Saudi attacks seen as threat to monarchy

Monday, November 10, 2003

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Saudis blamed al-Qaida militants Sunday for the suicide car bombing of a Riyadh housing complex, 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 attack late Saturday at an upscale compound for foreign workers -- where mostly Arabs lived -- killed 11 people and wounded more than 120. 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."

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.

'To appear bigger'

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."

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.

Those killed were Lebanese, Egyptian, Sudanese and Saudi -- four of them children. The Interior Ministry said most of the 122 injured were Arabs as well. Most of the compound's residents were Lebanese, but some Saudis, German, French and Italian families also lived there.

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 similiarity 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.

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.

On Sunday in London, the Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Turki al-Faisal, condemned Saturday's attack as the work of an "evil cult" whose "sole aim is the destruction of the kingdom."

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.

"This evil must be stopped," Prince Turki said, without naming al-Qaida. "We call on all the people of the world to work with us in fighting this evil and ridding the international community of this plague."

At the compound hit Saturday, located in a ravine surrounded by hills, residents trickled back Sunday mainly 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.

"No mercy or pity should be felt for anyone thinking of carrying out such acts," he said.

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.

A British warden's message urged Britons to "maintain a high level of vigilance," saying the terrorist threat remained high. The Web site of the French Embassy also warned citizens to limit movements and keep children home from school.

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 Wahhabi Islamic philosophy.

Saudi analysts say the militants are 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.

"Their ultimate aim is the regime's fall."

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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