RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — After years of giving tacit support and back-channel financing to Islamic extremists, the Saudi government has joined forces with the United States in an intensive battle against Al Qaeda in the desert kingdom.
For the last year, U.S. intelligence analysts have been sitting side by side with their Saudi counterparts at a secret location here in the capital, sharing raw intelligence and plotting counterattacks, said a former U.S. ambassador to the country, Robert Jordan, and a senior Saudi government official.
Even critics who accuse the Saudis of turning a blind eye to militant Islamic terrorism in the past -- and who remain skeptical about the extent of their cooperation -- agreed that Saudi security forces were taking the Al Qaeda threat seriously and responding forcefully.
The government's abrupt change of strategy came after a string of suicide bombings, shooting rampages and a beheading by the Al Qaeda terrorist network in Saudi Arabia in the last 15 months. The strikes have killed more than 100 people, most of them foreigners, and have threatened to cause political instability for the world's largest oil producer.
Since suicide bombers struck three Riyadh housing compounds in May 2003, police and soldiers have killed more than 40 suspected extremists and tightened security in the kingdom. The Saudi security forces, with little experience combating sophisticated extremist organizations, have relied heavily on help from U.S. intelligence agencies, spy satellites and the FBI, Saudi and U.S. officials said.
But just as the Saudi government has shifted its strategy, so has Al Qaeda. In a bid to expand its influence and win recruits from a vast pool of Saudis who have long chafed under the repressive monarchy, Al Qaeda operatives have been switching their emphasis from killing foreigners to assassinating a member of the royal family, people close to the terrorist group and Western intelligence officials said.
These sources described the assassination plans, posted on an Al Qaeda website in June, as the next phase in the group's ruthless campaign to topple the government and impose a strict Taliban-like theocracy.
"Many people are saying the jihadis are doing a big mistake by targeting foreigners," said Saad Fagih, a prominent Saudi dissident in London with ties to the radical community. "They should have targeted the royal family long ago. We would admire jihadis if they would attack the royal family rather than these compounds."
Saudi officials dismissed the threat as desperate propaganda. They said their crackdown, including the killing of three consecutive leaders of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, left the group too weak to mount an attack as elaborate as an assassination.
"They try to show themselves as a very strong organization capable of doing anything they want," Brig. Mansour Turki, a counter-terrorism expert with the Interior Ministry, said in an interview. "We are not worried at all."
U.S. intelligence officials and terrorism experts, however, cautioned that Al Qaeda remained entrenched in Saudi Arabia and capable of staging major attacks, including an assassination of a senior member of the royal family.
The dominance of the royal family in Saudi Arabia cannot be overstated. Although there are as many as 10,000 princes, a select few control every aspect of government in the kingdom.
The unrelenting violence and the new threat of assassinations mean that the royals face an unprecedented threat from a homegrown brand of violent Islamic extremism at the same time that they confront pressure from disaffected segments of the population and U.S. demands for democratic reforms.
"The mood is terrible throughout the country," said Mai Yamani, a Saudi expert at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. "You have the usual censorship and corruption. Now there is this fear. The situation is very fragile."
Tensions are evident in Riyadh. Khaki-clad soldiers sit atop armored vehicles in the heat outside the big hotels and shopping malls. Security guards stop vehicles entering public garages, popping hoods and trunks to look for explosives. Checkpoints dot the capital's avenues.
Western diplomats are confined largely to the well-guarded diplomatic quarter on the outskirts of Riyadh, and foreign workers tend to stick close to their housing compounds.
"This has never been a welcome place for Westerners, but now it's like a siege," said a diplomat who has spent two years in Riyadh.
In the late 1990s, the Saudis rebuffed American pleas for help in going after the support network in the kingdom that nurtured Saudi-born Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.
The Saudis preferred to see Bin Laden as a symbol of Islamic fundamentalist anger directed at other regimes rather than a threat to its own stability, despite his repeated condemnations of the royal family for defiling the kingdom by opening it to U.S. troops.