The Battle of Al-Ras: The Last Stand of the Who’s Who of Al-Qaeda
Editor's Note: This article was based on interviews with Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, Ministry of Interior sources, eyewitnesses in Al-Ras and reports from the Saudi Press Agency.
By Sabria S. Jawhar and Rob L. Wagner
The Saudi Gazette
12 April 2005
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- The day promised to reach 35 centigrade, but it could have been worse. If the battle of Al-Ras had occurred a month or two later, security men, civilians trapped in the crossfire, and extremists could have very well been battling dehydration as well as bullets.
But on this day – Sunday, April 3 – for the players in the most protracted battle between militants and security forces since Al-Qaeda declared war on the Saudi government, dehydration was from their minds.
Abdul Rahman Al-Yazji, a 27-year-old dissolute man from the Jizan region, was rattling around the neighborhoods of Riyadh with his Yemeni driver looking for an opportunity to keep security men from concentrating on a villa in Al-Ras, about 355 kilometers from the capital.
Yazji, the brother of suspected terrorist Abdul Kareem Al-Yazji, one of the suicide bombers who targeted three Western housing compounds in the capital on May 12, 2003, had good reason to worry about his confederates in Al-Ras.
Security men received a tip that militants were hiding out in a villa in Al-Jawasat District. By 8 a.m., as district shops were opening and children were already arriving at school for the day’s lessons and mothers doing some early shopping before the day got too hot, security men assembled a safe distance from the villa.
Al-Jawazat is a quiet and relatively new district in the northwest area of Al-Ras. Unlike many neighboring districts, Al-Jawazat has wide roads and new buildings with unusual but traditional Arabic architecture. Roads to Makkah, Madinah, Riyadh and Qassim meet in Al-Jawazat. Strategically, it was perfect location for the militants’ new headquarters.
The militants also took advantage of the constant construction in the district, which resulted in many people moving in and out of homes.
The villa had been rented using a fake military identification card of a security man assigned to Kharij. During Haj, men using the identification card signed a contract to rent the villa but only began staying there just two weeks before the battle.
Residents of the district did not know their new neighbors, but remarked later that they observed Saud Bin Hommoud Al-Quatii (also identified by his middle name of Al-Otaibi) – a weapons smuggler, explosives expert and Afghanistan veteran – performing prayers in the neighborhood mosque with the 16-year-old son of Kareem Al-Tihami Idriss Al-Mejjati, the notorious Moroccan terrorist and Casablanca bomber.
The teenager, Saleh (Adam) Al-Mejjati, was a well-trained soldier who handled weapons easily. He also was the militants’ designated delivery boy, shopping at the local supermarket, but keeping quiet and not talking to his new neighbors.
Outwardly, the new tenants of the villa appeared to be just another family moving their belongings into a new home. Many guests came in and out of the residence, including many women. It was only later that neighbors and lawmen thought this unusually large number of women were actually men in disguise.
Seemingly innocent were the rather huge and heavy boxes being carried into the villa by the new residents. Unknown to their neighbors, the villa’s occupants were stockpiling weapons and explosives.
Security men knew they had something big on their hands and cordoned off the area. Then, with sudden precision, they laid siege to the villa. But the answer was unexpected. Extremists inside the villa responded with automatic gunfire, RPGs and hand grenades. These Afghanistan-tested men knew how to fight.
But two years of fighting Saudi Arabia’s Al-Qaeda cell had taught the military plenty on how to deal with terrorists. They saw 39 of their own men cut down in the line of fire. Ninety civilians also died over a two-year period. But lawmen also killed 92 suspected extremists. They were just as battle-hardened as the militants.
Security men, hiding on rooftops, behind vehicles and armored carries, exchanged gunfire almost immediately, and three militants died.
The rest, numbering about a dozen, blasted holes in a common wall shared with another villa and fled to new quarters. At the height of siege, the extremists knocked holes in common walls of two additional unoccupied villas to escape gunfire and better position themselves.
Security men soon realized they were in for a protracted battle and were faced with two serious logistical issues. They were deep in a residential district. And just 15 meters from the battlefield was the 25th Girls’ School.
Amid light arms fire and RPGs blasting the air, 94 girls and 13 teachers scrambled from classrooms to the far end of the school, huddled and terrified. School deputy principal Nora Saleh Al-Ghofaili – through Mohammad Saleh Al-Ghofaili, Qassim’s general director in the Ministry of Education, and Nora’s brother, – contacted security officers in the neighborhood. She received orders to move from the classrooms to the rear of the ground floor for safety.
To calm the girls, Ghofaili and her teachers had them loudly recite the Qur’an to drown out the gunfire. The younger girls were told the gunfire was a military training session. The older students didn’t believe a word of it.
Outside the militants’ hideout and the school, security men were at a standstill. They also were not talking. Mobile phones were shut off and inquiries from the press to favored security sources were blocked.
But the ultimate goal was to evacuate the students and teachers as quickly as possible. They also wanted as many militants as possible taken alive.
Yet the Girls’ School wasn’t the only obstacle. They had no idea how many extremists were holed up in the villa and they were unaware of how much firepower they possessed. They were obviously heavily armed, but just what was their arsenal?
The gunfire continued and Special Forces were called in from Madinah as added cover for existing security fighters on the ground. By 7 p. m., military men on the perimeter and vice principal Ghofaili had formulated a plan. A hole was punched into the back of the wall of the school.
Security snipers took up positions near the wall and faced the militants’ den. A group of security men stood shoulder to shoulder forming a barricade to protect the girls from possible attack. They also used an armored vehicle as a screen to obstruct the line of sight of the militants. Teachers pushed the students through the hole in increments of 10 – to avoid crowding and panic – into the waiting arms of security men. They were taken to parked school buses, which moved everyone 500 meters from the scene. The school was empty within minutes.
Now that the threat to civilians had been minimized, security officers turned their attention to flushing out their opponents. They demanded surrender but were answered with gunfire. The shooting became more aggressive, if not desperate.
They knew that three extremists were dead, two were wounded and one was captured.
The captured militant turned out to be Hamad Bin Abdullah Bin Ibrahim Al-Humaidi, a Saudi considered the ideologue of the Al-Qaeda cell. He had been detained by security forces in 2002, but released after recanting. He also helped spearhead a propaganda campaign on the Internet.
Following relative calm after the evacuation of the children, militants began an offensive early in the morning of Monday, April 4. Scattered throughout the compound of the villas, they hurled hand grenades and laid down heavy gunfire. They successfully attacked and disabled two armored vehicles, causing several security casualties.
Security officers sealed the neighborhood tight. They prevented residents in six nearby homes from returning to their villas. Lawmen also shut down three additional schools and sent the children and teachers home.
Residents of Al-Jawazat threw open their doors for security men, offering them water and juice to fight off the heat and help the injured until proper medical help arrived.
The militants’ resistance was tempered by the fact that security forces learned that two leading figures of Al-Qaeda had been killed.
Mejjati and Quatii, who were ranked as No. 4 and No. 7 respectively on Saudi Arabia’s list of 26 most-wanted terrorist suspects, had perished in the fighting.
Mejjati is alleged by the Saudi government to have masterminded the bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, in May 2003, Quatii is said to be one of two Saudi militants running Al-Qaeda’s branch in Saudi Arabia. Last year, he purportedly posted an Internet statement rejecting amnesty offered by King Fahd, who promised militants their lives would be spared if they surrendered.
Residents reported seeing up to five people arrested on Sunday night after a brief clash with security forces as they tried to drive through a checkpoint into Al-Ras possibly to reinforce the surrounded gunmen. The ministry of Interior denied the report.
At one point during the fighting, extremists opened fire on an electric transformer station to cut power to the district and break the government’s momentum in the siege. It didn’t work.
During the fighting, Gen. Ali Al-Kehaili, leader of Special Forces, sustained minor wounds to his chin and stomach. Also sustaining minor and moderate injuries were Special Forces members Aiad Hussain Al-Mutairi and Khalid Hussain Al-Dehani, Qassim police officer Said Qablan Al-Harbi and security men Qazi Muhammad Al-Harbi, Zaid Nahav Al-Otaibi, Nasser Hamdan Al-Otaibi, Nazil Mushsin Al-Otaibi and Muhammad Eid Al-Dsausari.
By the end of the second day, the Ministry of Interior announced the number of killed gunmen had reached eight. Saudi authorities didn’t announced casualties among their security men but a source said as many as 35 security personnel had been wounded on the first day and that several security vehicles were damaged.
A local hospital official said 58 security personnel had been treated by the second day. A ministry statement said another insurgent was critically wounded and several security men were injured, although most had been released from the hospital. The official statement announced Saturday said 14 security personnel were wounded in the confrontation, two of them seriously.
Although apparently exhausted and weakened by two solid days of fighting, the militants remained resilient. And security men knew it.
At about 5 p.m. on Tuesday, April 5, troops stormed the villa in a display of force not seen previously in the Kingdom’s two-year fight against Al-Qaeda.
In a nerve-wracking room-to-room search, commandos methodically hunted down each militant. In all, security personnel killed 14 extremists during the three-day operation.
Eyewitnesses to the siege said two helicopters hovered continuously over the battlefield that was punctuated with gunfire and explosions. Roads leaving to Al-Jawazat District were sealed off, leaving the neighborhood a virtual ghost town. As officers collected evidence and scooped up the dead, the fighting men withdrew, surrendering their authority to government investigators. The investigators combed the area, collecting documents, searching for weapons and making sure the insurgents left no booby-traps.
The list of militant dead and wounded reads like a Who’s Who of Al-Qaeda.
In addition to Quatii and Mejjati the dead are:
Hani Bin Abdullah Al-Joaithen, a suspect in the Al-Muayya residential compound bombing in November 2003; Faisal Bin Muhammad Al-Baidhani, explosives expert responsible for the December 2004 bombing of the Ministry of Interior building and emergency forces headquarters; Majed Bin Muhammad Al-Masoud, propaganda expert; Fawaz Mufdi Al-Anazi, Al-Qaeda recruiter of young men; Abdul Rahman Bin Abdullah Al-Jarboue, logistics and transportation coordinator; Nawaf Bin Naif Al-Hafi, Afghanistan veteran and weapons and explosives expert; and Abdussalam Bin Suleiman Al-Khudairy, a car bomb expert.
Mejjati’s teenage son, Saleh, also known as Adam, was killed with his father.
Three of the six wounded are:
Adil Bin Saad Al-Dhubaiti, attacker at Al-Muhayya residential compound in Riyadh and the Abdulaziz Oasis Compound in Al-Khobar; Saleh Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Shamsan, logistics, transportation and family cover coordinator; and Hamad Bin Abdullah Al-Humaidi.
Shamsan, 21, was once a start pupil in school, becoming the No. 1 ranked student in his high school in Qassim. At Imam Mohammad Bin Saud Islamic University, Shamsan studied English, but after one year he dropped out because he didn’t want to study the “language of infidels.”
Three months after getting married, he disappeared, joining Al-Qaeda. He was gone for one year before surrendering at Al-Ras.
The tree remaining survivors have not been identified.
Meanwhile, witnesses reported that Al-Qaeda operative and former used car salesman Saleh Al-Oufi was killed in the battle as well. The Saudi Interior Ministry refused to confirm the report, saying it would later issue a detailed statement “that includes all confusion that surrounded Al-Ras clashes.”
Oufi was previously reported killed in clashes last year in Riyadh, but an extremist website later said he was still alive.
Security forces had seized a large cache of weapons, equipment and explosives, documents and more than SR250,000 in cash from terrorists in the Al-Ras operation.
The day after the siege, security men tracked down on a narrow road, Abi Saif Street, and shot to death Abdul Rahman Al-Yazji, No. 3 on the Saudi most wanted list, and arrested his Yemeni driver. The raid took place in Al-Khalidyyah District next to the industrial city in southern Riyadh, at Yazji’s ground floor apartment. The entire operation took less than a half hour.
Yazji’s motives for being in Riyadh are unknown, although security forces suspect he may have had plans to attack the Diplomatic Quarter or serve as a decoy to draw security manpower away from the fighting in Al-Ras.
What it Means
What made the battle unusual was the number of militants holed up in such a small place and the large arsenal of weapons that they were hiding. Previously, the highest number of militants killed in a single battle with Saudi forces was six in July 2003, when police raided a farm in the Qassim Region.
Experts believe the raid is one of the biggest and most significant operation Saudi forces have ever carried out.
The killing of Mejjati and Otaibi will provide a further boost for the Saudi security forces, which appear to have successes in curtailing the militants’ ability to strike in recent months.
Yet Saudi officials said the killing of those militants shouldn’t be considered an end to terrorism in the Kingdom.