Powell blames al-Qaeda for Riyadh bombings




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent

Financial Times, 13 May 2003

Three simultaneous suicide bombings, which left at least 10 Americans dead and up to 160 mainly foreign nationals injured in Saudi Arabia on Monday, marked the start of a new terrorist campaign linked to al-Qaeda, according to Islamist opponents of the Saudi government.

Television pictures showed massive damage to the three residential compounds in the Gharnata, Ishbiliya and Cordoba districts, with walls blown out and wrecked cars strewn around the scene.

Monday’s attack, in which three car bombs were detonated simultaneously at three different compounds housing foreign workers, is said by security sources to have been planned at least one month in advance.

The attacks came on the eve of a visit to Riyadh by Colin Powell, US secretary of state, to discuss the search for peace in the Israeli-Palistinian conflict.

“This was a well-planned terrorist attack,” said Mr Powell said, during a visit to one of three residential compounds attacked. “It has all the fingerprints of an al-Qaeda operation.”

In the United States, President George W. Bush pledged a “relentless” pursuit of whomever was behind the attacks.

“These despicable acts were committed by killers whose only faith is hate, and the United States will find the killers and they will learn the meaning of American justice,” Mr Bush said, without making any references to al-Qaeda.

Concerns about a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia had led the US State Department to issue a warning to US nationals on May 1 not to travel to the country.

Islamist opponents of the Saudi royal family, who are familiar with the activities of al-Qaeda’s supporters in the kingdom, said the attacks were the result of a decision by Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, to target foreigners and members of the royal family in his homeland where his support is strong.

“There is credible discussion in jihadi circles that this is the beginning of a new campaign, and that Osama bin Laden has given the go-ahead for a campaign in Saudi Arabia,” said Saad al-Fagui, a UK-based critic of the Saudi government who is also critical of al-Qaeda.

Saudi officials also say that Mr Bin Laden is directing attacks in the country. No claim of responsibility has been issued for Monday’s attacks, though the practice of simultaneous attacks is similar to al-Qaeda’s.

Al-Qaeda’s near-silence during the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the arrest of key leaders, has led security officials to conclude that the network has been severely damaged, increasing its dependence on its core support in Saudi Arabia.

“There had been signs of a build-up in activity by al-Qaeda, and that foreign targets in Saudi Arabia were particularly vulnerable,” said a western intelligence official yesterday. However, the direct involvement of the al-Qaeda leadership in Monday’s attacks is doubted by other Saudi Islamists linked to radical groups.

“All these people need is a bit of money, perhaps from Bin Laden, but perhaps from somebody else. If you had 15 or 20 men who trained in Afghanistan, doing this kind of thing is easy,” Mohammed al-Massari, an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family, said.

“Al-Qaeda has a lot of influence in Saudi Arabia, and the events on Monday are a sign of the supportive environment in the country,” he said.

The attacks coincided with growing tension in the kingdom, following the publication of a communique by three Muslim scholars who called on Saudis not to assist the government in the hunt for 19 alleged al-Qaeda militants who have been sought since May 6 after the discovery of a large cache of weapons and explosives. Prince Nayef, Saudi Arabian interior minister, said yesterday that the 19 were behind Monday’s attacks, while the scholars said prior to the attacks that the 19 had done no harm to Muslims and should be respected for being anti-American.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.