Al Qaeda remains poised to launch terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere but appears to have sparked a backlash in much of the Arab world by bombing a Saudi compound filled with Muslim women and children from many countries, U.S. officials said Monday.
As searchers pulled another body from the rubble Monday, bringing the death toll in Saturday's attack in Riyadh to 18, U.S. and Saudi officials continued to blame Al Qaeda and said there were indications of more attacks in the works.
A U.S. official said authorities "definitely" expect additional Al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia, and "likely elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula.... There were enough other [intelligence] strands that more is to come."
Few additional details about the attacks were available Monday, including whether any of the attackers had survived. If the attack was the work of Al Qaeda, the bombing at a residential complex housing mostly Arabs marked a major departure for the terrorist network, which traditionally has launched strikes against symbols of U.S. and other Western interests, the officials said.
A wide array of Arab newspapers and media outlets sharply condemned the attacks Monday.
"What are these people targeting, presenting themselves in such a monstrous manner?" the Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV network asked, according to a roundup of Arab press statements by the BBC. The perpetrators "have by themselves, and their sinful hands, brought upon themselves social rejection.... It is not religious to resort to such ugly methods against the innocent."
The Al Rayah newspaper, also based in Qatar, denounced the bombing, saying the choice of a residential area "which shelters families of Arab and Saudi nationals, has nothing in common with the jihad slogan under which radical fundamentalist groups, which carry out such terrorist acts, operate.... The road they are taking will not lead to any good but to more violence, to more killings as well as to ruining the image of Islam."
U.S. officials said they had received other, more specific intelligence suggesting that Al Qaeda was being condemned by its supporters in Arab nations.
Those slain in Saturday's attack, U.S. officials said Monday, included at least five children. The victims hailed from Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan and other Islamic nations that have for decades sent workers to the Gulf kingdom to work in its oil fields and office buildings.
Saudi and U.S. authorities said more than 122 others were wounded in the attack, including dozens of children.
The injured, they said, came from a broad spectrum of Arab states and Muslim nations in Africa as well as India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Turkey, Sri Lanka and Romania.
"It is just shocking to see the list," said one U.S. counter-terrorism official. "The listing of nationalities is staggering. It's not quite the 90-plus in the World Trade Center [attacks], but it's more than a dozen."
Roger Cressey, a former senior counter-terrorism official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, said Al Qaeda attacks, particularly those orchestrated by senior leaders, are always planned with consideration of how they will be perceived by the Muslim world.
"That's the disconnect" in the latest bombing, said Cressey, president of Good Harbor Consulting in Arlington, Va., which specializes in counter-terrorism. "It could well backfire ... because it shows them killing innocent women and children who seemed to have no relationship to what their beef is."
Al Qaeda has not claimed responsibility for the attack, in which armed gunmen posing as Saudi police shot their way into the compound and detonated explosives in at least one vehicle.
Recently, Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders have been openly critical of Muslims who choose to work and live in Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda considers the Saudi royal family a corrupt regime that has defiled the sacred ground of Islam by allowing foreign troops, particularly Americans, on Saudi soil. Saudi Arabia is home to the holy city of Mecca and other important Islamic sites. Even if Al Qaeda was intent on forcing Arab expatriates to reconsider living and working in Saudi Arabia, "there would be a better way of sending that signal than blowing up women and children," said the U.S. official. "It seems pretty brazen and ill-considered."
Another U.S. counter-terrorism official said Monday that Al Qaeda has sought to portray Arabs working in Saudi Arabia as too Westernized, "drinking and cavorting with the enemy" and therefore not deserving of immunity against attacks.
"That explains their theory, but I don't think it's persuasive," the official said.
As a result, senior administration officials were puzzled at the latest choice of targets. "People [in the administration] are grasping, saying this doesn't fit into the box we expected. It doesn't match the usual Al Qaeda MO."