Riyadh bombing intensifies pressure for democratic reform

Friday, November 14, 2003

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The bombing that killed 17 people in the Saudi capital is intensifying pressure for democratic reform in Saudi Arabia, and is likely to undercut the militants' support among Arabs who previously sympathized to some degree with their goals.

While some have rejoiced over Saturday's suicide car bombing, many in the Arab world are shocked that it targeted Arabs and Muslims.

The bombing -- the work of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, according to U.S. and Saudi officials -- hit a housing compound in Riyadh that the attackers must have known houses Arab families. As a result, said Saudi political analyst Dawood al-Shirian, many Saudis who felt some sympathy for bin Laden or even saw justification for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are now beginning to question his goals.

"When they see the images of dead children, when they see the images of a dead mother, if one of their own dies, they will turn away from the militants," said al-Shirian. "That's what will isolate the militants."

'Un-Islamic' actions

On the streets of the capital one evening this week, after breaking their daily Ramadan fast, some Muslims expressed fear such attacks would sully Islam or encourage its enemies.

Khalid al-Sultan, 32, a catering company employee, called it "un-Islamic." Abdul-Rahman al-Sheikh, a 41-year-old businessman, said al-Qaida militants are "not only a threat to the people in the kingdom but also a threat to humanity and our peaceful religion."

That feeling was not universal, however. In Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, many Arabs have fallen back on conspiracy theories about America and Israel engineering the bombing -- or at least letting it happen -- in order to discredit Islam.

"I have the feeling that those who did it can't be Muslims. Why not Americans?" lawyer Fatma Lasheen said in Cairo. "The American Embassy closed the day of the operation. And if not, why didn't they foil this operation if they knew about it? Don't you think it is strange?"

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh had closed because of fears an attack was imminent, but U.S. officials said the intelligence did not say where it might happen.

Saudis who support the attack speak on condition of anonymity, lest they attract the attention of the government as it arrests suspected militants. But they don't hide their pride nor their certainty that al-Qaida was behind it.

One Saudi in his 30s phoned a reporter to say he was "ecstatic." He said he wanted the kingdom, home of Islam's most revered holy places, to return to life as it was in the days of the Prophet Muhammad.

Another, also in his 30s, said people wish such attacks were happening every night, but would prefer they targeted Americans and Westerners.

Al-Shirian, the Saudi analyst, noted the militant mind-set was shaped in part by radical clerics regularly approving suicide bombings elsewhere as resistance to Israeli oppression of Palestinians or an American "war on Islam."

"This is a mistake that all Arab countries should have been alert to," al-Shirian said. "The governments should have made the religious establishment aware that such attacks have become a weapon used against our societies because they were sanctioned against other civilians, Israelis and Americans."

Talal Salman, publisher of the Lebanese leftist daily As-Safir, said the bombing will cost al-Qaida support.

"I think these attacks draw a clear and defining line between terrorism and resistance," he said. "I think Arab and Muslim public opinion in general knows that ... resistance should take place in the open, above the ground. It should be directed against an occupier, not take the form of killings in New York, Riyadh or Bali."

Mohsen al-Awajy, a Saudi lawyer with contacts among extremists, said he believes the militants' following will decline, but that radicalism and violence will persist until the authoritarian Saudi system loosens up sufficiently to "provide the atmosphere for people to cooperate with it."

Reformists doubt that corruption among the royal family's thousands of princes will end or the strict Islamic grip on daily life will ease.

Saudi officials have been saying for months that the ruling Al Saud family knows change is urgently needed.

The officials point to plans for the country's first municipal elections and the introduction of schoolbooks showing young boys and girls together, something extremists decry as a violation of Islam's separation of the sexes.

Since the bombing, however, some officials speaking on condition of anonymity, are conceding that change must come faster.

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