The influx detected in the past few months is worrying for Yemen, where several hundred Saudi militants are already thought to be fighting alongside their Yemeni counterparts in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
After tours in Syria and Iraq, Saudi militants head to Yemen
SANAA // Dozens of Saudi militants have left the battlefields of Syria and Iraq for Yemen, where their experience appears to have contributed to a spate of Al Qaeda attacks.
The influx detected in the past few months is worrying for Yemen, where several hundred Saudi militants are already thought to be fighting alongside their Yemeni counterparts in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The initial core of Saudis fled to Yemen after the kingdom defeated a violent Al Qaeda campaign between 2003 and 2006, helping to create AQAP with their Yemeni comrades in 2009.
“Now the Saudi who comes here is an experienced fighter from the war in Iraq or Syria and is ready to be ‘martyred’,” said a Yemeni security official, who asked not to be named.
“They know how to build weapons and bombs, and they are teaching others.”
Foreign militants have flocked to Syria to join rebels battling President Bashar Al Assad in the past two years. Iraq had previously served as a magnet for foreign militants eager to fight US forces and the Shiite-led authorities which came to power after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Yemen is also where US drone strikes have targeted Al Qaeda leaders for more than a decade.
AQAP is not short of bomb-making expertise itself, as it has shown in bomb plots against Saudi and Western targets.
These include an attempt by a Nigerian to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 with a bomb concealed in his underwear and a foiled plot to send two air freight packages containing bombs to the United States in 2010.
Al Qaeda militants exploited political chaos in Yemen after the 2011 uprising that eventually unseated the long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize control of several southern towns.
Despite losing that territorial base after a military offensive backed by US drones in 2012, they have regrouped, staging a series of attacks across Yemen in the past few months, some of which are thought to be the work of Saudis.
A Yemeni government inquiry said most of the perpetrators of a December 5 raid on a Defence Ministry hospital in Sanaa, in which at least 52 people were killed, were Saudi citizens.
Al Qaeda apology
It was the single deadliest incident in Yemen in 18 months and even AQAP appeared embarrassed, blaming a renegade fighter for slaughtering unarmed medics and patients at the hospital.
The killings, captured on closed-circuit television and broadcast by state media, caused outrage after drone strikes had gained some sympathy for Al Qaeda.
The security official said some Saudi militants who had come to Yemen from Syria were on trial after being captured and that some Saudis involved in the hospital assault had fought in Iraq.
Abdulrazzaq Al Jamal, a Yemeni journalist who has interviewed Al Qaeda members, said the group was imitating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which operates in Iraq and Syria, in how it selects its targets and tactics.
“AQAP used to execute its operations using roadside bombs. Now it has started ... storming into facilities,” he said.
On February 13, seven people were killed in a bomb, grenade and gun assault on the main prison in Sanaa and 19 people jailed for terrorism-related crimes escaped in the chaos.
Black-clad militants appeared in an Al Qaeda video posted online last month that documented four attacks, including the one on the defence ministry hospital. They were seen training in the desert, preparing for action and making speeches beforehand.
Nine of the 14 men shown had Saudi accents or names such as Abu Khaled Al Makki and Abu Naser Al Najdi, suggesting they hail from Mecca or the kingdom’s Najd region.
While the security official said dozens of Saudis had come to Yemen from Syria and Iraq, as the effect of those conflicts ripples across the Middle East, gauging their numbers is hard, partly because of the existing Saudi presence in AQAP.
On February 11, Yemen said it had handed Saudi Arabia 29 of its nationals wanted as Al Qaeda suspects. There was no information about when the Saudis had arrived in Yemen.
A Gulf diplomatic source said more than 10 “influential” Saudis had joined AQAP in Yemen after fighting in Syria.
However, a Saudi interior ministry spokesman, Major General Mansour Al Turki, said he thought it unlikely that many Saudi militants would be heading to Yemen from Syria or Iraq because for now those countries remained the main theatres for Islamist militancy.
In Syria, a commander with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army said he had heard of an outflow of Saudi militants to Yemen, but had no details.
It was not immediately clear whether their departure was part of a new strategy to step up AQAP’s struggle in Yemen, or was caused by disillusionment brought on by infighting in Syria between ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra, its Al Qaeda rival.