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Saudi High Alert By: Michael Isikoff & Mark Hosenball
MSNBC.com | Thursday, November 13, 2003

Last weekend’s deadly suicide bombing of a residential compound in Riyadh is the latest in a series of deadly Al Qaeda-linked attacks inside Saudi Arabia that is beginning to resemble a civil insurrection, possibly fuelled by anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Contrary to initial media reports, so far there have been no arrests in the bombing of the Al-Muhaya compound—a brazen attack for which Al Qaeda has taken credit. While two suicide bombers died, the other 13 appear to have gotten away despite a chase through the streets of Riyadh, Saudi sources said today.

Even more alarming, U.S. officials say, is that the Saturday-night bombing—in which at least 18 people were killed, including five children—may well be the harbinger of more to come. The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh remains shut down, U.S. forces in the region are on high alert and some experts are warning of possible riots and violent confrontations when as many as 1.5 million people gather in Mecca for the last 10 days of Ramadan, NEWSWEEK has learned.

U.S. officials tell NEWSWEEK that the terrorists inside Saudi Arabia appear emboldened—and more heavily armed than ever. Just two days before the bombing, sources say, the Saudi security forces engaged in a bloody gun battle on the streets of Riyadh with Al Qaeda fighters who were equipped with semiautomatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). The upshot, some experts now believe, is that Saudi Arabia—perhaps just as much as Iraq—is a front line in the war on terrorism, some U.S. officials say. For many of the jihad fighters, “Afghanistan and the Soviet Union were the appetizers,” said one senior U.S. official about Saudi Arabia. “This is the main course.”

U.S. officials acknowledge that the Saudi government—fearing for its own survival—appears determined to smash the terrorist attackers. There are also signs of genuine popular outrage over the attacks among the Saudi people. Ruling out any dialogue with the terrorists, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef told Arab reporters yesterday, “We’ll confront them with swords and guns.”

But Nayef’s grip on his country is far from certain. Until last year, he repeatedly insisted there was no evidence of an Al Qaeda presence inside the kingdom and outraged U.S. officials when he suggested that Zionists—not the forces of Saudi-exile Osama bin Laden—were behind the September 11 terror attacks.

All that has changed in the past six months. U.S. officials repeatedly point to the May 12 bombing of another residential compound in Riyadh as the turning point. It was then that Saudi officials—long criticized for their lackadaisical attitude toward the war on terror—got religion and launched a massive crackdown that has led to the arrests of more than 600 suspects.

But at the same time, there are signs that the jihadi fighters inside Saudi Arabia may have far more extensive support than was earlier thought. Much of it appears to have been stoked by a U.S. invasion of Iraq that has provoked an unprecedented fury at the United States in the region, some U.S. officials acknowledge. The Saudi government quietly lent support for the invasion, including the stationing of U.S. troops inside the country, thereby rekindling pent-up discontent against a royal regime that Saudi dissidents have long charged is corrupt and far too cozy with the Americans.

It is noteworthy the attacks inside Saudi Arabia began shortly after the regime of Saddam Hussein fell—a sign that the two events may well be linked.

Equally troubling are indications that Saudi terrorists may now be getting arms from Iraq. U.S. officials tell NEWSWEEK that at least some of the weapons seized by Saudi security forces from Al Qaeda terrorists in recent weeks—including caches of AK-47 semiautomatic rifles and RPGs—appear to be coming from the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s enormous arsenal. With Iraq awash in weapons, AK-47s are selling for as little as $5 or $6 apiece in that country, creating a flourishing trade across the lightly patrolled Iraq-Saudi border, sources say. But at present, U.S. officials say there is little they can do about the problem. “Our forces [in Iraq] have their hands full,” said one.

That has left the Saudis vulnerable to more attacks—and new details about last weekend’s bombing leave little doubt about the real targets. Much was made at first about the fact that the target of the bombing, the Al-Muhaya compound, did not house any Americans. But an Al Qaeda Web site today claimed that some of the Arab residents of the compounds worked for the FBI and CIA and that the heavily fortified complex was in fact a base for “spying” by the U.S. government. The compound, moreover, was in close proximity to some even higher-profile targets. Less than half a mile away were a number of royal palaces—including the central headquarters for the offices of King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah, whose overthrow is the principal goal of the bombers.

U.S. intelligence analysts believe the most likely reason the terrorists chose to hit the Al-Muhaya compound was that security precautions around more sensitive targets, such as government offices or residential compounds housing Americans or other Westerners—were far more stringent. Al Qaeda leaders like Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s principal deputy, have written that terrorist operatives should scale down their plans to aim at targets which can be attacked effectively, rather than pursuing grandiose plans that are more likely to fail.

U.S. officials see parallels between last weekend’s bombing and the May 12 attacks on Riyadh residential compounds that housed Westerners, including Americans. Days before both attacks, there were shootouts between Saudi authorities and groups of militants. In both last weekend’s and the May attacks, sources said, the terrorists apparently initially staged shootouts with security personnel guarding the targeted residential compounds. Then, after wiping out or disabling the security guards, the attackers drove explosives-rigged vehicles into the hearts of the compounds and blew them up.

In last weekend’s attack, U.S. officials indicated, some of the terrorists apparently had obtained security-guard uniforms to help them in the initial phases of the assault. Officials said that shortly after the Riyadh attack the Homeland Security Department issued a bulletin warning U.S. law-enforcement agencies about reports of recent thefts of police badges and uniforms inside the United States; some officials say they are concerned that the uniform and badge thefts could indicate terrorists are planning American attacks using tactics similar to those used in Saudi Arabia, though most intelligence and law-enforcement officials contacted by NEWSWEEK said there has recently been no particular upsurge in intelligence “chatter” suggesting an imminent Qaeda attack inside the United States.

Officials say they believe there is a strong possibility of further attacks in Saudi Arabia, and British officials also are concerned about possible attacks on U.S. targets in the United Kingdom before or during President Bush’s forthcoming state visit to London.

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