Archive for Monday, November 10, 2003

Saudis blame al-Qaida in blast

November 10, 2003


— Saudis blamed al-Qaida militants Sunday for the suicide car bombing of a Riyadh housing complex that killed 17 people, declaring it proof of the terror network's willingness to shed Muslim blood in its zeal to bring down the U.S.-linked Saudi monarchy.

The Saturday night attack at an upscale compound for foreign workers also wounded 122 people. The blast, not far from diplomatic quarters and the king's main palace, left piles of rubble, hunks of twisted metal, broken glass and a large crater.

"It's no longer an issue of terrorism for them," said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi analyst. "It's become a war on the regime, a war to turn the country into a new Afghanistan ruled by a Saudi-style Taliban."

An Interior Ministry official told the official Saudi news agency late Sunday that the death toll rose to 17 -- including five children -- after search crews pulled six more bodies from the rubble. At least 13 were Arabs, with the others as yet unidentified, the official said.

President Bush telephoned his condolences to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah. Bush told Abdullah the United States stands with the kingdom in the fight against terror, a White House official said.

Al-Qaida hallmarks

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said he was "personally quite sure" al-Qaida was behind the Saturday night attack "because this attack bears the hallmark of them."

Such attacks appear to be directed "against the government of Saudi Arabia and the people of Saudi Arabia," he said, adding that he expected more to follow.

Al-Qaida "will prefer to have many such attacks to appear bigger than they are," he told a news conference shortly after arriving in the Saudi capital. Such attacks showed that "all of us have to work together."

Led by Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida has long opposed the Saudi royal family, accusing it of being insufficiently Islamic and too close to the West, particularly the United States.

The attack came as the kingdom is pushing social and legal reforms it has stalled for years and pursuing Islamic militants with a determination and openness Saudis have never seen. For decades, the government was reluctant to confront religious extremists, because it draws its legitimacy partly from the royal family's close association with the strict Wahabi Islamic philosophy.

On Saturday gunmen -- possibly disguised as police -- shot their way into the 200-house compound, trading fire with security guards. The attackers, believed to be in a police car, then drove into the compound and blew themselves up.

It still wasn't clear how many attackers there were or whether they were listed as among the dead.

The victims included Lebanese, Egyptian, Sudanese and Saudis. The Interior Ministry said most of the wounded were Arabs as well. Most of the compound's residents were Lebanese, but some Saudis, German, French and Italian families also lived there.

Four U.S. citizens were among the wounded, the ministry said. In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Amanda Batt said "some Americans were treated for minor injuries and released."

In comments published Sunday on the Web site of Saudi daily Okaz newspaper, Interior Minister Prince Nayef said he could not rule out a connection to suspected al-Qaida terrorist cells targeted in recent sweeps, as a number of suspects from those cells were still at large.

Adding to the al-Qaida connection was the similarity between Saturday's bombing and attacks also blamed on the terror network -- particularly the May 12 suicide car bombings of other Riyadh compounds housing foreigners, which killed 26 bystanders. Nine attackers also died.

Desperate actions

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, condemned the attack and said Saudi Arabia was "at war with these terrorists."

"We are driving them out of their hiding places, we are killing and capturing their leaders, and we are choking off their means of support. As a result, their actions grow more desperate and more heinous."

By targeting foreigners' housing compounds, the attackers target the backbone of the Saudi economy. Saudi Arabia is home to 6 million expatriate workers, including about 35,000 Americans and 30,000 Britons. The kingdom relies on foreigners in its oil industry, security forces and health sector.

At the compound, located in a ravine surrounded by hills, residents trickled back Sunday to salvage mementos, clothes, passports and other personal items.

Prince Nayef, the interior minister, toured the site early Sunday and then warned that authorities would pursue anyone who would attack the kingdom and stop them "no matter how long the path is ... until we are completely certain that our country is free of every devil and every evil person."

Saturday's attack came a day after the United States warned it had "credible" evidence of a planned terrorist attack. The three U.S. diplomatic missions in the kingdom closed Sunday for the second straight day.

Saudi analysts say the militants were lashing out now for fear that the reform process would marginalize them and end the influence they automatically enjoyed as men of religion.

"Those people are desperate now," Turki al-Hamad, a prominent Saudi political scientist and columnist, said. "They know they cannot carry out coups. They know they cannot get to the palaces. The only thing they can do is create a state of confusion and disorder."

Since the May 12 attacks, the government has been holding down the more radical rhetoric in mosques and the media and has removed some portions in religious school textbooks that incite against Christians and Jews. It recently announced it will hold the first elections ever -- a vote on municipal councils -- next year. And it has adopted new restrictions on Islamic charities to ensure donations do not end up funding terror.

An anti-terror sweep launched after the May attacks has netted more than 600 extremists.

In the past week, police clashed with suspected al-Qaida sympathizers in the streets of the sacred city of Mecca, killing two militants and uncovering a large cache of weapons. Three days later, two suspected militants blew themselves up in Mecca to avoid arrest and a third suspect was killed in a shootout with security forces in Riyadh.

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