Attackers sought Americans in consulate raid
Wednesday, December 8, 2004
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- The militants stormed into the compound's inner courtyard, firing their guns from behind trees, bursting into offices and shouting: "Where are the Americans? Where are the Americans?"
Lying in hospital beds, wounded U.S. consulate workers provided new details Tuesday about an attack that killed nine, injured at least 10 and showed America's continued vulnerability to terrorist groups capable of conducting sophisticated surveillance, on even the most heavily guarded sites.
The militants "clearly understood how cars entered the compound, and they were conducting surveillance," U.S. ambassador James C. Oberwetter said Tuesday.
He contended security measures had largely worked because the attackers' car could not get past the consulate gate, forcing them to enter the grounds on foot. The attackers also never made it to the main consulate buildings, where most Americans worked.
Still, as Oberwetter offered condolences to the families of five slain consulate workers, he said, "the events of yesterday show the need for improvement. We will examine what additional steps need to be taken."
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli warned that there could be more attacks in Saudi Arabia.
"Our operating assumption is that there are still terrorist elements active in the kingdom, targeting U.S. citizens and facilities, as well as other commercial and civilian establishments," Ereli said. "Therefore, maximum alertness and caution and prudence is called for."
To bolster diplomatic security, Defense Department officials said a Marine Corps anti-terror team would go to Jiddah. Typically, there are 50 Marines in such teams, trained in providing security and conducting raids in urban areas.
Saudi officials, meanwhile, said four of the assailants were Saudis and one remained unidentified.
None of the three identified by name -- Fayez bin Awad al-Juhaini, Eid bin Dakhil Allah al-Juhaini and Hassan bin Hamid al-Hazimi -- appears on the kingdom's list of 26 most-wanted militants. Saudi officials did not say whether the al-Juhainis were related, or provide details about them. Four of the five attackers died.
The five slain consulate employees were from Yemen, Sudan, the Philippines, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The director of King Fahd Hospital said a total of 10 wounded were brought there, and eight remained Tuesday. Two American staff members were slightly wounded, but the circumstances remained unclear.
One of the wounded consulate employees, Salah Abdel Qawi Alyafiee of Yemen, said the militants first stormed into the consulate courtyard, then held people as human shields as Saudi forces rushed in and engaged the attackers in a fierce gunbattle.
"Each one of the terrorists took a group of us, and they started shooting at the (Saudi) guards," he said. "And thanks to God, the Saudis did not shoot at random. They aimed at the terrorists."
Alyafiee, who works as a dispatcher at the consulate, said he kneeled down as the firing began, and then was shot.
"I don't know whose bullet hit me," he said. "I was on the floor and my face was to the floor."
He said the attackers, fellow Muslims, shouted "God is great," as they rushed in. "These people are lost," he said sorrowfully, lying in his hospital bed with his arm in a thick, white cast. "They don't know anything about their religion."
Other wounded employees said the attackers burst into a guardhouse looking for Americans after first entering the courtyard.
"They shot our door and they went into our office," said Abbel Gaber, a Sri Lankan who had been hired by a local guard company. "They asked us, 'Where are the Americans?' We said, 'We don't have any Americans."'
He said the attackers then told him and others to put up their hands and say "Allahu akbar" -- "God is great."
The attackers stayed inside the office, shooting occasionally until Saudi forces arrived and a bigger shootout began, Gaber said. He was hit from behind and fell down, waking later to see two dead men nearby.
Journalists were not allowed inside the compound, located in the heart of this Red Sea port city and surrounded by 10-foot-high walls, but Oberwetter said it would reopen for business in a few days. Saudi troops could be seen inside the compound, on rooftops and on nearby streets.
Oberwetter thanked Saudi forces for "freeing the compound" and said the attackers clearly knew some details of the compound's security.
Their car attempted to enter the compound by slowly following a consular car in a far lane, the ambassador said. But a road-surface barrier rose immediately after the consular car and blocked the attackers' car, he said.
The assailants then got out of their car and "began to engage local Saudi staff in a great firefight at the front gate, and were able to access the compound."
A worried State Department said new travel warnings to discourage U.S. citizens from going to Saudi Arabia would be issued soon.
In the meantime, however, the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, which had been closed to the public after the attack, was preparing to reopen.
U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide rely almost exclusively on host-nation soldiers and police or private security guards to protect their outer walls. Inside, security is provided by U.S. Marines and federal civilian officers.
Six Marines led by a staff sergeant had been assigned to the consulate. Four were in the compound when the attack occurred, said Maj. Matt Morgan, a Marine Corps spokesman at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Ereli, the State Department spokesman, credited the Marines with playing a critical role in repulsing the attack. He said Marines secured the consulate quickly and prevented the attackers from getting access to the building or being able to cause more damage than they did.
Associated Press reporter Hasan Jamali in Jiddah contributed to this report.