its forces from Saudi Arabia in August 2003 after al Qaeda began its war, the United States remains on the margins. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia is waging an aggressive counterattack. How has bin Laden implemented his vision thus far, and how effective has Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorist campaign been in stopping him? Has the U.S. military withdrawal from Saudi Arabia had any effect on bin Laden’s plan for Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East? What effect has the war had on Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, especially toward its U.S. alliance?



Bilal Y. Saab

Senior Research Assistant, Saban Center for Middle East Policy