Outside editorial: Saudi help averted bombing disaster

Posted: Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

Last week's frenzy of cargo-plane searches to track down hidden bombs emanating from Yemen was what air traffic controllers might call a "near miss." Optimists such as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano say the international security system worked the way it was supposed to. But it appears that that disaster was only narrowly averted, with a generous assist from good luck.

What's indisputable is that extensive cooperation between U.S. and Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies led to the bombs' interception. This level of enthusiastic Saudi participation in fighting terrorism has been all too rare in the past, but it is a welcome change. The lack of communication among U.S. and Saudi intelligence agencies has been glaring in previous terrorism incidents, particularly the 9/11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

The kingdom's resolve took a notable turn last year, around the time a lone terrorist approached Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in August 2009 and wounded him in an attempted suicide bomb attack. The Saudi royal family has come to appreciate that it, too, faces mortal danger from the growth of Islamist radicalism in Yemen, which shares a very porous border with the kingdom. International security specialists say the Yemen-based group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is emerging as one of the world's most potent threats.

Last year, the Saudis launched an unprecedented security crackdown. One reported sweep around the time of the assassination attempt led to 44 arrests of suspected al-Qaeda militants whose members were building electronic circuits for bombs. A criminal court convicted and sentenced 330 al-Qaeda militants to jail terms, fines and travel bans. A year ago, the Saudi air force launched a rare cross-border attack to wipe out an Iranian-backed rebel group. Thousands of troops, backed by armored vehicles, swept across the border to attack a Yemeni rebel base.

The Saudis took considerable risks to infiltrate the group involved in last week's attempted attacks, and one agent reportedly was killed by suspected al-Qaeda militants when his undercover work was discovered.

This near-disaster exposed one of the international transportation system's biggest remaining security gaps, and Congress already is looking at new screening requirements that could cost billions of dollars to implement.

Even with expensive new measures, nothing can substitute for the active, ongoing participation from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim-world countries in fighting the radicals in their midst. Their ability to infiltrate groups such as al-Qaeda far surpasses what the United States can do on its own. And their ongoing cooperation can mark the crucial difference between foiled attacks such as those of last week and previous security failures in which Muslim-world governments could not, or would not, get involved.

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