Clues, Motives Elusive In Car-Bomb Wreckage
By Mark Baker
The 8 November car-bomb
attack in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, was a strong reminder that Al-Qaeda
-- or terrorist groups using Al-Qaeda techniques -- remain a potent
threat, despite a recent crackdown on militants in the country. This
time, the target was a housing complex for mostly non-Saudi Arabs,
leaving many to ponder the ultimate goal of such attacks. What purpose
does killing innocent Muslims serve?
Prague, 10 November
2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two days after a deadly car-bomb attack in the Saudi
Arabian capital, Riyadh, officials are still grappling with basic questions.
Who was responsible
for the attack and what was the motive, given the fact that most of
the victims were non-Saudi Arabs, many of them women and children.
So far, at least
17 people have been confirmed dead and more than 120 injured in the
bombing late on 8 November of a mostly foreign-occupied housing complex.
No group has claimed responsibility, but the attack bears a strong
resemblance to the triple bombing of a similar complex in Riyadh in
That attack -- which
killed 35 people, including eight Americans -- was blamed on Osama
bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organization. The Saudi-born bin Laden has been
an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family.
U.S. and Saudi officials
were quick to pin the attack on Al-Qaeda -- although there is no public
evidence yet to support the claim. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard
Armitage, on a visit to the region, said he is "quite sure" Al-Qaeda
was behind the attack. In an interview today with the Al-Arabiyah satellite
television network, Armitage said the bombing bears the "hallmark" of
Al-Qaeda and that he believes the Saudi royal family was the target. "It
is quite clear to me that Al-Qaeda wants to take down the [Saudi] royal
family and the government of Saudi Arabia," he said.
That may be the
case. But Daniel Neep, the head of the Middle East and North Africa
program at London's Royal United Services Institute, cautions that,
increasingly, the words "Al-Qaeda" are being used to refer to a style
of attack rather than to a specific organization or individual.
"'Al-Qaeda' is increasingly
used to refer to a type of attack -- one that follows certain broad
ideological guidelines, rather than something that's been orchestrated
from the top down. Certainly, the tactics, the style of the attack,
was very much what we've come to recognize as part of the Al-Qaeda
brand," Neep said.
He says it's important
to remember that Al-Qaeda is not a traditional hierarchical organization. "[Al-Qaeda]
isn't a strict hierarchical organization that operates from the top
down," he said. "It's essentially a loose-knit network of associated
bodies, individual cells, who may not be in contact with other cells
in the same country, [and even] less so with international networks."
The attack's "MO," or
mode of operation, was certainly straight out of the Al-Qaeda playbook.
Reports say the attack began with gunmen firing on the compound from
a nearby hill. The attackers -- probably dressed in Saudi police uniforms
-- overpowered guards at the complex and drove an explosives-laden
vehicle into the compound. It is unclear whether any of the attackers
This was similar
to May's bombing, which also began with an armed attack by men posing
as Saudi security officers and ended in a deadly car bombing.
Among the dead in
this weekend's attack were nationals of Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, and
Saudi Arabia. None appear to be Western foreigners, although some Western
families did live in the compound. Most of the wounded were Arabs,
are still puzzling over a motive. Why kill innocent Arabs if the ultimate
target was Westerners or the Saudi royal family? Saudi Arabia's ambassador
to Britain, Prince Turki al-Faisal, said the choice of a relatively "soft" target
indicates the "desperation" of the terrorists as they come under increasing
pressure from Saudi authorities.
"Well, I think it's
a measure of their desperation and the fact that they realize that
they're being hunted severely by the authorities and under pressure.
And they want to show that they can do something after all the successes
that we've had with tracking these people down over the last six months,
with many arrests and many discoveries of arms caches and munitions
and explosives. So these people are in a desperate state, and they
were willing to target anything available to them," al-Faisal said.
The Saudi government
has stepped up counterterrorism operations in the aftermath of the
May bombing. Saudi police recently clashed with Al-Qaeda loyalists
in Mecca, killing two. Armitage commented on the Saudi effort while
speaking with reporters in Cairo today. "The same Saudi security forces
since 12 May -- the initial bombing in Riyadh -- have uncovered literally
hundreds of terrorists. They've arrested, they've killed them. They've
broken up cells. They've captured unbelievable amounts of explosives
and weapons. They found Korans which were booby-trapped," he said.
that the objective of the attack may have been to frighten Saudi Arabia's
foreign workers. The country is home to millions of foreigners who
form the backbone of the oil, security, and health sectors.
Neep says the main
objective may be to scupper U.S.-Saudi ties by highlighting the kingdom's
continuing problems with terrorism. That relationship was weakened
by the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. after it emerged
that 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi nationals. The U.S.
earlier this year announced that it will withdraw from Saudi military
"[The attack is]
partly an attempt to drive a wedge between Saudi [Arabia] and the West,
partly to instill fear into foreigners in the country, and also because
attacks on foreigners do get much more publicity than [attacks on Saudis
themselves]. It's part of an overall campaign," Neep said.
In any event, he
says the attack sends a strong message to the Saudi royal family that
even as the U.S. military withdraws, the ruling monarchy remains a
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