Suicide shock for Saudi
The latest suicide attack, in which no Americans were killed, raises new questions about the new targets of terror, writes John R Bradley in Riyadh
Late on Saturday, a bomb exploded in the Mahia district of Riyadh, posing a real challenge to Saudi Arabia. No one claimed responsibility, but the shadow of the fugitive Saudi national Osama Bin Laden hangs over the outrage. At least 17 people, many of them Arab expatriates, were killed and 120 others, 36 of them children, were injured in the massive car bomb attack on the residential compound.
Click to view caption
Smoke lingers over a Saudi residential complex in Riyadh the day after a bombing attributed by the Saudi government to Al-Qa'eda. At least 17 people died and 122 were injured in the 8 November attack
Those killed included Saudis, Sudanese and Egyptians. No Westerners were believed to have died. Among the wounded were Americans and Canadians, as well as people from Africa, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey, Pakistan, Romania and Sri Lanka. Two Britons who lived in the compound were found unhurt. The bombing came a day after American, British and other Western diplomatic missions were closed following warnings of an attack.
Western diplomats believe that as many as 30 people may have been killed in the bombing. "We pulled out eight bodies from the rubble this morning alone," a Filipino rescue worker at the scene of the blast told Al-Ahram Weekly on Sunday, "most of them were children".
The attack, the second spectacular suicide bombing in the Saudi capital in six months, was made by a person driving a stolen police car and a number of others. It caused utter devastation, razing eight villas and blowing out the windows of buildings over an area covering a square mile. A day before the previous bombings on 12 May, a Saudi Islamist group believed to be close to Bin Laden's Al- Qa'eda network called for revenge attacks on US interests after a huge arms seizure from Islamic militants in Riyadh. Hours before the latest bombing, the same organisation -- the mujahedin of the Arabian Peninsula -- urged its followers to strike and destroy Western and Saudi regime interests.
It was partly because of that statement, issued on an Islamist Web site, that the US Embassy in Riyadh and diplomatic missions in Jeddah and Dhahran had been closed on the day of the attack. Intelligence reports also indicated that the terrorists had moved from the planning to the operational phase of an attack. Bin Laden had issued a fatwa in the 1990s urging his followers to refrain from attacks in the Kingdom because revenues from its oil industry would be needed to consolidate an Islamic revolution. But the Saudi decision to assist the US- led war on Iraq changed all that, with Bin Laden for the first time explicitly calling for attacks inside the Kingdom. The attack is a clear sign to the Saudi rulers and military that Al-Qa'eda is willing and able to attack in the heart of the Kingdom, despite a security clampdown and cooperation between the CIA and Saudi intelligence services.
The bombing provoked near-universal outrage among Saudis, who awoke on Sunday to find gruesome images of those injured by flying glass on the front pages of newspapers. No one could understand why fellow Arabs had been the target. Many initially refused to believe it could have been the work of Al-Qa'eda, especially as the bomber struck in the middle of the fasting month of Ramadan. Inevitably, conspiracy theories about CIA and Mossad involvement started to circulate. If it was Al-Qa'eda, it may be seen ultimately as an own goal. The attack will damage the support the organisation enjoys in Saudi Arabia, where anti-US sentiment has been fed by America's support for Israel's continuing violent crackdown on the Palestinian Intifada and the invasion and occupation of neighbouring Iraq.
The ruling Saud family is now, along with the US, Al-Qa'eda's number one target, and the Kingdom has become the front line in the so- called war on terror. Since 12 May, more than 600 suspected Islamists have been arrested and more than 2,000 suspects have been interrogated. Saudi Arabia's security forces have lost a dozen men in their almost weekly battles with Al- Qa'eda fighters -- more than any other country -- and have killed more than 15 suspects.
The bombing could have been launched on the basis of outdated information that the compound was home to mostly Americans and Britons. Until the late 1990s, it was occupied and sponsored by the American aircraft and defence manufacturer Boeing. In the aftermath of the bombing the US immediately closed ranks with Saudi Arabia, while a senior Saudi prince warned that suicide attacks carried out by Saudis were a "wake-up call" to confront home-grown "extremism and fundamentalism".
US President George W Bush assured Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah in a telephone call that Washington "stands with Saudi Arabia in the war against terrorism". US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who is in Riyadh on a scheduled stop-over, also pledged the US "will be fully participating partners" in the oil-rich Kingdom's anti-terror fight. Mr Armitage, echoing initial Saudi assessments, said he was "personally quite sure" Al-Qa'eda was behind the car bombing. 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.
On Monday, President Bush was briefed on the Saudi crisis, as the administration promised the government in Riyadh further assistance to hunt down those responsible for the terrorist outrage. However, despite the arrest of hundreds of suspects after May's deadly attacks on Western residential compounds in the Saudi capital, and repeated promises to leave no stone unturned, some officials in Washington are still doubtful of how strongly the Saudi government will act. They point to the lukewarm Saudi cooperation in investigating past attacks against US military personnel which so infuriated the FBI, and the sympathy for the group in parts of Saudi society -- evidenced by the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the 11 September attacks were Saudi nationals.
In an interview published on Monday but conducted before Saturday's Riyadh blast, Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal, a billionaire businessman and influential nephew of King Fahd, said he did not feel Saudi society had adequately asked, let alone answered, the question of why some of its citizens kill themselves and others. "We should have asked the questions before the attacks of May 12 and after the bloody attacks in New York," he said, before asking, "Do we need a third attack?" "Enough beating around the bush. We need to wake up now and ask, why do we have extremism? Why fundamentalism?" the prince said in the reformist Al-Watan daily.
By saying reform was the only way forward, and implicitly linking terrorist attacks to the influence of extremist clerics, the prince re-ignited a debate known as the "Riyadh spring" about the role of the powerful Islamic establishment, which was quickly silenced by the Saudi government after the 12 May bombings. Significantly, the interviewer was Jamal Khashoggi, who was sacked as editor-in-chief of Al-Watan as a result of the newspaper's campaign against the excesses of the Kingdom's notorious religious police.
"I speak first as a Saudi citizen, then as a businessman and finally as a member of the Saudi ruling family, because reform is not a requirement of businessmen only, or members of the ruling family, but a requirement of every Saudi citizen," the prince said. Arab leaders have denounced the bombing. King Abdullah II of Jordan declared his "categorical and strong condemnation", "rejecting attempts to destabilise the kingdom". The secretary-general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Abdel-Wahid Balqziz, called it a "horrendous terrorist act". In London, Prince Turki Al- Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the UK, declared that the latest attack was "a sign of desperation" and would not succeed in upsetting the social and political structure of his country.
At the very least, however, it has destroyed the hope that the withdrawal of US military personnel -- whose presence on Saudi soil was denounced time and again by Osama Bin Laden -- would bring an end to terrorist activity in the Kingdom. "The message is clear," one Washington analyst told the Weekly. "This is no longer about the presence of infidel troops on the soil of the country which guards the holiest Islamic shrines. This against the Saudi government."