For years, the United Arab Emirates appeared to be off the target list for terrorist groups. Its ultramodern city-state, Dubai, has emerged as the Switzerland of the Middle East, a place where Iran, al Qaeda, and neighboring oil kingdoms parked their money in banks that rarely asked and rarely told. After the 9/11 attacks, soft targets in Amman, Riyadh, and Baghdad were hit—as were Egypt’s resorts. But Dubai and the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, escaped al Qaeda’s wrath.
That looks like it’s changing. On Wednesday, the UAE official news agency reported the country’s security service, working in conjunction with Saudi Arabia, rolled up a terror cell planning attacks for the emirates and other Gulf States. The report made reference to “the deviant group,” the preferred euphemism that state-run media there uses for al Qaeda.
Two U.S. officials confirmed the arrests. One said the cell, which included both Emiratis and Saudis, served as a “support network” for groups with links to al Qaeda, but was not in the final phase of planning a major attack. The UAE state press quoted an official as saying the cell was “planning on carrying out actions that infringe on the national security of both countries and brotherly nations.”
“The reality is the UAE is not immune to terrorism,” said Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism under George W. Bush and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Zarate, a pioneer in tracking and disrupting the financial networks of terrorist groups, added, “Dubai has always served as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and money. It has been attractive to lots of legitimate commercial activity as well as lots of those the United States considers to be enemies, including the Taliban, Iran, and al Qaeda affiliates.”
For years, Dubai’s permissive banking environment gave American spies a rare look into the financial doings of some of its worst adversaries, U.S. intelligence officials said. These days, the city-state is home to a large U.S. consulate from which American spies monitor Iranian actions across the Persian Gulf; the diplomatic outpost also coordinates visas to Iranian academics and former officials seeking to visit the United States for the unofficial talks known as “track two” diplomacy.
While the UAE was never an adversary of the United States, the federation of seven emirates at times appeared to play both sides of the fence. The 9/11 Commission, for example, disclosed that in 1999 an official aircraft of the UAE, along with senior government officials, were in the same Afghanistan location as Osama bin Laden’s compound. Until the U.S. attacks, the UAE was one of three countries (along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) to have diplomatic relations with the Taliban government in Afghanistan that was hosting bin Laden at the time.
After 9/11, this changed. “In the years after 9/11, the UAE decided that the way forward was to be strongly allied with the United States,” said Simon Henderson, the director of the Gulf and Energy Policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It now has strong day-to-day relations with U.S. military in the region, which makes for an attractive target for al Qaeda and other groups that hate the United States.”
For example, in November 2002, UAE authorities arrested Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the man U.S. authorities say was the mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. In 2010, UAE authorities played a role in unraveling a Qaeda plot to smuggle bombs onto airplanes by embedding the explosives in printer cartridges. Until this year, the UAE was the primary funder of a Somali counterpiracy force being trained by security contractors in the port city of Bosaso, in Somalia’s autonomous Puntland state.
The arrests Wednesday are not the first time UAE authorities have taken action against al Qaeda-linked groups on its on soil. In 2009, authorities arrested a cell that targeted landmarks in Dubai, but did not announce the arrests publicly.
In September, the UAE arrested more than 60 members of a local Islamist party known as al-Islah, though that group does not have any known links to al Qaeda.
In some ways al Qaeda does not have the capability to conduct elaborate large-scale attacks the way it did in the last decade. Many of its top leaders—including bin Laden—in Pakistan have been killed. Instead, the new threat against the UAE is emerging from local jihadists.
“The threat is more autonomous now, the local cells are driving their own agenda,” Zarate said. “Even if there had been an understanding in the past or a desire not to disrupt the money flows through Dubai, there are groups now and individuals who have separate and discreet agendas that may now see the UAE as a legitimate and prime target.”