The Saudi government failed to act on U.S. requests for more security around Westerners’ residential compounds in the days leading up to Monday’s deadly bombings, Bush administration officials said Wednesday.
Voicing new frustration with the kingdom’s efforts in the war on terrorism, administration officials also disclosed that deputy national security advisor Stephen Hadley had been dispatched to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, last week to tell officials there of U.S. concerns that an attack was imminent.
A U.S. official said Hadley’s trip was prompted by an alarming rise in intelligence traffic in recent weeks but that there was no indication of when or where an attack might take place.
The disclosures indicate a far more urgent effort than the administration has previously acknowledged in trying to enlist Saudi help to tighten security on potential U.S. targets in the days before the attacks.
Saudi officials said the number of people killed in the triple bombing had risen to 34, including seven Americans, with 194 others wounded. The figure also includes nine bombers.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Jordan said Wednesday that before the bombings, the United States contacted the Saudi government “on several occasions to request that added security be provided to all Western residential compounds and government installations.
“But they did not, as of the time of this particular tragic event, provide the security we had requested,” Jordan said.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, denied that any such requests went unheeded, but he did take the unusual step for a Saudi official of publicly acknowledging a degree of culpability on the part of the government.
“The fact that the terrorism happened is an indication of shortcomings, and we have to learn from our mistakes and seek to improve our performance in this respect,” he said at a news conference in Riyadh.
Saud’s comments came as White House officials suggested that the Saudi monarchy has still not faced up to a problem that has strained relations between the countries since the Sept. 11 attacks, which were carried out by 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudis.
“The Saudi Arabians have to deal with the fact that there is terror found inside their country,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.
One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have been prevented from taking a larger role in helping to monitor the Al Qaeda terrorist network’s cells in Saudi Arabia.
He said U.S. intelligence is aware of a handful of Al Qaeda cells operating in the country but is limited in its ability to follow their movements and activities. “We’d like to be tracking them,” he said.
Saudi officials said Wednesday that they now believe 15 attackers were involved in the Riyadh strikes, in which car bombs were detonated inside or near large residential compounds that housed hundreds of Americans and other foreigners. Nine of the attackers are believed to have been killed in the bombings, indicating that as many as six might be at large.
U.S. officials said the attacks appear to have been carried out by one of several Al Qaeda cells known to be operating in Saudi Arabia.
Authorities in the kingdom are focused on a Riyadh-based cell headed by an operative known as Khaled Jehani, a 29-year-old Saudi who appears in an Al Qaeda martyrdom tape recovered by the United States during the war in Afghanistan.
Jehani is among 19 suspects who have been the subject of a manhunt in Saudi Arabia since May 6, when members of the cell he leads escaped after a shootout with Saudi authorities.
A team of FBI, State Department and CIA investigators was to arrive in Saudi Arabia today.
Bush administration officials, who have long been reluctant to criticize the Saudi government’s efforts in the war on terrorism, put new pressure on the monarchy Wednesday.
Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar ibn Sultan acknowledged that the United States had requested extra security but said that it was only for a “certain compound” and that the request was “passed to the right authority.”
Bandar, whose comments came in an interview on CBS, did not make clear whether additional security was assigned to the compound -- apparently one of those targeted, Jadawel. But he suggested that preventive measures there minimized casualties and damage.
At Jadawel, the bombers failed to penetrate security gates and detonated explosives just outside the compound.
Bandar also rejected suggestions, prevalent in counter-terrorism circles in Washington, that the Al Qaeda suspects who escaped capture last week in Saudi Arabia were tipped off by sympathizers in the Saudi security or intelligence apparatus.
“That raid was against a house that had four people only, and they managed to escape,” Bandar said.
Saudi authorities subsequently uncovered a weapons cache containing 55 hand grenades, more than 800 pounds of explosives and 2,545 bullets -- all just blocks from the Jadawel compound.
“We caught such a huge quantity of explosives that could have devastated Riyadh,” Bandar said. “That was a great success.... We cannot be 100% all the time.”
Another Saudi official said one of the 19 men wanted in connection with last week’s raid is in custody and may have been an intended participant in the bombing plot.
The official declined to identify him.
Meanwhile, residents of the bombed compounds offered fresh accounts Wednesday of the chaos and terror of the attacks.
John Crossley, a British telecommunications executive who lived at Al Hamra Oasis Village, said by e-mail that the force of the blast ripped through his villa, 75 yards from where the car bomb was detonated.
“The sliding doors blew in on top of me. The heavy drapes saved my skin, literally,” he said. “There was shooting and smaller explosions, probably grenades, going on for a good 10 minutes after the first blast.”
Crossley said the bombers tried to enter the compound behind another car carrying a family as it passed through the security gates.
When security guards tried to stop the second car, shooting erupted.
Citing accounts from others, Crossley said the attackers appear to have shot at occupants in the front car, which was carrying a couple and their children. All were unharmed.
Crossley said he visited the site Wednesday to retrieve some belongings. He said one neighbor had a bullet hole near his front door. Another had a car fender “embedded in his living room.”
The car that carried the bomb was “vaporized,” he said.
Saudi officials added five more people to the death toll Wednesday. An Interior Ministry statement on the state-run Saudi Press Agency said they included a Philippine national, a Briton, an Irish national and an Australian of Lebanese origin. The fifth victim remained unidentified.
Saudi Arabia has stepped up security throughout the country, with checkpoints set up around the capital and extra patrols. The government has also replaced private security forces with National Guard troops and implemented 24-hour patrols at residential compounds.
The U.S. and British governments have warned their citizens to stay away from the country, and both are moving nonessential embassy employees and their families out.
Many multinational corporations with offices in Riyadh have also decided to compel their employees’ dependents to leave, while Western diplomats said some major businesses are looking to shut down their operations in the kingdom.
Some experts questioned why many of the companies hadn’t already evacuated the Westerners.
“These [companies] have been told time and time again that the compounds in which their employees reside have been subject to pre-attack surveillance by Al Qaeda units,” said a Western security expert with decades of experience in the region. “They failed to heed repeated and increasingly stern advice from their internal security advisors.”
U.S. officials declined to identify other senior Al Qaeda figures who they believe could be suspects in the bombings. But Jehani has been in U.S. sights for some time.
In January 2002, U.S. authorities warned the public to be on the lookout for Jehani, whom they identified at the time as Khalid ibn Muhammad al Juhani, one of five Al Qaeda operatives who taped messages of martyrdom and may have been planning terrorist acts against the United States.
U.S. soldiers found the videotapes of the men’s suicide messages in the rubble of the home of an Osama bin Laden lieutenant. In one, Jehani can be seen laughing and pressing his lips to the end of a military-style rifle.
Miller and Meyer reported from Washington and Slackman from Amman, Jordan. Times staff writer Leslie Hoffecker in Washington contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Still at large
With seven dead and 13 captured, the locations of many Al Qaeda leaders remain unknown.
Osama bin Laden
Ayman Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s doctor and spiritual advisor
Bin Laden security
Abu Musab Zarqawi
Saad bin Laden
Mohammed Hamdi Ahdal
Abd Karim Yousef
Abd Mun’im Yousef
Operations and training
Abu Mohammed Masri (a.k.a. Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah)
Abu Basir Yemeni
Abd Aziz Jamal
Ahmad Said Kadr
Mohammed Jamal Khalifa*
Abu Hafs the Mauritanian*
Sulaiman abu Ghaith
Source: Associated Press
Los Angeles Times